Distributed Teams: How and Why to Make Them Work
The current pandemic hasn't only fastened the rise of remote work and remote teams, but also of entirely distributed teams. Unable to go to the office, many companies realized they operate just as well - if not better - with a distributed workforce.
Managing distributed teams, however, comes with its own set of challenges. In this article, we'll address both the benefits of geographically distributed teams as well as how to prevent and overcome these challenges.
What Are Distributed Teams?
Distributed teams consist of team members who are all individually working from different locations. These locations can be their homes, coffee shops, or co-working spaces, but not a shared office space. By definition, distributed teams do not have a shared office they can go to.
Remote teams vs. distributed teams: Is there a difference?
The above is where distributed teams differ from remote teams. While distributed team members all work away from each other and have no shared office spaces where they can come to work together, remote teams are made up out of workers that work away from the company's own physical office space.
A distributed marketing team could consist of a marketing manager working from their home in Miami, a social media strategist working from a cafe in Chiang Mai, a content writer working from their home in Lisbon, and a designer working from a co-working space in London.
As a remote team, the marketing manager could be overseeing the project from the company's headquarters in Miami while the other team members are working remotely from Chiang Mai, Lisbon, and London.
Why distributed teams are the future of work
1. They meet a greater demand for flexibility in the workplace
When distributed teams allow for flexible working schedules - and they often do - employees are able to better fit work around their private lives. Someone who loves to go swimming in the morning but doesn't mind working a bit later can do just that, while a young dad can start work early so he's able to pick up his kids from school in the afternoon.
In distributed teams, team members can work when they're most productive and dedicate time to friends, family, and hobbies when they're not. This means they won't just get more done in less time, they'll also be happier while on the job.
2. They increase employee retention
A happy team member is one that sticks around and so the flexibility that distributed teamwork offers tends to increase employee retention. On top of that, when nobody is forced to work from a specific location, it means that team members can easily move across the country or even internationally without having to leave the company.
3. They allow for global access to top talent
As team members can be based anywhere in the world, distributed teams have the benefit that they can hire from a global talent pool. Time zones and commutes no longer matter, which means companies don't need to "settle" for people who live nearby. They can approach, interview, and select the best person for the job to accelerate their growth.
4. They make businesses more agile
And this doesn't just apply to employees. Because nobody needs to be at an office space between certain times, there's no need to hire full or even part-time employees. A startup can engage a freelance social media manager for just a few hours per week. This flexibility means scaling becomes both easier and less risky.
When distributed teams are spread across the globe and thus work across time zones, they're also able to deal with problems more quickly and can even provide 24/7 customer service.
5. They can lower overhead costs
Not having to hire a team of full-time employees means less budget needs to go to hiring. Two big other cost benefits distributed companies have, is that they don't need to pay for office space and everything that entails, nor for the maintenance of an on-site IT infrastructure.
However, it is important to note that geographically distributed teams still need tools to work with and so they'll often pay for robust cloud tools. And while you could pour the money saved from not having an office into scaling up, it's a good idea to dedicate at least a portion of it to team building activities. After all, without watercooler chats and communal lunch breaks, it's harder for team members to feel and stay connected on a more personal level.
6. They boost productivity
When team members can't barge into each other's offices anymore, nobody needs to attend-in-person meetings, and no time is lost on long commutes, productivity goes up.
When distributed teams operate at their best, productivity does rise, but people are easily distracted and tools like email and Slack often become time-sucks rather than time-savers. We'll discuss how you can collaborate efficiently and effectively as a distributed team below.
Distributed teams: best practices
In a large study we did around the state of digital collaboration, respondents gave the quality of digital collaboration within their company a score of just 6.5/10.
The biggest pain point turned out to be the fake sense of urgency team members feel even when they're not required to be constantly available. Second to that is the lack of transparency within and between teams, and the third biggest issue turned out to be that cross-team collaboration within distributed teams is oftentimes still problematic. Different teams use different tools, report to different managers, and follow different workflows.
So how do you guide your team away from these issues?
Read on to find out.
1. Over-communicate goals and set clear expectations
First of all, everyone needs to be working toward one or a few overarching company goals, both within and across teams and this even if each team has different, more specific team goals. These goals shouldn't be communicated just once - for example, when onboarding a new team member - but reviewed periodically and taken into account when reviewing a team's performance and setting out next steps.
With goals come tasks and deadlines that should be equally clearly communicated so that everybody knows not just what they're working on, but also how they should be working and when they should deliver results. Because a distributed workforce is a results-oriented workforce where getting the job done by a certain date is more important than having that job performed from 9 to 5.
2. Prioritize asynchronous communication
To prevent team members from suffering from a fake sense of urgency, it should be crystal clear that asynchronous communication is the default. Set team rules stipulating how long it can take someone to respond to something like an email, a Slack message, or a video call invitation, and avoid calling someone unless it's a true emergency. Include what counts as an emergency in the company's communication guidelines.
It may seem overkill to outline how quickly (or slowly) people should respond on any given platform, but when a team does not put measures in place to ensure everyone knows that there is no need to be constantly available, people will always keep half an eye on their messaging tools while they could be doing focused deep work instead.
3. Use the right tools
Speaking of tools, here is a quick list of some well-reputed communication, project management, and online security tools for distributed teams:
- Text messaging tools: Slack, Discord, Google Chat.
- Project management tools: Asana, Monday, Trello.
- Video calling tools: Zoom, Google Meet, Skype.
- Video messaging tools: Loom, Vidyard.
- Email: Gmail, Outlook.
- VPNs: ExpressVPN, NordVPN, IPVanish.
More important than which tools you use, is how you use them. You already know why to set "rules of engagement" for team communication, but what do you do when you need to work across teams?
Convincing people to switch from their favorite tool to another can be hard and sometimes it doesn't even make sense. If the whole marketing team plans, strategizes, and communicates in Trello, the content writer who's on that team will still need to use Trello when joining a cross-functional team with people from the sales and customer service teams who may work primarily in Gmail.
That's where Gmelius comes in handy. It facilitates cross-team and in-team collaboration by connecting different tools within your stack. With Gmelius, you can …
- sync tasks between Trello and Gmail.
- use notes to discuss email threads both in your inbox and in Slack.
- create custom integrations with Gmelius' public API or Zapier.
4. Have clear workflows
While a distributed workforce can react more quickly in some cases, in others they're slower, as one team member might need to wait for another in another time zone to complete a task. To not lose sight of who needs to do what when and in which stage a project is, clear workflows are essential.
Project management tools like the ones mentioned higher up in this post make it easy to visually represent workflows and assign tasks, or you can create a Kanban Board directly in Gmail using Gmelius.
5. Have regular check-in moments
Setting goals, having clear rules around communication, and creating efficient workflows is one thing, making sure that they work for everyone and that everyone knows how to work with them, is another.
As you can't just walk into someone's office when you spot an issue or have a question, it's crucial to have regular check-in moments. Those can be one-on-one video calls or team meetings where team members can build rapport with one another, get feedback, and give feedback.
It may be tempting to do this via message and email, but nothing builds connection like being able to talk to someone face-to-face.
6. Schedule periodical team-building moments
More informal team building moments, however, can happen in many ways. Perhaps you have a watercooler chat Slack channel, schedule a monthly team video call where you can only talk about fun stuff, or organize an annual retreat for your team to truly bond. There are many ways to make team members feel like they belong and distributed companies who do this successfully, tend to do it in a variety of ways.
You can experiment to figure out what works for your team, but not scheduling in period team-building moments shouldn't be an option if you want people to remain engaged and motivated.
7. Celebrate wins
Another way to make sure everyone feels invested and part of the team, is to celebrate wins on a regular basis. You could have a weekly win-thread where team memes share their win of the week, and communicate team or company-wide wins through your internal newsletter. Team managers can also give shout-outs to team members who've done a great job on something, as long as they make sure this doesn't turn into favoritism.
Distributed teams, unified efforts
Distributed teams have a lot going for them. They offer team members more flexibility to create a healthy work-life balance, remove the distractions that come with in-office collaboration, and are often cheaper to run. While they come with their own set of challenges that can't be ignored, you're ready to overcome them now that you've read this article.
Ready to get started? Learn how Gmelius helps distributed teams collaborate.