A distributed team is a group of people in different locations who are communicating primarily via email, phone, or generally, the internet. Distributed teams can occur when employees work remotely, either by choice or circumstance. Employers also may use distributed teams to provide coverage across time zones and/or borders. And organizations tend to use these teams when employees work on projects that require teamwork and collaboration on a global scale.
Indeed, distributed teams can be found in nearly every industry and company size. These teams face several unique challenges. But when managed successfully, they also can bring many benefits to companies and employees alike:
Increased productivity in distributed teams
Employees working remotely are able to get more done in less time because they don’t have daily commutes or disruptions from office noises around them. This allows limited-time workers to have more hours each week which otherwise would have gone to commuting. And it gives remote workers more hours each week for uninterrupted work so that their total output isn’t compromised by distractions.
Increased employee retention
Distributed teams can retain the best talent while saving companies money on recruitment and training costs.
In addition, more companies are embracing remote workers because it better connects them with people from different parts of the world who add diversity into their workforce. And this increased cultural awareness is expected to boost innovation while helping various divisions think more critically, solve problems faster and open new markets for their products and services.
Customized working conditions
Different team members can work under the ideal conditions for them, whether that’s in a co-working space or at home. And distributed teams often are more flexible than traditional ones because they don’t require employees to show up at specific places and times.
Distributed teams tend to be more collaborative because technology makes it easier for them to exchange ideas and feedback quickly. They also can work together across time zones, sometimes even on the same day (depending on where they live), which is beneficial because each team member doesn’t have any interruptions during prime hours of the day.
Higher employee engagement
Because remote workers aren’t confined by cubicle walls or office politics, they tend to enjoy higher levels of engagement, which leads to increased business performance.
Challenges of distributed teams
Although there are significant advantages to distributed teams, they also bring specific challenges that organizations must understand and address before creating these work environments:
Distributed teams can struggle with frequent misunderstandings because not everyone is in the room listening to the same conversations, seeing the same facial expressions, or hearing the inflections in people’s voices. And this can create confusion about responsibilities, roles, and assignments on a project if team members aren’t on the same page about their individual tasks and deadlines.
Time zone differences.
Having employees who work across multiple time zones can cause issues if some stay up late while others get started early in order to communicate with each other from different parts of the world. In addition, coordination can be a struggle when different time zones make it difficult to sync up calendars and schedules for meetings and specific tasks.
Lack of face-to-face interaction.
Remote workers miss out on the informal exchanges and casual conversations that occur in an office environment, which often leads to misunderstandings and hurt feelings among team members who earnestly want connectedness with their colleagues. This also can lead to employees feeling isolated or discriminated against if they work outside of the office while others are there every day working casually with each other instead of doing their jobs.
Boredom/lack of engagement.
When individuals don’t have regular interactions with their managers, peers and direct reports because they’re not working in the same location, it can lead to disengagement and boredom.
Lack of leadership/direction.
It’s important that distributed teams have managers who are adept at managing virtual employees because they’re unable to monitor what their staff is doing during the day. This can create problems with employee engagement if managers struggle with direction or don’t provide clear expectations about the work that needs to be completed.
High turnover rates.
Remote workers often feel frustrated by poor communication, slow response times and a lack of transparency when working for organizations that haven’t mastered how to make distributed teams effective yet. And this is one of the biggest reasons why employees leave companies after starting out as remote team members; however, there are ways to avoid this from happening.
How to find the right fit for your distributed team
Because a distributed team is only as strong as the individuals on it, organizations need to be able to identify and hire employees who have the skills and traits needed for working remotely. Here are some tips to help pinpoint prospective remote workers:
- They can’t imagine themselves being inside a traditional office environment or within cubicle walls every day. In other words, they’re not career-oriented people who strive for promotions that would put them behind a desk; instead, they’re entrepreneurial thinkers who want flexibility and autonomy with where they work.
- They’re self-directed because they understand that their managers won’t be hovering over them or checking in on a regular basis to see what they’re doing.
- They like variety in their work and aren’t looking for a one-track career path that leads to the same type of work every day; instead, they want to explore multiple areas and don’t feel chained down by routine or structure when working with teammates and managers who trust them.
- They like the excitement of finding new ways to be productive outside of an office environment because it provides a challenge and keeps things interesting; however, they also understand how important it is to show up at scheduled meetings throughout the week so everyone can stay connected to each other’s projects.
- When given tasks, they immediately get started without needing much guidance or oversight from others about what needs to be achieved because they have a strong work ethic and understand how to prioritize their responsibilities.
- They’ve worked with remote teams before so they know what’s expected of them when it comes to completing assignments, attending meetings, and staying connected from afar via tools that provide real-time updates about what everyone is doing throughout the day.
- When working on projects, good remote workers can either play a lead role or collaborate within a larger group where it’s important that they communicate well with others because things move quickly and there isn’t much room for misunderstandings due to a lack of effective communication.
- They don’t shy away from feedback because they want to improve upon their weaknesses as well as capitalize on opportunities for professional development; however, they also don’t let criticism bother them because they know it’s just someone else’s opinion about their work and there’s nothing personal behind it.
Managing distributed teams
What can managers do to ensure their distributed teams are productive? Here are some tips:
- They should set expectations for all employees upfront so that everyone understands what’s expected of them no matter where they’re located; this includes details about working hours, the number of days worked per week, how many meetings will be held, when updates should happen within Slack or other similar types of communication platforms, etc.
- They should provide clear guidelines to remote workers about expectations for responding to emails and direct messages; however, they also need to make sure not everyone responds at the same time so things aren’t overlooked or left unanswered for extended periods of time.
- They should hold one-on-one meetings with remote workers twice a week to discuss the status of ongoing projects, answer questions about what’s happening next, and address any problems that may have come up between scheduled meetings; this includes talking about new ideas that are being considered as well as changes to someone’s role on the team.
- They should create an incentive program where employees who consistently demonstrate strong performance can be rewarded with more perks like extra vacation days for working around the clock on company matters instead of following traditional business hours.
- Managers need to understand how their behavior towards their team members impacts morale; this includes paying attention to the tone of their voice during meetings, how quickly they respond to questions sent via email or text message, and giving remote workers access to the same types of resources their office-based employees use.
- They should let everyone know what type of information is ok for them to share within Slack or an alternative platform; this includes details about staff issues that could be affected by conflicts with other teams or departments, changes in projects that will affect deadlines, etc.
- They should meet with staff members who are based in different locations at least once a year (if not more often) so remotes can spend time face-to-face with managers and colleagues if possible; this helps strengthen connections between team members so there’s more of a sense of camaraderie between everyone involved.
- They should ask individuals who are in different locations how they would feel about changing their roles so that they can either gain more work experience or specialize in certain areas; this is the best way for managers to gauge whether something like switching desks or telecommuting on specific days will be beneficial to employees.
- Managers need to encourage feedback from remote team members at least once every two weeks so that issues can be discussed and resolved quickly before they become too big of a problem; this includes answering questions, apologizing for gaps in communication, and getting more details about why someone feels a certain way about a situation or task instead of brushing it off as unimportant right away.
- They should offer to interview job candidates who are currently working remotely; this is the only way managers can determine whether someone will be a good fit for their company culture and reach out to them if they’re interested in hiring them.
All of these tips can help managers create a positive work environment for their employees regardless of whether they’re working in an office or remotely; however, to make this happen, they need to be willing and able to adapt the way they communicate with people who are working away from the main hub of activity within their company.