How to Work Effectively in a Distributed Workforce
According to a Gartner CFO survey, 74% of surveyed companies intend to shift at least some of their employees to permanent remote positions. There is even talks of more than 50% of large American companies offering remote work or hybrid options by the end of this year. Great. Now another issue to stand divided on.
Regardless of your preference, as more and more companies with thousands of workers like Allstate follow the way of Coinbase and Dropbox, many people might all of a sudden find themselves in a distributed workforce. The question remains, how to work effectively in a distributed workforce?
And what is one?
If you’re excited or even concerned by your company making this switch, then you might want to perfect your remote working skills. From communication to deliverables, work is different from a home office. However, with a few critical lessons, you can improve your performance in a distributed workforce and become an exemplary team member.
What is a Distributed Workforce
A distributed team comprises remote employees who work collaboratively on the same tasks while not being physically together. The employee location for these teams could be in home offices or coworking spaces in the same city or country. They can also be on opposite sides of the globe.
A distributed workforce is a company or department that is composed entirely of distributed teams. Usually, the CEO or team/project managers for this workforce will be centrally located at the company headquarters to monitor the team’s progress, make big picture decisions, assign tasks, and adjust management structures.
Members of a distributed workforce must maintain regular lines of communication with the rest of their team. They need to provide updates on their work, be available to answer questions, and ready for lots of video conferencing.
Hours can be flexible or rigid depending on the company you work for, but almost always accommodate time zones and geographical locations. Most pay structures are based on deliverables, especially for contracted workers, but an hourly salary isn’t rare. The workload and how it’s distributed varies significantly depending on the industry and the company you work for.
What Key Skills are Needed to work Effectively with a Distributed Workforce?
Remember that all distributed workforces are different. While some may require more frequent communication, others may rely on their team members’ independence. However, there are a few skills that all employees of a distributed workforce need.
Better Communication Practices
The greatest challenge of working remotely is you can’t lean over and quickly exchange some information with your colleague. All communication needs to be either written out or discussed in a scheduled conference call in a distributed workforce.
Charles Haine, a program director at Brooklyn college who managed a remote team during the pandemic, had this to say:
“Any positive investment into your communication will pay dividends to your daily workflow.”
One way you can get around slow response times is by creating a “bias to action.” This corporate strategy pairs email requests with deadlines to encourage immediate responses. For example, instead of sending an email that says, “does anyone have any suggestions before I submit?” you would send one that says, “if anyone has any suggestions, please send them before I submit on Wednesday.”
“[With the bias to action] you’ll give everyone a chance to provide input (if they want to) while allowing you to continue moving forward.” Said Haine.
The second most important line of communication for remote teams is video conferencing. Your meetings should be productive as long as you maintain engagement. Remote work is very independent, and it’s common for teleworkers’ minds to wander during a collaborative activity like a meeting. You can have more engaging meetings by trying some of these practices:
- Create a meeting schedule and distribute it beforehand
- Have small talk at the start to get people adjusted
- Know your technology stack and utilize all of its functions
- Only invite team members who have information to discuss or things they need to hear
Punctuality with Deliverables
If deliverables are late, it will delay production and slow down the entire company. Understanding and utilizing your project management software is the best way to stay on top of deliverables. Most software offer easy-to-use task tracking mechanisms as well as the ability to comment and give feedback.
After you understand the software, it’s all about making your schedule manageable. Working from home adds the challenge of disciplining yourself to work during certain hours.
Then you can try things like making a to-do list and avoiding personal tasks and obligations during work hours. You can also find out what time of day you’re most productive and set your work hours around that.
The best advice Kayla gives in her remote worker time management blog post is to stop multitasking. “Your brain takes at least 15 minutes to refocus whenever you switch tasks… [your mind shifting focus continuously] can hurt your productivity.”
It makes more sense to treat your workday like a picky eater. Separate the carrots from the mashed potatoes and focus on one deliverable at a time instead of trying to do everything at once.
Finally, it doesn’t do much good to be punctual if other team members don’t follow suit. If you feel one of your colleagues is behind with their work, we recommend addressing the problem immediately. However, personal reasons are common for underperformance on a remote team, and team leaders need to balance empathy and effective team management.
Ron Carrucci of the Harvard Business Review emphasized the difference between empathy and personal situations and lowering expectations of team members
“You can demonstrate your care for an employee’s struggles by both acknowledging their hardship and redoubling efforts to help them succeed.”
Willingness to Offer and Ask for Help
Speaking of being overwhelmed, you need to be as open about an unmanageable workload as possible in a distributed workforce. Kayla Mathews also wrote a blog about overworking a distributed team
“there’s pressure now to be “on-call” 24/7. We get emails on our phones, we can join in on video conferences while on vacation, and we’re constantly worried that, if we don’t do those things, we’ll fall behind.”
Company expectations are different for everyone, but failing to deliver is something that neither party wants. Most companies don’t want to overwork you. However, if you find a constant disregard for working hours, your working environment might be a toxic situation you should try to remove yourself from.
The most important thing is that you’re honest. Contact your manager or HR rep and show them the hours you're working and what you’re getting done during that time. Then, they can try to shift workloads, hire new personnel, and give you tasks that are more focused on your strengths.
Also, ask your fellow distributed workers how they’re performing with the workload. The odds are if you are struggling, then someone else is as well. There’s strength in numbers, so coming to management with two or three overworked employees is always better than approaching them alone.
Strong Relationships with Team Members
It’s not easy to build a deep connection with someone through a computer. Just ask anyone in a long-distance relationship, and they’ll tell you. That being said, having a lasting personal and professional relationship with your distributed workforce colleagues will allow you to work together more effectively.
Claire Lew, CEO of knowyourteam.com, understands the struggles of building lasting relationships remotely “the sentiments of “Ah, we’re in this together” or “You’ve got my back” can be absent on a remote team unless you deliberately foster them.”
She recommends over-emphasizing the onboarding process and building a buddy system to get people acquainted right away
“carving out and designating a specific relationship that’s shared between people is a way to be purposeful about encouraging social connections on a remote team - rather than merely hoping that an informal connection will form on its own.”
If you know your colleague personally, you will be more open with each other and work harder so all of you can succeed.
Company gatherings and events like remote office parties can help to build stronger relationships. However, you can also pursue this on your own. Don’t just skip to business at every meeting. Ask how your colleagues are doing, their feelings on current events, even write them a nice message on their birthday.
You can even create channels on slack or other communication software for employees with shared interests. If several of your remote workers are interested in football, a company football chat could bring them closer together.
Home Office Behavior
Since the home office space is outside of the professional environment, the best thing distributed employees can do is make sure they’re in a productive workspace. Working from home has many challenges that come from avoiding distractions and maintaining focus.
You can try the following home office tips to balance your work and professional life and maintain high productivity:
- Separate work and fun spaces with a divider or put them in separate rooms
- Define work hours throughout the day and keep them consistent
- Inform other household members of your work hours and when not to disturb you
- Keep workspace well ventilated and well-lit
- Buy ergonomic office furniture and equipment to preserve your physical health
- Stretch every hour and exercise regularly
- Be open with management and your colleagues if you’re experiencing personal difficulties like stress, anxiety, and depression
- At Growrk.com, you can equip any distributed workforce with the best devices regardless of their location. Send and collect laptops from an intuitive dashboard to over 150 countries.
What to Do if You are Struggling to Manage a Distributed Workforce
If you’re experiencing difficulty managing a distributed workforce, it can be for a multitude of reasons. Whether your team members are struggling with collaboration or multiple employees are complaining about a massive workload, dealing with problems in a remote format requires patience.
If your distributed workforce spans over international borders, then you’ll have additional challenges from cultural barriers and different social expectations.
The first step is recognizing common problems remote employees face. According to Buffer.com, the most significant challenges remote workers face are:
- Working together and communicating
- Not being able to turn off the working mindset
- Distractions at home
- Different timezones
- Staying motivated
- Vacation time
- Finding a decent wifi connection
It’s not as simple as fitting everyone in a conference room and getting down to the bottom of the issue. There are delays, differences in schedule, and long response times. As a manager, you need to solve these problems retroactively and identify them before they start to cause real damage.
Here are some of the takeaways and advice we got from interviews with managers of distributed teams:
- Don’t micromanage team members
- Identify strengths and trust employees to work independently
- Encourage your employees to share detailed information, no matter how small.
- Keep track of your team’s mental health
- Be open for discussion and assistance when necessary
- Find a good balance for meeting frequency
- Make time for your personal life
- Employee engagement
- Regular strategic and casual meetings with the whole company
- Maintain the top skills for a distributed workforce manager
- Knowledge of team members, organization of tasks, strong communication, being supportive, and setting a clear vision and framework.
How to Stay Connected on a Distributed Workforce
We’ve highlighted multiple reasons why staying connected and communicative is imperative for distributed companies. To do so, you’ll need to put the effort in on both the professional and personal sides.
The best thing to do is have regular meetings. A decision to meet once or twice a week with no defined times isn’t helpful. Instead, pick a specific meeting cadence for briefings and meetings with some space for emergency meetings when necessary. Ideally, twice a week, but it can vary based on how much information needs to be exchanged.
Colleagues and employees in different time zones present their own challenges with meeting cadence. We recommend organizing a time of day in the afternoon or morning (but not too early) for everyone attending. This way, no one has to stay at work too late or wake up unreasonably early.
During the virtual meeting, you should give everyone a chance to speak. Even if they have nothing to say, asking their opinion will make them feel appreciated and recognized. It helps to have the meeting agenda established beforehand or follow a similar pattern at every meeting.
Building personal connections through a remote format is one of the biggest challenges of managing a distributed workforce. To get employees to interact casually, you can try to start group chats about common interests among the team. If some of them are gamers, you can encourage them to join forces online.
In-person meet-ups are the safest way to build connections in a distributed workforce. Try a company retreat or get people who are geographically close to meet up in a coworking space. This time together will allow employees to interact with peers outside a professional setting. It’s a lot harder to get to know someone with an office mindset and a mountain of tasks to get through.
Zapier, a bay-area tech company, has a program called “AirBNBOnboarding.” They bring new employees to their headquarters in the bay area and rent them an Airbnb. They’ll also bring out the manager so they can get to know their new team member.
Don’t let the challenges of distributed work intimidate you. There is no right person for it. The entire world is going through these changes after the global pandemic, and the grace period for adjusting will last years. By reading this article, you’re already taking the proper steps to become a better remote worker.
Grow remote with GroWrk. We provide and manage laptops, devices, other equipment and services to remote teams in over 150 countries.