Distributed workforce strategy

January 9, 2024

This article was originally published on Employbridge.com.

Strategic ideas to manage a distributed workforce

In the years-long debate over return-to-office mandates versus remote work, a key idea is taking center stage — the distributed workforce. Distributed workforce strategies maximize talent reach and flexibility, but require defined management and collaboration protocols. Read on as we discuss why interest in distributed workforces is growing, offer strategic management tips, and review the benefits of implementing this approach.

Coworkers walking talking about distributed workforce strategy.

What is a distributed workforce?

A distributed workforce exists when a company employs talent who work in multiple locations; in other words, employees aren’t confined to a physical working environment. These workers, whether in a home office or in remote setups, rely on technology for optimal performance.

This working arrangement has gained momentum as a result of:

  • The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Improvement and availability of tools such as Zoom, Slack, and Google Meet.
  • Employee demand for greater flexibility.

Research reveals a significant shift in how and where people work: pre-pandemic, only 30% of organizations had distributed workforces, while post-pandemic, an estimated 48% have embraced this model, with more expected to follow.

The difference between a remote and distributed workforce

Keep in mind that while remote work focuses on individual workers’ locations relative to a central workplace, a distributed team is not bound to the same constraints, allowing performance from any environment. In recent years, remote work has surged significantly.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 27% of the nation’s workforce worked remotely at least part of the time in 2022. However, several academic surveys indicate that the actual number might be closer to a staggering 50%. Companies of all sizes are shifting toward distributed workforces to cater to employee preferences, encompass diverse time zones and cultures, and establish local operational footholds.

5 keys to success for a distributed workforce strategy

Here are five things companies must do to ensure success with a distributed workforce strategy.

1. Hire the right people

Pursue individuals who excel in self-management, communication, and adaptability and have a track record of successful remote work or strong self-discipline. Organizations should prioritize assessing communication skills and the ability to collaborate virtually throughout the interview process, while providing clear job descriptions and expectations to attract and retain workers.

2. Establish clear expectations and communication protocols 

Define preferred communication channels, response times, and expectations for employees working remotely. Distributed workforce strategies generally incorporate diverse communication tools — such as Slack or Google Workspace — that are suited for different needs and time zones. By outlining project goals, deadlines, and roles within your team, you can foster transparency. This is key to minimizing misunderstandings and optimizing collaboration.

3. Invest in robust remote collaboration platforms

For seamless teamwork, invest in comprehensive remote collaboration platforms and technology that support your distributed workforce. Choose platforms that offer chat, video conferencing, and file-sharing capabilities and emphasize each solution’s potential for empowering your team. Encourage the consistent use of these platforms for meetings, document sharing, and project updates to ensure every team member feels comfortable using them daily.

4. Develop flexible work policies and a culture of trust

A distributed workforce inherently requires more flexible work policies than traditional environments. To develop more agile systems and cultivate trust:

  • Set clear expectations and deadlines to encourage employee autonomy.
  • Focus on results rather than hours worked.
  • Accommodate employees’ personal needs while meeting team goals.
  • Regularly communicate policy updates and encourage open discussions.

5. Implement performance tracking and feedback

To accurately track the performance of distributed talent and set measurable goals, use OKR (objectives and key results) tools and assess progress transparently. Organizations might also employ performance management software to monitor individual and team achievements and provide timely feedback on milestones or areas of improvement. Regular one-on-one meetings or performance reviews also can be effective to address unique challenges and recognize accomplishments.

Mitigating potential distributed workforce challenges

Distributed workforce setups also present challenges. Here are several common ones and strategies you can use to overcome them.

  • Lack of team cohesion: It can be hard to establish strong connections among geographically dispersed employees, which can negatively affect information sharing, innovation, and collective problem-solving. To unify your distributed workforce, encourage regular virtual team-building activities, foster open communication channels, and establish common goals.
  • Distracting environments for remote talent: The most recent research suggests that 66% of distance workers are distracted while working from home, leading to decreased productivity or delayed task completion. Minimize potential interruptions by offering guidance on conducive remote setups, promoting time management strategies, and encouraging clear boundaries for a work-life balance.
  • Performance monitoring difficulties: Distance and a range of work hours across time zones can make it challenging to monitor your talent’s day-to-day performance. Take care to establish performance metrics, introduce regular check-ins, and use performance management tools to track goals and provide helpful feedback.
  • Technological hurdles: Technical issues, from connectivity problems to software compatibility, are bound to arise with remote teams. To ensure seamless collaboration and mitigate disruption, invest in reliable and compatible tools, offer tech support, and conduct regular employee training.

Key benefits of an effective distributed workforce

A distributed workforce brings diverse benefits, including:

  • Access to a diverse and global talent pool.
  • Flexibility in schedules and locations, which can foster better work-life balance.
  • Reduced overhead costs and increased productivity.
  • Diverse perspectives that spur innovation and creative problem-solving.
  • Improved resilience and adaptability, which are crucial for maintaining a competitive edge.