The digital age has forever changed the way we work. Thanks to the internet, we can instantly find information and connect with people all over the world. For better or worse, we are able to check our email any time and any place thanks to our smartphones. As our connectivity has increased, so has the adoption of distributed teams. Thanks to a freedom from traditional time and space constraints, distributed teams can tap into the best talent and increase innovation. These teams are the future of the workplace.
Distributed teams are teams composed of people who work in different locations. These locations can include home offices, coworking spaces, public spaces, dedicated offices, or a mixture of those different spaces. Dedicated teams are becoming more and more common as the internet connects us in ways we never thought possible. For example, at Alley, Taskrabbit’s marketing team, Anhauser-Busch Inbev’s marketing team, Verizon’s 5G Labs, and HTC’s Vive AR/VR product line team are just a few of the well-known companies that make use of distributed teams. They, along with many other organizations, have recognized that a non-centralized workforce has certain advantages.
Having a distributed team means that you are not bound by geography when you make hiring decisions. This allows you to source the best talent from all over the country (and even the world) without having to offer a hefty relocation stipend. These teams also ensure quality work by allowing employees to be in a place where they can be most productive or that makes sense for them. For example, your new recruit may not have a car and love working in his pjs, so working from home makes sense. Another worker may crave the background noise of a public space and do her best work there. They are certainly going to be able to get more done by working in these nontraditional settings. Having a remote workforce can also mean better employee retention.
If you are in the same office as someone and need them, you can walk up to their desk and talk to them. It’s not so easy to do that when working in a distributed team. Communication can sometimes be a serious hurdle for teams, especially as they are just starting out. In addition, there is the potential for serious consequences when meeting and deadline time zones are not made clear. In general, however, the biggest concern with distributed teams is a lack of company culture. While this should always be built intentionally, it takes more creativity when your team does not all meet together in the same place every day.
When building your team, do not limit yourself with geography! Expand your search nationwide, and perhaps even worldwide. If this (rightly) seems daunting, know that you don’t have to do it alone. Outsourcing help in the hiring process can save you time and hassle. If you are part of a coworking space, this service may even already be included with your membership. For example, Alley offers recruiting services to members so that they don’t have to waste their time scanning hundreds of resumes and doing initial phone screenings.
Next, talk to your current team. Do they like working in your current location? Is it possible that a different arrangement may work better? Even if they like working in the same place, let them know that you are thinking of adding team members from different locations so that they can get used to the idea and see the logic behind it.
In general, always set clear expectations. Before you officially launch your team, decide what methods you will use for communication under which circumstances. When will you use email? What messenger will you use to quickly communicate for non-emergencies? What video chat platform will you use? Will you have set work hours? Answer these questions ahead of time so that you and your new hires will have realistic expectations.
Finally, take some time to talk to people who currently manage distributed teams. How did they find their team members? What technologies work for them? Even if the idea of a virtual workforce seems novel, you are not the first person to build and manage such a team. Use other people’s experiences to your advantage.
This is the million-dollar question. While the practicality of a distributed team has the potential to increase retention, a weak company culture will leave you with unhappy, unmotivated members. Company culture should always be done intentionally, but this is even more important when you are separated by geography. Here are a few good ideas to get you started.
Your team can only work towards them if they know what they are. Make sure your company’s mission and goals are clearly defined, and refer to them regularly.
You should aim to meet at least once per week your team over video chat to talk about your current projects. As a manager, you should also meet with team members individually on a regular basis to see what their needs are. These practical meetings are incredibly important to make sure that your team is on the same page. Video chat and messenger should not, however, be only for formal meetings. Give your team opportunities to get to know each other too. Encourage them to check in with each other outside of the weekly meetings. You can also use onboarding time to make sure that new team members have the opportunity to interact with all of the existing members.
Your “fun” days at work may look different when everyone is in a different place, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist. For example, you can still have an ugly sweater contest around the holidays and have everyone vote through messenger. You can (and should) also still cater food from time to time. It may seem a little less exciting to reimburse people instead of just ordering pizza for the office, but it still works. You can then eat lunch together over video chat. Bonus points if you can coordinate a restaurant or type of food to give it some cohesiveness.
Another culture building idea is to have ongoing games like polls or a speed trivia question of the day on messenger. Even simple memes or gifs saying “Happy Monday” can work if that is your style and fits into the culture you want to build. These small things don’t have to be expensive, and they can still create a team culture. While it is important to get things done, remember that work should not be drudgery!
Your team members are not going to be happy if they are expected to be “on” at all hours all the day. Set clear expectations for communications, deadlines, and availability. If you want your workers being on the clock from 9-5 Eastern Time, make sure they know that. If you want them to make meetings but don’t care about hours otherwise, let them know. Also make sure they know when you are available and when you are not.
Send your team members mugs or t-shirts with your company logo. Make sure they have an official company email. These small items make the company more real and present even if you are far away. Bonus: It’s free advertising.
Distributed teams are going to continue to become more common as technology brings us together and people realize the advantages of a virtual workforce. If you want to build a distributed team, make sure you prepare for obstacles you might face, particularly when it comes to building a company culture. You can do this by defining your mission, adapting company interactions such as catered lunches to distance, and setting boundaries. This intentionality will help with retention and allow you to take full advantage of working with the best talent regardless of geography.
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