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Distributed Workforce: Definition, Benefits, & Management Best Practices

distributed workforce

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Key Takeaways

1. The distributed workforce model has been growing and evolving since the 1970s, deployed or piloted on a relatively small scale in earlier years, but now a larger phenomenon.

2. IT and communications technologies and collaborative working software (e.g. Zoom) gave strength and power to the distributed workforce model in 2020-21, making it a genuinely mainstream choice and natural default for many businesses in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

3. There are considerable business advantages to deploying a distributed workforce, especially internationally. These include potential cost-savings, resilience and a better work-life balance for employees. There are also challenges, not least of which is the reduced level of human contact compared to traditional co-location, and the impact of this on employees.

4. Intelligent leadership and management of distributed networks are as essential an ingredient as reliable IT equipment.

In 2021 the distributed workforce has come into its own. After decades of being variously trumpeted as the future of work, or decried as a failed experiment, distributed working and its home-, remote-(either ‘remote first’ or ‘remote friendly‘), hybrid- and flexible-working relatives have gone truly mainstream. Powered by modern IT equipment, cloud computing and reliable collaborative working platforms, non-traditional modes of working have proven their worth and are here to stay.

The distributed workforce is not something new. The phrase has been used to describe a decentralized and flexible workforce model for over thirty years, with component elements including the concepts of remote working, home working, telecommuting etc.. having been around since at least the 1970s. What is new, is the pandemic and post-pandemic shift which could make distributed working a permanent and dominant model.

What is a distributed workforce?

The distributed workforce definition is fairly broad, covering a number of variations with a common core. A distributed workforce is characterized by employees based in multiple locations, potentially including homes, satellite offices and co-working spaces as well as any central HQ. The opposite of a distributed workforce is a co-located workforce where all employees of a business work together in a dedicated location.

How does a distributed workforce function?

A distributed team works towards business goals and targets without dependence on staff being physically gathered in a single geographic location.

Instead of a common physical environment, a modern distributed workforce will have a common set of software and connectivity tools which give remote, home-working and on-site teams the ability to collaborate on projects, join virtual meetings and ad hoc chats, and share documents and data immediately and without friction in the course of their work.

Some key platforms, software and IT tools used by distributed workforce teams in 2021 are set out below. 

  • Interactive video conferencing tools
  • Think of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WebEx, Skype or others — also usually allows screen sharing and shared whiteboard use.
  • Work chat and messaging apps
  • This means apps like Slack, FaceTime and integrated chat in videoconferencing. 
  • Data and file storage
  • This includes services such as Dropbox, Googledrive, Microsoft OneDrive and other Cloud-based file sharing platforms.
  • Telephony
  • Mobile, VOIP number and fixed-line telephones. 

Read more about the tech options available at What Are the Best Technological Tools for Your Remote Team in 2021? 

What are the benefits of a distributed workforce?

We consider some of the biggest benefits of a distributed workforce below.  

Benefit 1: Bigger recruitment talent pool

When you’re not tied to a set geographic location you can potentially hire from a much larger, more diverse pool of talented staff based all around the world, with all the advantages that global hiring entails.

Benefit 2: Resilience

Businesses with distributed teams can be better equipped to handle local disruptions caused by electricity outages, extreme weather etc.. Not all employees or equipment will be affected by what happens in one city or country and the focus of the work can be shifted elsewhere. Similarly, if a valued staff member needs to move cities or countries for family reasons, they can be retained in their working role.

Benefit 3: Lower working costs

There may be cost reductions both for employer and employees alike. The company may not be tied into renting an expensive central office space and may need to less overall space if some staff work from home or co-working spaces. Workers in a distributed team may have reduced commuting, food or car maintenance costs through not needing to travel to a central office.

Benefit 4: Better work-life balance

In a distributed workforce, fewer people need to go into a central office every day, cutting commuting time, often a source of stress for employees and unproductive use of time for business. Many meeting can be successfully delivered via video technology. Less commuting gives more time and focus for working and resting, both ingredients for a more effective and engaged workforce.

Benefit 5: Multiple timezone advantages

For internationally distributed teams, operating in different time zones can give the benefit of effectively extending the working day for customers or clients of your business without requiring anyone to work late, cover night shifts etc…  This might place you a step ahead of the competition.

Multiple timezones can be particularly effective if your team has embraced asynchronous work, where there is no expectation of real-time communication. 

What are the challenges of a distributed workforce?

Alongside the benefits, there are a range of challenges that come with a distributed workforce including:

Challenge 1: IT dependency

Ease of working is highly dependent on the quality and reliability of IT equipment, software platforms and internet connections. If these are disrupted, the affected person or people may not be able to contribute effectively to ongoing work.

Challenge 2: Lack of direct human interaction

Distributed staff may feel lonely in the absence of face-to-face contact opportunities. Detailed personal awareness of co-workers may also be absent and sometimes this can make a difference to team cohesion and collaboration effectiveness. Knowing that someone was upset by an earlier meeting means that you might handle them differently in your own meeting later. Managers should take steps to avoid ‘proximity bias‘, and keep remote workers connected and engaged.

Challenge 3: Distracting remote work environments

Whether working from home, a coffee shop, the park or beach, there may be more distractions than in a dedicated office. These distractions can cause procrastination, lowered work output and missed deadlines. Manager oversight, clarity of communication, and well-defined accountability for delivering work are all vital.

Challenge 4: Cultural differences

In an internationally distributed team, you may have people with multiple different cultures, countries, languages and social norms. As with any diverse team, it is important that all members value and respect one another’s differences in order to be able to work together effectively. Managers may have to put more thought and work into integrating different parts of a distributed team with one another in order to get the best results.  

Challenge 5: Multiple timezone disadvantages

It can be hard for a workforce distributed across timezones to get all team members together on a video or phone call. Good management, communication and planning across timezones can help minimize timezone difficulties.

How do you manage a distributed workforce?

Any distributed workforce is only as good as its IT and its leadership. To get the most of your distributed workforce here’s some points you should bear in mind.

1. Line management

It’s important that you hire the right people at the start. You may want to focus on building a diverse team of candidates who score highly for proactivity, respect for others, and strong time- and project-management skills. 

After hiring, you can make newcomers feel part of a real team and get them up to speed quickly by having a full remote onboarding experience with colleagues in real-time. You may also want to physically send the newcomer to visit key colleagues and establish personal rapport from the start as part of an induction training and development program.

Objectives for individuals and teams should always be set clearly but in the case of distributed teams, this is even more necessary. As well as setting crystal clear objectives, managers should also set clear expectations on where, when and how work will be done.

2. Use IT intelligently

If you have a distributed workforce, especially an internationally distributed workforce, you need to have the best and most reliable equipment, collaboration platforms and communication tools your business can afford.

To maximize the benefits of distributed working, host regular one-to-one and team meetings online wherever possible, creating a video-first culture for your business.

Use Cloud storage and keep it organized for easy access by all. Time spent looking for a badly named, misplaced or missing file is time wasted. Virtual office functions should be run efficiently.

3. Communications

Effective communication is the most important skill a leader of a distributed network can develop. As a manager, you will sometimes need to communicate to the point of over-communication to ensure that your messages been grasped. Remote employees are three times more likely to be engaged if their manager gives them feedback a few times each month. 

Speak clearly to your distributed teams, speak often, and make sure you know your own key messages for each project or work stream well enough to explain them coherently to others of different cultures and perspectives.

Where timezone issues make scheduling large group meetings difficult, regular team or project meetings can be recorded and shared, or repeated with different participants later on the same day. Line management and staff development meetings should be planned into schedules at suitable times

Informal meetings and communications are equally important. Managers may want to check in briefly with staff in different time-zones before signing off for the evening to ensure instructions and objectives are clear for the day ahead, for example. Another good practice is to set aside a few time slots each week where anyone from your network can reach you by phone or chat facility to discuss any questions or concerns about projects or objectives.

4. Team building

Building the morale and spirit of a team is always going to be more challenging in a distributed environment but it can be done with some thought, planning and commitment from all involved. Collaboration and cross-team collaboration tools should be at the front and centre of all work in a distributed team, never an add-on for later.

Plan team-building events well ahead in the calendar to make sure they are prioritized. There might be opportunities for real-life team gatherings, perhaps at country or region level. You can also plan extra-curricular virtual events and activities open to all, including quizzes, film nights, or  book clubs.

Look for opportunities for staff to bond with one another, or make contributions to the distributed network as a whole. This could mean seeking volunteers to champion or promote particular goals or expertise across the distributed team.

For example, a team member with good business planning skills might become the business planning champion for the network. Someone enthusiastic about learning and development could lead planning on a virtual learning week each year, focused on developing business priority skills and competences in the network.

Horizons enables a distributed workforce

Horizons’ core focus is setting up an international distributed workforce for companies. If you’d like to explore how you might create or expand a distributed workforce model for your overseas business, we’re ready to work with you. Contact us to find out more.

Frequently asked questions

A distributed workforce model is the opposite of a co-located workforce model. The distributed workforce is characterized by employees based in multiple locations, not dependent on any common central office, but enabled by IT and communications tools which create a common virtual workspace.

A distributed team is two or more employees working on common project/s but based in different locations, potentially different cities or even countries.

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