Distributed Teams vs. Remote Teams
A distributed team is a collection of people who work together from decentralized locations, often in different time zones and daily schedules, regardless of team size. You can no longer assume that distributed teams never meet in person or co-located teams always work together in the same office. Terms like remote teams, virtual teams, and dispersed teams also fall under this umbrella.
While people often conflate the terms, a remote team is distinct from a distributed team. For example, a remote team model might have the following attributes:
- Work depends on proximity to a centralized, physical office.
- Work includes a combination of virtual and in-person collaboration.
- A remote team is organized in a vertical hierarchy, in which team roles are based on experience and authority.
- Management coordinates schedules and drives communication.
- Performance is measured by in-office attendance.
- In-person meetings (including virtual meetings) are usually required.
- Meetings are frequent and synchronous, meaning they occur at the same time and in the same place.
By contrast, a fully distributed team model might have these characteristics:
- Work is independent of proximity to a geographic location or a centralized, physical office.
- The web is the office, and collaboration is virtual.
- The organization has a flat hierarchy, in which team roles are based on merit and contributions.
- Team members keep autonomous schedules and personalized communication habits.
- Performance is measured by output and outcomes.
- In-person meetings and meetups are optional, and not always optimal.
- Meetings are infrequent and asynchronous, meaning that they occur at different times and in different places.
To learn more about collaborating with remote teams, read “How to Collaborate Effectively with Remote Teams.”
Pros and Cons of Distributed Teams
Distributed teams can be separated physically by different time zones, offices, or floors of the same building. Employees and organizations might have differing experiences with fully distributed teams, and this perspective impacts the benefits and drawbacks of the model.
The Advantages of Distributed Teams
Shifts in demographics, social norms, professional values, and democratized access to knowledge-sharing technology are transforming the modern workplace. As knowledge-based work becomes more complicated in scope but simpler to perform remotely, companies can take an innovative path forward by organizing the workforce in distributed teams.
Employees value the return on investment they receive from distributed team work, in their reduced commute, the autonomy and self-driven nature of their work, and the flexibility to manage family and personal time. This flexibility often translates into greater professional fulfillment and higher retention, which directly impacts the organization's bottom line.
Organizations benefit from the increased productivity with the freedom to work at any time from anywhere and the sense of ownership that translates to improved customer service and satisfaction metrics. They also save on real estate and infrastructure costs by eliminating the need for large, furnished, and networked commercial office workspaces.
For organizations, the reported benefits of distributed teams include the following:
- Optimized time management across multiple time zones
- Upgraded technology and tools
- Increased profitability
- Strengthened disaster response and business continuity
Common Issues with Distributed Teams
Employees and companies also point to challenges with the distributed model. Employees report liabilities to working remotely, including isolation and limited opportunities for advancement. On the organizational side, companies report a lack of synergy, heightened concern about data security, and decreased control over remote employees.
The reported pitfalls of distributed teams include the following:
- Disrupted work-life balance
- Lack of face-to-face communication and visibility
- Infrequent collaboration and loss of community
- Scarceness of qualified candidates
- Increase in knowledge silos and inefficient feedback
- Insufficient hiring and onboarding process
- Inadequate project leadership and reduced transparency
- Limited technology and tools available for distributed workflows
- Shortage of large, established companies using distributed teams
- A lack of investor trust in distributed models
Working with Distributed Teams
Technology enables companies to build distributed teams across different countries, cultures, backgrounds, and languages. Collaborating across time zones with the most qualified employees, regardless of location, creates prolific operational cooperation for niche projects and markets.
The distributed team model scales regardless of the number of employees. Companies like Pares.ly (50+ employees), InVision (700+ employees), GitHub, Elastic, and Automattic (1,000+ employees) embrace the flexibility of distributed teams. They are also vocal advocates for — and successful examples of — the effectiveness of this model at scale. Regardless of size, most organizations create successful products and services by building teams composed of various skills, experiences, talents, and personalities.
How to Manage Distributed Teams
Many skills and best practices for managing co-located teams don’t translate to managing distributed teams. Distributed team leaders can set the foundation for a sound management strategy with communication, collaboration, coordination, and culture (the 4 Cs).
This section includes a breakdown of the 4 Cs of distributed team management, including advice from experts on how to parse these core principles to be a more effective distributed team leader.
Communication is the cornerstone of the 4 Cs and a strong predictor of successful distributed work. Communication strategy plays a crucial role in managing distributed teams. Managers operate as proxies for a distributed organization, and they play an essential role in reducing ambiguity and feelings of isolation, as well as boosting performance and job satisfaction.
Juan Pablo Buriticá is the Head of Engineering, LatAm at Stripe. He writes extensively about distributed team communication and advocates for the use of deliberate and direct communication channels for distributed teams. Buriticá learned the importance of communication during college, when he split time between building websites and working in restaurants. He translated the lessons learned in high-stress kitchen environments to executive leadership of distributed software development teams.
“I think that I build better distributed teams because of my kitchen experience. Restaurant teams ship products every five minutes, and it has to be on time and on quality,” he says. “When you're in that kitchen rush, you need very good communication for things to work. Experiencing that helps me understand why the teams that I joined work well and, if not, how to fix them.”
Distributed teams rely on a combination of synchronous and asynchronous communication in order to succeed. For an in-depth discussion of these two types of communication and tips on communicating effectively with remote teams, read “How to Implement Remote Team Communication Strategies for Your Business: Best Practices and Expert Tips.”
Distributed Communication Strategies
It’s essential to maintain a balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication for distributed work. When you understand how to leverage different communication channels, you can empower productivity and prevent interruptions of the concentration and creativity that's crucial to knowledge-based work. Consider the following strategies for managing distributed team communication:
- Intentional Documentation: Use written communication channels to avoid information gaps and make it easier to distribute information. Be proactive in reiterating written information — it’s best to assume that someone missed the live meeting or an email chain, or they checked Slack messages in a different time zone. Create meeting notes and include all relevant details in the document for absent stakeholders.
- Deliberate Documentation: Avoid repeating yourself or copying and pasting across different channels. Assign privacy or security standards to all sensitive or secure documentation, and implement a review process for who can access, share, or edit each document.
- Structured Communication Channels: Keep documentation (like meeting notes) updated in real time and assign a single owner to each document. Make sure to distribute communication on a predictable schedule to all relevant members. Communicate expectations for editing and commenting on documents, and create policies for version control, including how to share and store documents.
- Professional and Neutral: Adopt a professional, impartial, and transparent tone for your audience in written communication. Limit sarcasm and humor (as well as emojis, images, and GIFs) to appropriate channels. Tools like Grammarly have features that can review the tone and purpose of your document based on the audience.
For tips and resources for managing distributed software development teams, including best practices for distributed collaboration inspired by DevOps, and tools and techniques for time zone mastery read "Guide to Distributed Software Development."
Once you've implemented direct communication channels and a balanced approach to synchronous and asynchronous styles, including the appropriate systems and tools, distributed collaboration is less taxing. The most important component of this collaboration is when, where, and how to conduct meetings.
Virtual meetings don’t have to be an online version of the standard in-person meeting agenda and cadence. In fact, start off by asking if the proposed virtual meeting is better as an asynchronous activity. Fully distributed companies use different combinations of communication channels and formats to level up collaboration and supplement virtual meetings.
Set up a “things I learned” (TIL) today channel on Slack or your preferred messaging platform. Distributed employees can contribute posts that relate to projects or personal development, which can help to build an ecosystem of meeting topics and social interaction in an asynchronous fashion. TIL channels open the possibility of collaboration outside of traditional project structure and reinforce a culture of personal and professional development among distributed employees.
Text standups are an asynchronous version of the live synchronous standup popularized by Agile software development. The team uses its messaging platform or web-based forum to answer questions like, “What happened on your last workday, what is planned for today, and is anyone blocked in their work?”
The benefit of a text standup for distributed teams is that it’s brief and focused. It is also a better forum for asking questions like, “How do you feel today?” You can adapt the practice of using color-coded emojis so employees can signal emotions to collaborators in the absence of in-person body-language cues.
Cross-Functional Team Meetings
Virtual meetings with different teams expose distributed employees to the kind of glue work that happens behind the scenes at distributed organizations. These meetings are perfect for virtual collaboration and provide an easy way for organizations that are not fully distributed to see the value in distributed collaboration. Switch up scheduled meetings to include occasional team-building activities. For examples of activities, read “56 Fun, Easy, and Effective Team-Building Games for Remote Workers.”
Distributed Collaboration Groundwork
Regardless of the tools and formats you use for distributed collaboration, be specific to the purpose of each meeting and respect your employees’ autonomy and ability to get the work done. Juan Pablo Buriticá emphasizes the importance of trust as the foundation for collaborating across distributed teams and sharing information effectively.
"You need to be explicit about how you communicate. It's one thing to build a distributed team intentionally, [and yet] another thing to do it to survive," he says.
"The foundation is trust. I trust that wherever you are, you'll get your work done. I can't see you, so I trust that you will do your thing. Otherwise, I'll just be supervising you every hour, and that's not good for anyone," Buriticá advises.
Buriticá believes the best method for building trust (and thereby holding fewer meetings) is written collaboration. He saw the value of this strategy firsthand when building teams that don’t depend on shared workspaces or shared time.
"Those of us used to working in offices thought the solution for anything was a meeting. Let's meet and let's brainstorm. Let's talk. We're stuck at a problem in our ‘trying to get work done mode,’ let's meet because that's what you believe is the only way to achieve the same outcome," he says. "Imagine if you and I need to [collaborate], and we're not the same place. Both of us, separately and at whatever time, write things down … we get in a rhythm, and then, without actually brainstorming in real time, we can get to a solution."
Successful collaboration with distributed teams supports healthy boundaries and the coveted work-life balance. With the positive effects of optional meetings, written communication, and cooperation built on trust, distributed employees feel encouraged and motivated to solve problems autonomously.
By leveraging multichannel communication strategies that include written, asynchronous channels to coordinate projects, employees operating in different time zones hand over their work and contribute continuously. This workflow boosts morale and contributes to the type of productive cooperation that eliminates information gaps. When you coordinate distributed work with written documentation, you create easy-to-navigate, evergreen project artifacts that other teams, new hires, and management can use for reference.
Ditch Distributed Email
Email threads are a messy tool for coordinating across time zones, and time is essential for globally distributed teams. Using email alone to coordinate distributed work promotes slower response times and leads to unpredictable collaboration. Popular alternatives for asynchronous communication with distributed teams are web-based messaging groups or socially networked web forums.
A web forum is a space for people to write internal or external posts for customer-facing sites or knowledge bases structured by topic. Web forums provide advanced information hierarchy, features like tagging (@username), and permalinks, and they’re genuinely accepted as the more appropriate channels for communicating more casually (and for using GIFs or emojis).
Automattic (the company behind WordPress) uses internally developed technology — the P2 WordPress theme — to create websites that act as a distributed, socially networked forum for coordinating projects across different time zones. These internal blogs are great for organizations that need to keep time zones aligned with projects and to coordinate deliverables with employees dispersed across different continents. By coordinating projects with a web forum, a cloud-based messaging platform, or a workforce management tool, you build predictability in the distributed workflow that is difficult to achieve with email threads.
A process for coordinating works in progress might begin as a longform document with a request for comments (RFC). This refers to a written proposal or process where you solicit input for decision-making from individuals across a distributed team with origins in internet protocol standards.
"The RFC process is, ‘I am making a decision on behalf of the group, and here's my rationale (in writing),’" says Buriticá. "[It says,] ‘Do you have any input, am I missing something, do you know why I should make a different decision, or [proceed] differently? Otherwise, this is the direction I'm going.’"
According to Buriticá, asynchronous communication methods like the RFC process are about empowerment. "I'm not asking for permission, I'm letting you know where I'm going," he says. "I'm asking for your input, and that becomes helpful because you start to make decisions independent of time or space."
This sense of empowerment is crucial to nurturing the autonomy and decision-making abilities that distributed employees report as a desirable trait of the distributed workplace. Written documentation and RFCs render real-time dialogue unnecessary and free up all parties from having to be present at the same time.
Distributed Workplace Culture
The distributed team model is also a paradigm for a more culturally diverse and geographically dispersed workplace. The tradeoff is the lack of in-person interaction that's crucial to people's happiness and sense of community, as well as the development of positive workplace culture. Face-to-face interactions and collaboration form the building blocks of trust for distributed colleagues.
Build Cultural Interactions
Building and nurturing a positive distributed team culture requires more than offering perks like advanced hardware, modern furniture and equipment, or food stipends. It requires impactful measures to combat the pitfalls of distributed work. In-person meetings and meetups are a strategy for building a positive workplace culture.
Fully distributed companies like Automattic and Zapier encourage teams of globally dispersed employees to join up for projects on an agreed-upon location and work side by side when it suits the project or team. Use the following principles to leverage in-person interactions:
- Plan: Set aside a specific budget for annual in-person meetings and for managers to conduct in-person meetups throughout the year, and create policies that embrace in-person collaboration.
- Hire: Use in-person meetings to onboard new hires. Whenever possible, have them spend their first week(s) interacting face to face with their manager and team.
- Praise: Use the annual in-person, all-hands meetings to recognize distributed teams and employees. Dedicate time at the event to praise examples of outstanding work and reward employees in front of their peers.
- Host: Encourage distributed teams to meet up and collaborate in person on project workshops or host social activities outside of work. Make sure to provide beverages, food, and snacks, as these perks don't exist for distributed remote work from home.
- Share: Encourage distributed teams and management to share content from these meetings and meetups on your company’s social media and internal communication channels.
Workplace culture often tops the list in surveys that measure employee happiness. It is a vital metric for employees new to distributed work or those considering joining a distributed company or team.
Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automattic, acknowledges the value of in-person meetups and their impact on workplace culture. The company’s data team measured the positive impact of its annual in-person meeting — the “grand meetup” — and the effect that social networking at these live meetups had on work relationships and the integration of new hires.
Distributed People Operations
Today’s recognizable technology or tech behemoths — companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google — are embracing distributed work, making it harder for smaller companies to leverage the uniqueness of a distributed team model. The ability to successfully attract, hire, and nurture employees for distributed teams requires specific HR strategies that help level the playing field.
Carole Jones is the Senior Resource and Talent Acquisition Manager at Prowess Consulting LLC, a distributed team of technology and marketing professionals providing solutions and services to clients from offices in Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City, and remote home offices. Jones is responsible for recruiting, hiring, and onboarding employees to distributed consulting teams.
Prowess starts building distributed teams with its hiring process, by screening potential candidates and assessing their fit for employment and remote work on distributed teams.
“We want to ensure we are asking questions that will address whether this person can work independently, that they are a self-starter, can focus, and can work with lighter touch management,” says Jones. “We ask behavioral- and situational-based questions to assess if the candidates have the qualities to work on a distributed team.”
Jones provided the following examples of interview questions designed to assess fit for distributed work:
- What makes for a great day at work?
- What do you believe are the most effective attributes of a good manager, in regard to his or her relationship with their team members?
- What single factor in your work environment most greatly contributes to your success and happiness?
- How would your team members describe your work style and contributions?
- In order to be successful, what are your top three expectations of senior leaders?
- How do you prioritize competing priorities?
A key component of Prowess’s hiring strategy is its compensation philosophy. The company doesn’t differentiate pay based on its distributed team model and remote work. They do ask their distributed employees for some structured availability regardless of where they choose to live and work. The corporate office operates in the Pacific Standard Time (PST) zone. Employees in other time zones need to be available during the core operating hours of this office, regardless of where they reside or work.
To add value to their hiring process and employee engagement, Prowess uses face-to-face video onboarding. Prowess maintains a video-preferred policy with people ops (an employee-focused function of HR that helps people work more effectively) for virtual meetings, using Microsoft Teams as their platform of choice. Employees are asked to enable video for all Teams meetings to help keep them engaged.
“Managing engagement is important with remote employees working on a distributed team,” says Jones.
“We request that managers have frequent one-on-one meetings to sync with their employees so they stay connected and the employees feel motivated and productive,” she says. “Accountability and production are important factors to consider for employees who work remotely on distributed teams. Prowess has always had a philosophy of quality over quantity — getting the job done versus working a lot of hours.”
To measure the performance and success of distributed employees, Prowess leverages annual assessments that include a self-review for distributed employees. Jones and her team combine the self-review with specific data collected from management and key team members to measure performance.
Prowess understands the challenges of remote work and employee engagement, and she recognizes the importance of having focused HR strategies that help distributed employees combat burnout or periods of personal distress. One such strategy leverages distributed communication and collaboration using Teams.
“We have multiple special interest groups on Teams, and we encourage employees to join the group that best suits them,” says Jones. In response to the global pandemic, for example, Prowess sent gifts to employees with thank you notes to express appreciation and to acknowledge their place on a team that cares about their personal well-being.
The combination of a direct communication strategy and collaborative technology is an effective way to mitigate the challenges and pitfalls of remote work on distributed teams. That said, Prowess understands that in-person interactions are a powerful tool for building a positive distributed team culture.
“Prowess brings together all of our employees twice a year,” says Jones. “Once in the summer for an all-day event that includes group breakouts, a keynote from our CE, a look ahead at what is in store for the upcoming year, and we end it with a happy hour event. Then, we all get together for a formal holiday party, get dressed up, and celebrate our teams and accomplishments.”
The decision to staff and manage distributed teams and leverage remote workers requires focused HR strategies designed to avoid the pitfalls and realize the benefits associated with a distributed workforce. A sound hiring strategy and people ops tailored to the distributed workplace help small companies and early-stage startups compete for talent with large, well-capitalized organizations.
Distributed Teams: Best Practices
This section summarizes the best practices gleaned from several distributed team experts, including the importance of integrating new hires, why a handbook is a good idea, and how to level up remote meetings and combat burnout.
Socially Integrate New Hires
Train distributed team managers to own the onboarding and employee integration plan over a 30-, 60-, or 90-day period. If possible, co-locate new hires with the new team or manager for the first week of onboarding and training. Your annual meetup is an excellent time to synchronize live onboarding with new hires.
Encourage and incentivize veteran employees, team leads, or top performers to mentor new hires. Schedule regular check-ins with all parties and make sure to provide open-office hours to address any challenges or questions from new hires during the onboarding phase. Learn more about hiring and engaging new distributed team members, including free tools and templates, by reading “Ground Control to Major Tom: The Keys to Managing Remote Teams.”
Create a Distributed Employee Handbook
By implementing a distributed employee handbook, you can provide documented techniques and practices that empower shared values and attitudes toward distributed teams. Use this handbook as a single source of truth that brings consistency and clarity to everything from operational standards and employee benefits to reimbursement policies and communication architecture. Create a dedicated employee handbook for distributed teams that addresses the 4 Cs for managing distributed teams.
Level Up One-On-One Meetings
Never miss the opportunity to check in on a regular schedule with distributed employees, even if these are short, focused conversations. Establish a regular cadence of one-on-one meetings and be consistent. Use video for one-on-one syncs, but keep it optional for employees if they’re not all scheduled in advance. In addition to project-based, work-in-progress feedback, embrace more frequent, casual one-on-ones that focus on employee well-being.
Host the occasional (i.e., every fourth meeting) one-on-one retrospective. As with sprint retrospective meetings in software development, the manager and team member use the same format to improve one-on-one meetings. The purpose is to improve one-on-ones by addressing what’s working and what’s not, then to take actions that add value to the process.
Multichannel communication tools can have a detrimental effect on employees’ time and attention. A common pitfall reported by remote workers on distributed teams is the ease with which work time and personal time blend together. Build trust by supporting work routines that empower productive, deep work for distributed employees, like turning off chat and silencing phones.
Encourage the use of status updates to communicate availability on messaging and email platforms and consider advocating for “quiet hours” where all distributed employees feel comfortable turning off work. Empower distributed employees to take ownership of their calendars in a manner that optimizes productivity, including a fair vacation policy.
Distributed Teams Collaboration Tools
When you select the right type of collaboration tool, you remove the friction of distributed work. Now, SaaS tools with dozens of platform integrations and advanced APIs make it simpler and more cost-effective to build a virtual workplace that removes geographic barriers.
The types of distributed collaboration tools vary by the kind of work they empower. Some prevalent categories and tools include the following:
- Communicate: Online videoconferencing platforms like Zoom, BlueJeans, and Teams strive to emulate meetings in a two-dimensional format, with features that help users share and interact with digital content. Emerging open source software projects like OBS Studio hint at the future of online meetings as professional live productions — like a sports broadcast, but with slides and a Q&A. Messaging and chat platforms like Slack provide platforms for synchronous, documented collaboration and a forum for your favorite GIFs.
- Coordinate: Collaborative work management (CWM) platforms like Smartsheet empower distributed organizations with tools to report progress, capture data, automate collaboration, and coordinate work. Virtual coworking software like Focusmate levels up work management with psychology by providing a live "accountability partner" to work with you in 50-minute sessions based on your work schedule.
- Document: Written documentation is the cornerstone of the 4 Cs of distributed team management. Google’s G Suite is a comprehensive platform for distributed teams that use asynchronous documentation to collaborate. Google Drive, Google Docs, and Gmail are accessible, easy-to-operate tools independent of the employee's location and time zone. GitHub is a software development platform owned by Microsoft. Its web-based project repositories and version-control features provide a powerful documentation platform for distributed teams to collaborate.
- Design: InVision and Adobe are digital design platforms with cloud-based collaboration features such as live co-editing that empower distributed teams to create art with real-time feedback. Pitch provides a presentation design tool for distributed teams to build interactive slide decks from any device or operating system.
- Secure: With the right security tools, distributed employees can safely work from anywhere using just a computer and an internet connection. Several SaaS security platforms provide the means to secure distributed work, including tools for multifactor authentication (Rublon), password management (1Password), and VPN (ExpressVPN). These tools secure online collaboration and help mitigate the risk of remote collaboration.
For a more comprehensive guide, Holloway lists almost 200 distributed collaboration tools in The Holloway Guide to Remote Work. The company compiled this list by talking to hundreds of remote workers and experts, surveying Quora topics and other available tools lists, and researching each company on Capterra, Crunchbase, and AngelList.
Unlock the Potential of Distributed Technology
Whether you use distributed collaboration or a combination of tools, remember that the implementation of the solutions is more critical than the selection.
- One Tool to Rule: Use one synchronous tool for videoconferencing (for example, Google Hangouts), one asynchronous tool or forum for documentation (Google Docs), and one data storage tool (Google Drive). Be democratic about selecting the right tool for the job, and get feedback from teams that require domain-specific collaboration tools (what works for HR might be a burden for engineering).
- Build a System: Create a communication architecture that establishes appropriate use cases for different communication tools (email, messaging platform, web forum). Include a guide for employees to use each tool to collaborate with other people at the company and with customers (if you integrate public-facing channels, such as a knowledge base).
- Don't Over-Engineer: Spend less time selecting and setting up collaboration software and more time on measuring adoption metrics for specific use cases to determine the success of the rollout. Get feedback at different stages of adoption from different users, with different roles, and on different teams.
Learn more about getting distributed tech right and upgrading your virtual workplace with the Smartsheet report “How to Unlock the Potential of Your Distributed Workforce.”
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