Businesses around the world are quickly adopting a new work paradigm. Driven by necessity, safety, and changing employee preferences, the future of work is redefined. During the first lockdown in 2020, more than 88% of organizations worldwide encouraged or required employees to work from home. By 2025, the U.S will see an 87 percent increase in remote work from pre-pandemic levels. That’s 1 in 4 Americans working remotely.
Welcome to the era of the distributed workforce, where geographical, technological, and cultural barriers disappear, and work-from-anywhere is the new norm.
What does a distributed workforce mean?
A distributed workforce is a team of employees who work remotely from each other, often from different geographical locations. Unlike centralized workplaces, a distributed workforce sees teams spread across places, working remotely from homes, coworking spaces, or even the beach. This arrangement is becoming increasingly common as technology allows people to communicate and collaborate online.
What is a distributed organization?
Distributed organizations are a management system where all employees work remotely from one or more locations. That doesn’t mean that all offices are far from each other; some or all may be in the same city. But for a company to be distributed, some employees must work in different locations from most of their colleagues.
The term decentralized organization is often used interchangeably with the term distributed organization. But there is a significant difference between the two. Decentralized organizations do not have a single point of control. The system allows every entity to operate as a separate unit. At the same time, a distributed organization refers to different locations connected to a central control point/main office. However, all employees are connected through communication nodes. A distributed system allows people to work independently, and because of that, efficiency and productivity can be improved drastically.
Benefits of a Distributed Workforce
Many companies realize that a distributed workforce is beneficial. Increasingly, companies are adopting a distributed workforce because it offers many benefits, such as reduced costs (since you don’t need as much office space or equipment) and increased productivity (since remote workers can work when they want, where they want). These are just a few of the benefits you can expect:
- Lower costs: Having remote employees reduces your office space needs and paper-heavy processes. This can save you money on rent, utility bills, and other overhead charges. Your employees can also work from home or in coffee shops, saving them time and money on commutes. It also means that you can afford to hire more people, leading to more significant potential for growth.
- Better recruitment: Because you can recruit employees from all over the world, you have a larger pool of candidates. This helps you attract, hire, and retain the best possible talent for your company, regardless of where they are located.
- Greater flexibility: The ability to work remotely offers employees and employers more flexibility. Those who work outside of regular office hours can easily balance their work life with their personal life. According to McKinsey’s American Opportunity Survey, 87 percent of people, when presented, would take up the opportunity to work remotely. The results indicate the need for more flexibility irrespective of industry, occupation, and role. The same applies to job seekers, with the flexible working arrangement being the top reason/motivation for seeking a new job.
- Increased productivity: Some studies have shown that telecommuting employees are more productive than those who work in the office. Global Workplace Analytics reported that 77 percent of workers said they are more effective when working from home.
Business Challenges of a Distributed Workforce
Managing a cohesive and effective workforce can be challenging with employees working remotely, in different time zones, and from other parts of the world. This includes a culture of hiring remote workers with the skills required to thrive in an innovative environment.
- Adopting a distributed workforce mindset
The distributed workforce is an entirely different way of operating. You will need to accept that your employees are not always in the office and that you might have to wait for their input. This is a mindset change for most managers, who are used to having everything under their control. A successful distributed workforce leader is ready to adopt work autonomy and focus on building a collaborative environment.
- Lack of face-to-face communication
There is a lot of research showing that face-to-face communication is the most effective form of communication. The distributed workforce can make it difficult for some employees to develop the interpersonal skills needed for effective communication. These include loss of cues from the tone and body language. In a remote setting, motivating and keeping employees engaged is an added challenge. While video calls have become the norm, constant video conferencing has led to what experts call ‘Zoom fatigue.’
- Slow communication across time zones
A diverse workforce is excellent for a company. However, what do you do when you need a file but have to wait for Dave to wake up in 8 hours? Asynchronous communication is a significant challenge in working in different time zones. Unlike traditional office spaces where one could walk up to teammates, remote teams struggle with real-time communication, collaboration, and team bonding.
How do you manage a distributed workforce?
Despite the emergence of distributed work and its dire need during the pandemic, managing a distributed workforce is not as simple as telling some employees to start working from home. From managing remote employees to keeping everyone on the same page, keeping a distributed workforce running smoothly takes a lot of effort.
However, it does not have to be so difficult. You can easily manage a distributed workforce with some planning and the right tools. According to Gartner, intelligent organizations can enhance their transformation by focusing on three key areas: adopting lean and agile practices, eliminating process bottlenecks, and building coordination and communication.
- Adopt the lean and agile mantra
And make it part of your culture and processes. Gartner defines Lean as “an approach to managing work that achieves greater effectiveness by eliminating waste, producing results faster, and improving productivity.” For an IT firm, agile and lean practices are ingrained in its processes. However, as other industries are digitally transforming, the lean and agile principles are yet to be fully understood across the workforce. Focus on developing distributed agile teams where the value stream is defined and mapped, DevOps processes are integrated at every step, and mainly data silos are broken down for autonomous working.
- Remove process bottlenecks
In a remote environment, the chief complaint affecting an employee is outdated processes or processes that haven’t been digitally transformed. Delays in processes can lead to loss of productivity, efficiency, and, in most cases, loss of motivation. Employees sitting idle is a waste of company resources and employees’ time. If your company is working with a distributed workforce, perform regular readiness assessments to identify bottlenecks early on. Automate mundane or repetitive processes when possible. Adopt intelligent or robotic process automation (RPA) to streamline operations and integrate people, devices, data, and systems.
- Build coordination and communication
When employees work remotely, the primary concern for employers is the speed of communication. More agile companies are shifting away from simple emails for internal communication to platform-based interior blogs, chat rooms, and message boards. These stimulate an in-office experience, except you wouldn’t be walking to somebody’s desk to get your files or queries answered. The digital communication channels are open for clear, easily searchable, and shareable communication. An essential aspect of the distributed workforce is managing work across time zones. Business leaders must understand the task, the time it takes to finish it, and how the project can be managed with asynchronous communication. If Dave is unavailable, can a local team help? Or can the teams’ access be changed so that one does not have to wait for data access? Here is a list of the top 10 practical communication tips for virtual teams for distributed workforce leaders.
- Integrate the right technology and tools
A distributed workforce’s core is tools and apps connecting people and processes. The pandemic saw an explosion in performance management apps to help manage remote teams. Remote working technology aims to equip your distributed workforce with the right tools to perform their tasks effectively. Digital tools mimic traditional collaboration and management processes and present a straightforward user interface. With the right tools, the distributed workforce can easily communicate, schedule, and share files. These applications also help streamline processes and help track employee performance. For instance, UpRaise for Employee Success app is built to simplify the performance management process between virtual teams, boosting employee success with dedicated Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). The app seamlessly integrates with Jira, reviews forms, provides customizable templates and integrates easily with your existing IT infrastructure.
While organizations are increasingly spending on the ‘right’ tools for their organizations, its practical use boils down to adopting good practices. The benefits of a distributed workforce are not fully realized until companies can implement their processes and policies for their employees. Many tools are available, but the lack of understanding and application dilutes the importance of good practices.
Although challenges must be addressed when managing a distributed workforce, the advantages of employees working from home or other remote locations outweigh the disadvantages. Any company can successfully manage a distributed workforce with the right policies and procedures. If you are considering switching to a distributed workforce, be sure to do your research and plan carefully to ensure a smooth transition.