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What Are Distributed Teams and How to Make Them Work for You

Last Updated on June 16, 2021

Once upon a time, the concept of working with one team across multiple time zones seemed too far-fetched to be practical. How could someone located in Boston work with someone else in Los Angeles at the same time? It sounded like the stuff of science fiction. 

But these days, thanks to huge leaps in technology, remote work has never been easier. With the right software (most of which is free) and secure access to the internet, just about any employee who works in an office environment can transition into a remote worker on a distributed team.

In this post, we’ll discuss what distributed teams are, and why they work. We’ll also share tips about creating an efficient and effective remote team of your own.

What is a distributed team?

A distributed team is known by a lot of names, including virtual team, remote team, and distributed workforce. But what exactly is it? 

A distributed team is a departure from the traditional business model. In distributed teams, instead of employees commuting to the same building and working from a shared space each day, employees work from different locations. 

A team could be distributed across a country, a continent, or the globe. For example, distributed teams may have members who live in San Francisco, Milan, Bangkok, Buenos Aires, and Cairo.

Despite even being in different cities, a group of remote workers can still work together toward a common set of objectives and still be considered one team. They may never meet each other in person, or they may get together a few times a year for workshops, retreats, and team-building activities.

Why are teams distributed?

The idea of remote teams isn’t new. In the last 30 years since the widespread use of the Internet, many businesses have adopted a “location independent” mindset. Instead of requiring employees to gather at a central office, more and more businesses have opted for a remote team set up.

These innovative businesses created examples of how remote teams can work.

But the idea of a fully distributed team didn’t become mainstream until 2020. In response to the global pandemic caused by COVID-19, most businesses had to make a choice: Either close down or switch to a distributed team model.

Fortunately, major advances in technology allowed many businesses to easily shift to a remote team model. Instead of requiring employees to meet in a centralized office space, a lot of businesses gave their employees the option of working remotely.

In these setups, the team may have been in the same city but were not in the same physical location. The quarantine, lockdown, or shelter-in-place mandates implemented in many areas across the world made this necessary.

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Advantages of distributed teams

After these mandates eased, some businesses decided to stay with a distributed workforce because they enjoyed the benefits. There are many advantages to setting up a distributed team, including:

  • Flexibility – Team members aren’t forced to work in one location day in and day out. Instead, team members are able to take their work with them anywhere. This is a huge benefit for many employees. Over 75% of millennials surveyed said that they’d be willing to take a pay cut in order to work from home.
  • Cost-saving – When you’ve developed a distributed team, there’s no need to maintain a physical office. This cuts down on your overhead costs. You won’t need to pay for a lease, utility bills, maintenance staff, etc.
  • Wider talent pool – If you’re not bound to a specific location, you can hire team members based on talent instead of proximity to your office. This expands the talent pool beyond the borders of your city allowing you to hire the very best talent.
  • Greater work-life balance – At first glance, it doesn’t seem like working from home would help an employee achieve a better work-life balance, but studies have shown that remote workers tend to be more productive during the day, more self-motivated, and know when to “clock out” from the job. 

While not the right model for every business, many organizations and team members will benefit from a distributed model. Many businesses have already benefited from the distributed work model because of the pandemic and most will stay either fully remote or remote friendly. According to this Gartner survey, 80% of company leaders plan on allowing employees to work remotely at least part of the time post pandemic.

How do distributed teams work?

Distributed teams work pretty similarly to regular teams. Consider the typical office environment. Most people spend some of their time working independently, and the rest of their time collaborating with others. Each team member has their own desk, as well shared space in which to meet with others.

Distributed teams are no different. While there is no actual face-to-face time, an array of tools allow for the same level of collaboration. Naturally, this includes virtual face-to-face meetings when necessary, along with many other communication platforms. You can empower employees with flexibility, while tethering them to a distinct and well planned set of initiatives, goals, and schedules.

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Tips for successful distributed teams

How do you create a distributed team? And then, once created, what do you need to know about managing distributed teams to ensure distributed team success?

Let’s take a closer look at how remote teams work, and the best practices you should follow when managing your remote team.

Set clear expectations

To be successful, every member of your remote team needs to have a clearly defined role. Ensure that each team member knows their own job, along with the responsibilities of every other member on the team.

Set office hours

Your team may be distributed across multiple time zones, but you should have a standard time-zone and recognized office hours.

Ideally, choose the time zone that matches where the majority of your customers live. Staff accordingly. This way, the majority of your team members are always available to customers. 

Setting office hours is also helpful for your remote workers. This gives them a chance to establish a work life balance. They’ll know when to be “available” and when to interact with the rest of the team. In some cases, implementing office hours across multiple time zones allows your business to offer longer sales and support hours. PhoneBurner’s support team does this effectively and is open 12 hours a day, M-F, 8am-8pm ET.

Focus on results and not hours

Not every business needs to set standard office hours, especially if you’re open around the clock to serve your customers. 

If you do have standard office hours, remember that flexibility is an important feature of remote work. Instead of demanding hours, focus on meeting key objectives. Assign each team member a daily or weekly call quota. Set project deadlines and allow workers flexibility so long as deadlines are met. This way, instead of just running out the clock, remote team members are more motivated to be productive during the day.

That said, some positions will undoubtedly require set hours so that staff is available to customers, leads, suppliers, etc. throughout the work day.

Decide how you’ll communicate with each other

In a distributed team, communication is an essential component to your success. Establish your preferred communication channels for the team, which is likely to be a combination of the following:

  • Email – Set email communication rules for your team, including when you expect team members to respond to emails.
  • Chat – Use a service like Slack to contain all of your asynchronous messaging. Create channels that bring teams, topics, and interests together. Be sure to create a “random” or “miscellaneous” channel to facilitate water-cooler conversations with your team.
  • Video conferencing – Choose a preferred teleconferencing tool, like Zoom, and ensure that team members know how to efficiently use this tool for video meetings.
  • Phone – Decide when you’ll escalate team communication to the phone and what hours are acceptable for phone calls among your distributed team.
  • Docs – Consider using collaborative tools like Google docs. This allows distributed team members to both independently, yet collaboratively work on, comment on, or refer to documents.
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Plan regular but structured meetings

Meetings allow you to share information with your team quickly and effectively. That’s one of many reasons to host regular meetings with your distributed team. Meetings can also break up the monotony of the day, and encourage engagement and camaraderie. and engage with each other. It’s a social activity that can add variety to your day.

Naturally, they ensure that everyone on the team is aligned and clear on tasks, projects, and priorities.

When meeting with your remote employees, remember the following:

  • Have a specific set of talking points in mind for every meeting.
  • Respect your team members’ time by keeping the meeting as short as possible.
  • Use video in your meetings as an added layer of engagement and to ensure all team members are paying attention.
  • Schedule your meeting at a time when it won’t conflict with important team member tasks. Having a shared calendar such as Google Calendar adds visibility to team members’ schedules. thereby reducing conflicts.

Hire the right people

Not every candidate will do well in a distributed team business model. Working remotely requires self-discipline and the ability to motivate oneself to succeed. When hiring for your distributed team, be sure that the candidate has an aptitude for working independently. Looking at a candidate’s previous work history and their previous roles can provide a good sense of the candidate’s ability to work without direct supervision.

Final Thoughts

These days, a business is no longer limited to having employees in the same place when it comes to human resources. Technology has made it possible to curate a team of talented workers from around the world. Use the above tips to create and successfully manage a fully distributed team.

Have a distributed sales team? See what makes PhoneBurner such a powerful remote sales tool.