The workplace is no longer just one physical location, thanks to advances in technology and changing societal attitudes towards work. It can be multiple locations, transcending geographical distances and time zones.
Although only a small number of companies have been using this approach for a while, the rest of the world is just starting to see its advantages.
This article defines distributed work and distributed teams and explains the subtle differences between distributed and remote teams. It also provides examples of successful distributed companies, delves into the reasons for having a distributed team, and considers the potential challenges. Finally, it provides practical tips on how to manage your distributed team and keep it engaged.
What Is a Distributed Team?
Distributed work is collaborative work done by two or more people based in different locations. Some examples include:
- Two students preparing for an exam together from their respective homes, using Skype as a collaboration tool;
- A head of marketing gives guest access to the company workspace in the business messaging app Bumble to a contractor illustrator to discuss a new ad banner design online;
- Members of a company’s remote DevOps team organizing internal task distribution via project collaboration platform JIRA;
- A customer support manager of a support team based in Manila, Philippines, sharing a quarterly report via a business messaging app with the company’s sales department headquartered in San Francisco, U.S.
All work that requires people to collaborate with each other remotely is considered distributed.
Distributed teams are composed of team members who work on a project remotely from each other. They communicate and collaborate using various tools, and can be based in different geographical areas.
Co-located teams are teams whose members work together from the same physical location. The opposite of co-located teams are teams whose members do not work together from the same physical location.
In a distributed team, each member can work from a separate location. For example, the DevOps team can be remote, and every team member can work from wherever they like. However, team members can also be clustered together in several different locations. For example, there can be company offices in different countries around the world. This means individuals in the team are co-located, but the team as a whole is not, which still makes it distributed.
Factors That Can Make a Team Distributed
As you can see, the only prerequisite for a team to be considered distributed is that there is no one central location where the team is based. In that respect, there are a few work arrangements that can make a team distributed:
- Employees working from multiple company office locations;
- Employees working from home;
- Employees work from other non-company-owned spaces, such as co-working spaces, cafes, and other public places.
Remote vs. Distributed Teams: What’s the Difference?
The terms “remote” and “distributed” are often confused with each other, but they actually have different meanings. “Remote” usually refers to working from a location that is not in the same physical space as the rest of the team, while “distributed” refers to working from multiple locations in general.
A remote team is a team of employees who work away from the company office(s). The company may not have any office at all, which is the case with fully remote teams. These teams can therefore work from anywhere, including their homes, cafes, co-working spaces, etc.
The main difference between distributed and remote teams is that remote teams are by definition not office-based, whereas distributed teams can be. So, a remote team could be based in several different countries, whereas a distributed team would be based in several different locations within one country.
In addition, remote teams don’t have to be geographically dispersed. For example, members of an organization that doesn’t have a physical office space can choose to work together in a café or a co-working space. In this case, they’re remote since they don’t have a dedicated office space and can work anywhere, but when they meet up in person to work together, they’re not geographically dispersed; they’re in the same location.
Why Do Organizations Have Distributed Teams?
There are many reasons why companies rely on distributed teams. Some of the benefits that come with this type of work include the following:
Provides Access to a Much Wider Talent Pool
The term “distributed talent” refers to the vast pool of job candidates that exist beyond an individual’s immediate surroundings. With distributed talent, employers have access to a much larger pool of potential employees with a wider range of skills and experience. This can be particularly beneficial for employers who need to fill a position that requires a very specific skill set.
This type of sourcing provides opportunities for people who are exceptionally talented but have limited options due to where they live. You can give them the opportunity of a lifetime.
Improve Company Agility
Hiring people from different time zones can help make your company more agile by creating a never-ending, 24-hour workflow. This can be beneficial to employees as it eliminates the need for them to work shifts that can be detrimental to their mental and physical health.
You can please both your employees and your clients by providing 24/7 coverage.
Distributed work allows organizations to create diverse teams, which comes with its benefits:
- Innovation and creativity — Diverse teams (in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, and other traits) are proven to be more innovative and creative. It’s no wonder since different people bring different perspectives to the table. A study on diversity has shown that organizations with above-average diversity scores had a 19% higher innovation-related revenue than their below-average counterparts;
- Productivity — Diversity also improves the company’s overall productivity. Complacency and a homogeneous way of thinking can lead to significant oversights, whereas diversity brings a lot of different points of view to the mix and helps improve decision-making.
What Is Remote Management?
A remote manager must have technology, communication, and workflows set up effectively for their employees who are located away from them. Many traits of an onsite manager are also found in managers of colocated teams, but there are nuances to serving, leading, and guiding when managing teams that you do not see in person each day.
Traits of a Great Remote Manager
The most important traits for remotely managing are similar to those for managing in-person, but there are a few that are extra important.
It is crucial to be aware of oneself when establishing relationships and trust, especially in a fully remote setting. The truth is that people like to be both taught and managed in different ways. GitLab’s CEO even makes his communication preferences and shortcomings public, requiring a great deal of self-awareness, little shame, and a taste for transparency.
Self-aware managers are more likely to be open about their communication and learning preferences, which helps to avoid ambiguity for those who report to them.
When you are a new remote manager, you may be tempted to check in on projects more often because you cannot see someone working in the same physical space. However, this is not a good idea. You should have a discussion with your direct report about communication and work styles, and find a way to work that is agreeable to both of you.
If a manager is constantly checking in on a project and offering suggestions on how to keep it on track, their direct report may see this as micromanagement and it can damage their working relationship. It’s important to have an open line of communication so that people can express their preferences.
It’s important for remote managers to be understanding and compassionate. It can be difficult for them to see things from their direct reports’ perspectives when they’re communicating only through text and Zoom calls. With in-person interactions, body language can provide clues about how someone is feeling. But in a remote setting, managers have to be more proactive in asking their direct reports how they’re doing and what kind of learning style they prefer.
GitLab gives employees a sense of ownership and responsibility, trusting them to manage their own work.
To learn more about how empathy can help managers avoid burnout, isolation, and anxiety, read GitLab’s guide.
It is crucial for managers to be humble in order to build trust with their reports, who may be struggling to adjust to their new remote roles. Managers should recognize that their reports are not defined by their work, and work to have no ego. Additionally, having short toes will help create a more trusting and open relationship.
In many cases, reports will find that they prefer to be managed remotely. Maintaining the perspective that managers excel by serving is critical to building confidence in a direct report.
If you manage a remote team, you may find that your employees feel guilty about asking for help. They may feel like they are bothering you in your home. To proactively address this, be sure to reinforce that you are not bothered by sincere requests for assistance.
In conclusion, managers who are not in the same location as their employees should have the goal of wanting their employees to succeed. If there is negative feedback that needs to be given, try to do so in a way that is positive and in a one-on-one setting.
A common mistake that managers make is assuming that they can earn back time by not communicating fully with their direct reports. Great remote managers will devote time to writing things down. GitLab’s handbook-first approach to documentation encourages managers to contextualize their thoughts in writing.
Sending expectations, updates, and feedback through text is very respectful. It allows someone to take in the information at their own pace, and there is no room for misinterpretation. Written words can more easily be questioned, which creates a more direct path to understanding what is true.
To lead remote teams successfully, you must develop trust with each team. A trustworthy leader of remote teams provides consistent feedback to team members, so they feel included, valued, empowered, and respected.
A leader who is not in the same location as their team members must be able to understand and respond to the way their direct reports prefer to communicate and receive guidance. Some team members may prefer more frequent communication while others may prefer more independence. It is important for leaders to be able to ask about and accommodate these preferences. Many of these elements are seen as unspoken expectations in other organizations, but servant leaders work to clarify and remove ambiguity.
As a remote manager, it’s important to build a support system for your team while also holding them accountable. To build trust and maintain transparency, keep communication frequent and open, and ensure a safe working environment.
It is important to have regular meetings with employees to discuss business matters, build trust, and identify challenges and focus areas. In addition to formal meetings, managers should also hold coffee chats where no business is discussed. Listening and sharing during these chats can help create more open and honest conversations. Another way to encourage open communication is to structure team meetings with a social component, where team members can share aspects of their personal lives.
Tips for Being a Great Remote Manager
Be Visible and Approachable
Not everyone is capable of working remotely or is mentally prepared to go days without human interaction. Schedule regular video chats and make sure to allow time for informal communication.
As a remote manager, you need to set up a support system for your team, while also making sure you provide enough structure to hold them accountable. It’s important to build trust, maintain transparency, communicate frequently and openly, and create a supportive working environment.
Maintain Constant Communication
At GitLab, communication through Slack is very important. While Slack allows for real-time communication, we also try to remain true to our asynchronous mindset, suggesting that GitLab team members set “do not disturb” and not always expect real-time answers from others.
Prioritize One-On-One Time
Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of one-on-one communication, either asynchronous (e.g. via text) or in person. In some cases, it can be much more effective to clarify misunderstandings in person, via Zoom video call for example. Schedule regular Ask Me Anything (AMA) meetings so team members can meet a new leader, learn more about an existing team member, or gain clarity on a recent change.
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