What Is a Distributed Workforce?
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.
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Many companies that were planning to gradually modernize their workforce structures were still using outdated systems and processes when COVID-19 hit – at which time, they were jolted into the 2020s as they rushed to transform their workplaces and HR operations.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.
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.
Some of the benefits of remote teams include:
- Increased productivity: Many recent reports and statistics demonstrate strong performance and efficiency outcomes from remote teams. Drawing from robust data sources, a 2020 article in Forbes magazine reports a 35% rise in productivity among remote workers.
- Improved wellness: In their annual survey, FlexJobs found that over 85% of respondents felt their well-being was improved by working from home and that they were able to take better care of themselves. Of those surveyed, over 50% also reported fewer sick days and less down time when working remotely.
- Reduced turnover: Unmanageable commutes as well as crowded, stressful working environments often result in high employee attrition rates, even among those who are otherwise satisfied with their jobs. As Forbes magazine pointed out in June 2020, companies with remote work flexibility enjoy a 25% reduction in turnover.
- Expanded access to talent: Remote work opens up opportunities for individuals with disabilities or mobility issues. It supports people who require more flexible working arrangements, such as parents with young children. It also widens the talent pool to include those who may not be able to live or relocate within a reasonable commute to the office.
- Decreased overhead: A recent report compiled and analyzed remote work statistics taken from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. The conclusion was that for each employee who works remotely – even just 50% of the time – companies save an average of US$11,000 per year on associated overhead and office space. Furthermore, the same report shows remote workers also saving up to $7,000 per year by working from home.
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.
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:
- Manage expectations. Many distributed workers are comfortable with collaborative technologies, yet others may need additional assistance. It’s important for managers and HR leaders to ensure that they are clearly communicating expectations and are offering easy access to support and technical training – whenever it’s needed.
- Be responsive. Managing distributed teams requires a dedicated approach to delivering feedback and mentorship. For example, instead of in-person, formal performance assessments, many successful remote team managers are scheduling weekly online check-ins. This more informal process can allow managers to stay on top of team members’ workloads without micromanaging.
- Foster trust and teamwork. Managers must find innovative ways to motivate remote employees and ensure that everyone is pitching in equally. Modern workplace technologies work by supporting collaboration, transparency, and accountability – not by making teams feel like they’re being checked up on.
- Prioritize employee wellness. Remote work presents a unique set of wellness challenges. To help the transition to a new way of working, distributed team managers and HR leaders can use connected workplace technologies to help develop wellness programs dedicated to the needs of remote workers.
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.