What is a Distributed Workforce?
A distributed workforce is said to exist when a business utilizes employees who work in multiple locations, including their homes and satellite offices. Traditionally referred to as telecommuting, today’s distributed workforces have rapidly evolved to more collaborative environments, in part driven by the CoVid-19 pandemic and powered by a new generation of distributed workforce tools such as Zoom. A co-located workforce is the opposite of a distributed workforce.
Distributed workforce companies can employ workers in traditional offices, mobile salespeople and executives, those who work in a shared workspace such as Regus or We Work. What they all have in common is a group of software and connectivity tools that enable them to work on shared projects, virtually hold ad-hoc meetings, schedule conference calls, and seamlessly share documents and folders necessary for the completion of their job functions.
Some of the many communications and collaboration tools utilized by distributed workforces are:
- Teleconferencing tools such as Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, and WebEx
- Chat rooms – either integrated in current tools or stand-alone chats such as FaceTime
- Cloud-based file sharing such as Dropbox
- Whiteboard and screen sharing software
- Traditional telephony
The current environment has forced even small businesses to adopt a distributed workforce, despite the traditional co-location associated with small businesses. This has caused many organizations to adopt remote workplace solutions for the first time and has driven skyrocketing demand for collaboration platforms and other distributed workforce tools.
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How do you manage a Distributed Workforce?
Distributed Workforce management presents new challenges. Keeping employees focused on business tasks and maintaining productivity is critical to a business’ continued success.
Key to management is communications and collaboration. Due to the loss of in-person interaction, every distributed team requires a solid set of digital meeting tools to keep employees connected and engaged so they continue to feel they play an important role in the organization. Whether on a Zoom call, via a Slack channel, or by sharing Google documents, that collaboration and communication is the lifeblood of any distributed workforce.
Just as important is ensuring employees are engaged, and motivated to perform their jobs. Working alone from home can have a psychological impact on employees, and so HR and management must strive to engage with every employee and encourage them to engage with each other via departmental chats, newsletters, and even contests, for example fundraisers for local food banks or virtual fun runs.
You can’t manage what you can’t see, and so monitoring of employee productivity brings additional challenges. There are many tools available to monitor employee engagement, monitor what is on their screens, and otherwise ensure that work is actually being performed according to plans. Here are some tips for improving remote management.
- Provide the right tools for employee success
- Communicate any changes in responsibilities due to working remotely
- Set deadlines and get regular updates on tasks and don’t micromanage
- Set ground rules for when and how to interact via phone, chat, videoconference, text, etc.
- Manage! Actually communicate with employees daily
- Keep calendars up to date – let employees know when you are available to chat or meet
- Create trust. Build relationships with each employee through 1-on-1 meetings
- Honesty and transparency build trust
- Recognize and reward individuals and teams as if they worked in the same location to maintain company culture
- Provide training and education opportunities that can lead to job growth
Benefits of a Distributed Workforce
Distributed workforce companies offer benefits to employees, and also benefit the organization in the following ways:
- Reduced office space requirements which can save on real estate costs and enable seamless scaling as employees are added since there is no scramble to find space for them
- Higher productivity. Research shows that employees working from home put in more hours than co-located employees.
- Expanded hiring geographies. If every employee is working from home, home can be anywhere. Recruiters can seek talent across a vastly expanded geographic area to find the right talent
Employee benefits include
- Flexible hours enable a better work/life balance, such as preparing meals for the kids or picking them up at school
- Eliminate commute time saving hours per week, reduce wear and tear on vehicles, and save commute dollars
- Increased personal productivity as motivated employees gets more work done faster. Over half of employees in a recent study also said they would be happy to work overtime while working in a distributed fashion.
Business Challenges of a Distributed Workforce
Cybersecurity presents a huge risk to distributed workforces. Employees who were once working in a trusted network environment on company-issued computers and smartphones now work from virtually any location, at best utilizing office equipment on a home network equipped with VPN, and at worst on an employee-owned smartphone or tablet from an insecure Wi-Fi connection at the local coffee shop. Additionally, lost or stolen devices may contain login information that enables access to corporate resources. Companies should adopt a mobile device management plan.
The inability to meet face-to-face can have a negative impact on performance and morale. Most employees enjoy the company of their peers, whether working together in a conference room or enjoying a Friday afternoon event to wind down a successful week. Also, many employees and managers connect better face-to-face and miss those regular in-person interactions. Connectivity is key to overcome these challenges, as are the right tools for both peer interactions and manager-employee discussions.
Since business, governance, and regulatory issues change frequently, plan for compliance training on a regular basis. Besides normal HR-related training, include best practices for cybersecurity, government mandates like PCI, HIPAA, GDPR, etc. utilizing a combination of microlearning and traditional training sessions to meet the needs of different constituents.
Management is always a challenge, and a distributed workforce may lend itself to micromanagement of employee projects. However, granting employees autonomy and rewarding them for meeting deadlines without checking in every hour on the hour will raise confidence of both employee and manager. Give employees room to work and grow while still managing them.
Difference between Distributed Workforce and “Working from Home"
A distributed workforce includes multiple employees working in different locations, which could be remote offices, headquarters facilities, home offices, or in the field. It does not preclude on-site teams, rather indicates that workers are in multiple locations as opposed to under a single roof.
Work-at-home implies just that; an employee whose principal place of work is a home office. A work-at-home employee could be part of a co-located team that typically works in a single facility, or they could be part of a geographically distributed workforce.
Working from home typically refers to an individual, while working as a distributed workforce is a business-wide strategy that encompasses many – or all – employees.
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