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Natalia Rossingol

What is a Distributed Workforce?

Forward-thinking organizations increasingly choose to maintain a distributed workforce. So, let's explore what this means, and how you can benefit from this model.

After the events of recent years, the business world is long past believing that great outcomes can only be achieved by teams working together in the same place, at the same time. A distributed workforce is just as capable of creating incredible work - indeed, perhaps even more so than a team limited by location.

However, despite the benefits that come with leading a distributed workforce, managing people who are not co-located can pose challenges and require approaches that depart from traditional management practices. So, let's dig into the particulars, and explore the pros and cons of distributed workforces.

What is a distributed workforce?

A distributed workforce is a team that consists of people who work from multiple locations - like home, satellite offices, or a local coffee shop. This may also mean that they work from locations with different time zones. All the traditional elements of teamwork, like communication, meetings, information sharing, and management take place through the use of technologies like teleconferencing, chat rooms, and cloud-based files.

While the distributed workforce model did exist before the COVID-19 pandemic, this event accelerated adoption of this model: organizations did not have much choice but to adapt to the challenges of the times, and start working remotely for the safety of their employees.

However, many employees enjoyed the flexibility and improved work-life balance that this new way of working brought. Additionally, the business benefits of the distributed model - like savings on office space, and higher employee satisfaction - also inspired many companies to shift from a traditional co-located workforce to the distributed one.

Distributed workforce vs. Remote workforce

It’s important to understand that a “remote workforce” and a “distributed workforce” is not the same thing. Working remotely can indicate that a person simply works from home, or not in the same building as the rest of the team. However, this person can be a part of a co-located team, working remotely on a temporary or permanent basis.

At the same, he or she can be a part of a distributed workforce, too. This way, working “remotely” is about a particular individual rather than a company.    

In contrast to this, “distributed workforce” refers to a team of employees who work from different locations – remote offices, homes, or field. These employees can work in an asynchronous environment, living in different time zones. Distributed workforce is about an entire team and organization rather than an individual.  

The benefits of a distributed workforce

A distributed team has multiple advantages as compared to a traditional centralized one, providing new opportunities for both employers and employees:

For an organization:

  • Broadened talent pool. Not being restricted by geographical barriers, companies are free to hire people from any part of the globe. This allows them to hire candidates based on their qualifications and suitability to roles rather than choosing from people located in a certain area, this way creating a much more diverse workforce.
  • Reduced business costs. When employees work from multiple locations, a company does not need to spend money on maintaining a physical office – paying for rent and utilities, office furniture and supplies, technologies and electronics etc.
  • Higher productivity. Studies show that working from home leads to more productivity as people do not get continuously distracted and get to work in a more convenient environment. This can also helps them to do better quality work at the same time.       
  • More responsiveness to change. Distributed teams are more adaptable, and this becomes a huge benefit in times of change. They can scale easily, as they’re not restricted by an office space. Besides, a diverse team is better at generating innovative ideas to help the company stay afloat.    

For employees:

  • More job opportunities. The distributed work model lets organizations attract talent – and it also lets employees find a perfect organization that would uncover their talent.  
  • Flexibility. Without a strict working schedule, people get a chance to work when it best fits them. For instance, they could visit the doctor in the morning and then make up for it by working a couple of hours in the evening. They can also adjust their routine to work during their personal “golden hours,” when their energy level is at its peak - even if it’s late in the evening after their team has logged off, or early in the morning before anyone else is online.
  • Reduced personal costs. Remote work lets you cut down your expenses. You don’t have to pay for fuel or public transport; you don’t have to buy special work attire, and you don’t have to buy lunch in a café. This way, you can save a considerable amount of money (and often eat healthier).

Business challenges with a distributed workforce

While the benefits of the distributed workforce model are obvious, it still presents challenges. Those who decide to adopt it should be aware of the difficulties that can arise.

Lack of in-person interaction

This might have several negative implications, both for team morale and team members' results.

Being isolated for a long time period can be depressing and significantly decrease motivation, especially for extroverted individuals. Remote employees might miss simple things like coffee breaks or corporate dinners, where people can form relationships and connect with their colleagues. This might make them feel alienated, for the simple reason they’re not physically present.

Risks of poorer communication

At the same time, time zone differences and inability to talk face-to-face complicates communication among team members, often creating confusion and misunderstanding. Messages might get misinterpreted. Since it takes longer to distribute information and collect opinions, decision making can be slowed down.

Asynchronous work environments also may make it harder to do an effective skill management - cataloguing the skills of your employees to satisfy the needs of your company. Without a face-to-face communication, a manager may fail to identify employees' skills, and, consequently, the skill gaps.

Culture and trust issues

According to research, people at high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 50% higher productivity, 76% more engagement, and 40% less burnout. However, when employees work remotely, it’s more challenging to build a trusting company culture.

Creating an ambience where everyone is moving towards the same goal and where everyone is expected to demonstrate specific values is much easier offline, as such things are better practiced when people meet, talk, and support each other in the same physical location. 

The same is true for trust. Remote employees may simply not know each other in person, and that can make it harder for them to develop a trusting relationship. In particular, this can be a serious problem for managers. Without an opportunity to come into the office and see how work is actually progressing, some managers feel they have no control and struggle, as they start to doubt if work is actually getting done.

Security issues

While offices can be equipped with good cyber-security systems that protect data and intellectual property from unauthorized access, the same is not true about all remote work locations. A leak might happen because of an insecure Wi-Fi connection, inappropriate passwords, phishing scams, or insufficient system updates that make devices vulnerable. After all, a device an employee works on can simply get stolen, putting the company's resources at a huge risk.    

How to manage a distributed workforce

The good news is that all the above-mentioned challenges can be overcome by effective management. Roughly speaking, the principles of managing a distributed workforce are the same as managing a traditional team – with a slight difference that it needs to be done online.

Communicate effectively

Regular communication is indispensable for the stable and smooth work of all company departments, teams, and individual employees. And while you cannot hold physical meetings, it’s not a problem - modern technologies allow you to make meetings asynchronous.

Calls and video chats through software like Zoom or Skype, email, and instant messengers make it possible to communicate non-stop in the most convenient way. Shared drives, like Google Docs, let you exchange information and store documents.

When it comes to communication, it’s important to set specific rules that would make sure it happens regularly and in the right direction. This means a manager must determine the frequency of online meetings, project deadlines, or time limits within which a particular issue needs to be addressed. Team members should clearly know who they have to report to, through what channel, and how often.

Manage your teams' schedules

To plan work process effectively, you will need to consider how many employees are needed and where, and then allocate them appropriately. This helps you ensure that deadlines and goals are met, at the same time being attentive to the workload and needs of employees.

To optimize the planning process, you could use workforce planning tools - software that can help you get a clear picture of team members' schedules and fill the gaps with people who possess all the necessary skills and availability (like Runn, Paymo, Quinyx, Bizimply, and others among them.)

You can also use skill management software tools to specifically enhance skill management at your company and get more successful at both the operational level (delivering everyday objectives) and the strategic one (providing skills you need to complete a future project.)

Invest in employees' growth

This can involve different trainings and workshops to improve team members' competence and knowledge. Such programs can be used for upskilling - deepening expertise in a person's current job, and reskillling - developing new skills to change roles. While it's undoubtedly useful for business itself, as it provides stability and fosters innovation, continuous professional growth also keeps employees engaged and productive, giving them a sense of purpose.

Encourage feedback

People often lack objective judgment and perspective when assessing their own work. By nurturing a healthy culture of feedback, a manager makes sure employees exchange opinions and provide support to each other, improving the quality of their work. Constructive feedback, aimed at work results and not at the person, is an important factor that contributes to growth, as it lets employees correct mistakes and develop skills.

There is an important thing to remember about feedback. No matter if it’s positive or negative, feedback must be shared without delay, to ensure it's can be addressed on time.

Build trust

Even working as part of a distributed team, it’s still possible to build a healthy company culture based on trust:

  • Be a role model. As a manager, trust your employees, even if they are remote workers. Let them make decisions and do not micromanage every step of theirs.
  • Create an environment of psychological safety. Make sure team members feel comfortable to voice their concerns. This means they should not only get, but also provide feedback. Hold regular online one-on-ones to discuss things that require your attention.
  • Be empathetic and respectful. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if someone is going through problems even in real life, let alone when you don’t actually talk to a person face-to-face. Listen carefully and show people you’re on their side when they’re experiencing sensitive personal situations or struggling with their tasks.

Managing a geographically distributed workforce differs from managing people in a traditional office. However, when organized right, distributed work can be no less effective. A virtual work environment can create conditions where talent will thrive.

But it all depends on the right organization of work - when communication is open and continuous, feedback is honest and timely, and each remote worker feels like a valued part of the team.

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