Toggl

Distributed Teams Are the Future- Here’s How to Make Them Work

When Yahoo appointed former Google executive Marissa Mayer as its president and CEO in July 2012, she gave every indication of being progressive. Mayer brought in free food and issued sleek new iPhones, which suggested that she valued and was investing in her teams. Then, in February 2013, she rescinded Yahoo’s work from home policy and battle lines were drawn.

Supporters defended her decision by saying that it would lead to more effective teamwork and halt Yahoo’s downward spiral. Everyone else was offended, saying that chaining employees to their desks was a poor way of making them feel valued and committed to company goals. 

Even CNN questioned Mayer’s rationale, saying that getting rid of the remote work option was like “canceling the prom because some immature people spiked the punch bowl.” 

I think it was a bad decision. In my opinion, it would have been better for Yahoo to fire those who abused their remote work privileges instead of abolish the policy altogether. During Mayer’s five years as CEO, the workforce plummeted by 50%: some of the company’s best talent left for employers that did not see work-life flexibility as a threat to job performance.

Today, I’m even more convinced that Yahoo shot itself in the foot by mandating face time. Companies like Amazon, Apple, American Express, and GitHub all offer full-time remote positions and even more businesses use distributed teams that do excellent work even though they never meet in person. With more workers valuing a work-life balance, distributed teams are the future. In this blog, we’ll go over ways to make them successful.

What Is Distributed Work?

Distributed work is the practice of spreading tasks and responsibilities across a remotely positioned workforce. Businesses of all sizes are quickly embracing the practice of sourcing quality talent from across the globe while saving money on office space: according to a recent study by small business and freelance support provider And Co, 23% of the remote workers it surveyed said that their organization was fully distributed. 

What Is A Distributed Team?

As the name suggests, a distributed team is a group of people who work remotely for a single employer (or client, for freelancers). Companies like Groove, InVision, Toggl, and Zapier have fully distributed workforces, and a growing number of businesses are advertising positions that are 100% remote.

Why Is Distributed Work So Popular?

Blame Generation Z! (Yes, really!)

When Gen Z (those born in or after 1995) began entering the workforce, the number of businesses adopting distributed work policies began to climb. These newcomers grew up as native users of all things Internet: smartphones, tablets, and apps and have little patience with older modes of communication. 

In a recent Workforce Futures survey by Fuze, 79% of respondents stated that they wanted to be able to work remotely. According to this infographic, 70% of young professionals believe that going into the office isn’t necessary. With employees demanding greater flexibility in their work arrangements, distributed teams will soon be a cornerstone of the modern workplace.

Pros and Cons of Distributed Teams

Working with a distributed workforce has benefits that go beyond accommodating the work preferences of the new generation of employees. It also presents challenges that need to be considered and planned for before 100% remote positions become the norm at your company.

The Pros

  • Access to a wider talent pool. When you expand your search to include candidates outside your city (or even your time zone), you increase your chances of finding the right person for the job. At one time, if the perfect candidate was in Chicago and your company was in New York, you couldn’t hire them unless they were willing to move. With a distributed team, that situation is never a problem.
  • Improved employee retention. Depending on a worker’s position, it can cost thousands of dollars to replace them if they leave. What if your best project manager says she has to move because her spouse was taking a job in a new city? If your company supports distributed work, you can keep her on the team.
  • Fewer work-based distractions. Team members who don’t come into the office every day are less likely to be distracted by frequent meetings, chatty coworkers, and other common interruptions. When people collaborate using email, video, Slack, or project management software, they find it easier to focus on work.
  • Better recordkeeping. In this case, I’m referring to records of communications. Email, chat, and collaboration platforms are all essential when you have a distributed workforce. They all create a record that everyone can refer to when they want to confirm instructions, answer complex questions, and resolve misunderstandings. 

The Cons

  • Communication challenges. Unless you are using video, it can be difficult to gauge reactions to what you’re telling a person. Body language can convey someone’s feelings more honestly than words, and inability to see the other party can hamper the effectiveness of a discussion. Remote employees may also have flexible hours that make spontaneous communications impossible.
  • Lack of employee interaction. Face-to-face interactions are, for some people, essential to team-building. Companies that frown on remote work also claim that a quick in-person conversation eliminates the time wasted by email discussions. 

How To Manage A Distributed Team

When you’ve got the right system in place, managing remote employees can be easy. The key to developing this system is always ‘thinking remote.’ You can’t apply in-office management methods to a distributed team, so look into Internet-based workspaces and communication tools that can be accessed and used 24-7.

Use Project Management Software

In my experience, project management tools are excellent platforms for distributed teams. My favorite is Teamweek, which is browser-based, has a fantastic app, and makes virtual collaboration a breeze. Its strongest team management features include:

Teamweek can help you manage your time better.
  • A Gantt chart project timeline that breaks all responsibilities into easily-digested tasks. Custom color-coding is available to make each person’s workload stand out for easier review.
  • Slack integration that supports real-time communications. Workers can chat with one another about a shared task or issue or participate in a group meeting chat. Slack also supports file attachments, making it easier to share assets without having to log into your email.
  • A shareable calendar that doubles as a workload overview. Managers can quickly see which team members are getting backlogged and who is available to help them become current.

Other popular project management resources include Asana, Trello, and Basecamp. Whichever one you choose, make sure that it makes all workflow transparent and keeps everyone on the same page through access to shared documents and other resources.

Keep Communication Channels Consistent

To avoid accidentally leaving your remote workers out of the loop, use the same communication methods for both in-house and distributed teams. If you allow the former to have in-person communications and meetings about a shared project, it leaves the latter out of the loop. All key discussions should be held using a channel that everyone has access to, and no decisions should be made without input from the entire team.

This is one of the reasons why I like Slack. Communicate is immediate and you have a record of all conversations, which eliminates ambiguity about expectations and deadlines.

Evaluate All Team Members Based On Results

It is critical that you treat both in-office and remote employees the same way, so your evaluation process needs to apply to both groups. Don’t use elements that aren’t shared, such as number of hours spent at the office or attendance at seminars and events that can’t be accessed remotely. Instead, focus on results. 

When you evaluate everyone based on what they’ve done instead of how they’ve done it, you’ll motivate your team and encourage more accomplishments. Distributed workers will not feel like they’ve been treated differently because they didn’t attend the company picnic or play politics.

Make All Successes Public

While it’s fine to give your in-house team members a high five to celebrate an accomplishment, don’t forget to include your remote workers. If they can’t see how they’re making a positive distribution, they can become disengaged and less productive. Use your Slack channel to give regular shoutouts and if you feel like a celebratory office lunch is in order, include the remote team by sending virtual gift cards to cover lunch at their favorite eatery.

Don’t Forget The Social Aspects

Building relationships within a distributed workforce is easier than you might think. Research suggests that loneliness and a sense of disconnection are big problems for remote workers, so unify your team by creating social spaces online. You can use video conferencing software like Zoom to have a ‘happy hour’ wrapup every Friday or a ‘water cooler’ Slack channel where people can share details and photos of their weekends. These mediums are easy to set up, and it will make working as a team more fun for everyone!

Conclusion

The development of new technologies and improvement of existing ones enables workers to be productive wherever they are located. Convenient and reliable collaboration and communication platforms like Teamweek ensure that distributed teams can be just as innovative and successful as those that share a physical workspace. As a result, the adoption of distributed work will only increase, and companies that want to retain the best talent need to be prepared.

January 2, 2020

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