A distributed workforce is comprised of remote workers who are “distributed” across locations outside a traditional, centralized workplace. There is a great deal of variation in the makeup of a distributed team. They may work remotely, on a permanent basis, or only occasionally. They may live near their central offices and still come in for meetings, or there may be many miles and time zones between them. But what distributed workforces all share is the need to be connected in real time – to each other and to all the corporate resources and tools that are available to on-premise workers.

If distributed teams are made up of remote workers, then what sets a distributed company apart from a company that simply has remote teams or workers? The answer lies in its degree of commitment to achieving workplace transformation – both digitally and managerially. 2020 brought with it many changes to the traditional world of work. Truly distributed companies are responding to that challenge by leveraging modern workplace technologies and developing more resilient and agile business and HR processes.

What distributed workforces all share is the need to be connected in real time – to each other and to all the corporate resources and tools that are available to on-premise workers. 

Remote teams and the changing world of work

Many companies that were planning to gradually modernize their workforce structures were still using outdated systems and processes when COVID-19 hit – at which time, they were jolted into the 2020s as they rushed to transform their workplaces and HR operations.

Gartner conducted a survey of over 200 senior HR leaders before and after the pandemic to determine its impact on their workforces. They reported that before the pandemic an average of 30% of their employees worked remotely at least some of the time. By April of 2020, that number had risen to 81%. 

Traditionally, it was employees who were driving trends toward distributed teams, with many companies being hesitant to embrace remote work. After several months of remote teams adapting and learning to work in this new way, it has become clear that even when things get back to normal, we can expect this recent shift toward distributed workforces to remain. At the beginning of June 2020, PricewaterhouseCoopers conducted an extensive remote work survey. The subsequent report shows “that a permanent flexible workweek… has broad support.” It states that 85% of office workers want to work remotely at least one day a week, and that 55% of senior executives anticipate that this will be the case, even if COVID-19 is no longer a concern.    

Team on video call working remotely

Benefits of a remote workforce

Long before COVID-19 was upon us, globalization and improvements in workplace technologies had begun to drive a steady rise in remote workforce numbers. According to Tech Republic, the number of remote workers rose by 159% between 2005 and 2017 and has been growing exponentially ever since. 

Nonetheless, some companies remained skeptical and were reluctant to expand their distributed workforce beyond the physical office. They felt that without traditional workplace structures and the one-to-one supervision of a central workplace, employees would slide into inefficiency. There was also concern that HR teams lacked the systems needed to fully deliver support, such as training, wellness, and performance assessments to off-site workers. In a 2020 Gartner survey, HR leaders reported that their “biggest challenge stems from the lack of technology infrastructure and lack of comfort with new ways of working.” 

With the arrival of the pandemic, there was no longer any time to debate the benefits or timing of workforce distribution – it was upon us whether we were in favor of it or not. For years, studies and reports had existed that demonstrated the benefits of “work anywhere” flexibility – to both employers and employees alike. But after a few months of the nation working from home, a whole new set of robust remote work statistics began rolling in. And what that data told us was very much a reiteration of what it had been saying all along: when employees are given flexibility and independence, they rise to the challenge. McKinsey, in a mid-2020 survey, reports up to a 55% rise in employee experience factors, including achieving goals, recognition for work, engagement and relationship with their company, and job satisfaction.  

When employees are given flexibility and independence, they rise to the challenge.

Some of the benefits of remote teams include:  

Woman working remotely

Distributed teams: How do they work?

Of course, there will always be certain hands-on jobs where remote work is simply not possible. However, modern technology is rapidly expanding the range of roles that can be handled by a distributed workforce. For these remote teams to thrive, they must be able to collaborate, communicate, and engage with each other – and all the operational systems within their business – at least as effectively as they could in a centralized physical workspace. Accomplishing this requires a balance of modern workplace technologies and resilient, effective management.

What to expect in the next 12 months

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, familiar workforce challenges have taken on unprecedented complexity and urgency.

Distributed teams rely upon business systems and software solutions that are powerful and agile. Artificial intelligence (AI) brings the capacity for distributed teams to not only access data and connected systems, but to use that information in real time and in decisive ways. Other AI-powered technologies, such as sensors and chatbots, can help team leaders and HR specialists stay connected to remote employees via the cloud. Tasks like training, performance assessments, and wellness checks can be personalized and seamlessly managed across the distributed workforce.  

Without question, remote workers need powerful technology and strong business systems to do their jobs. But more than anything, their success depends upon responsive and resilient management strategies.

Strategies for managing a distributed workforce:   

The future of remote work and distributed workforces

In a time of global uncertainty, businesses are looking ahead and embracing solutions that will make their teams and companies more resilient and competitive. The pandemic has taken businesses much farther down the road of workplace transformation than they might have otherwise come. Through the use of modern digital technologies and strategic workforce planning, distributed companies are preparing for the workplace of the future.  

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