People Ops

Remote vs Distributed Workforce – An Overview

Remote vs Distributed Workforce – An Overview

As technology grows, so does our ability to stay connected without the need for immediate proximity.

This can have a significant impact on the workplace. Building a remote workforce can offer considerable benefits to any company. So, what exactly is a remote business model? How does it function? And what similarities does it hold to a distributed workforce? I tried to summarize my learnings and findings based on both experience and research, so let’s take a closer look to see how it all fits together.

Are terms Remote and Distributed interchangeable?

When talking about a company’s workforce model, the terms remote and distributed are sometimes thought of as interchangeable. Both use a model that foregoes a main company headquarters, though distributed can sometimes refer to more of a hybrid model. In both remote and distributed models, the workforce operates outside of a main hub in a more independently structured manner.

The main difference between these two systems is that a distributed model functions by replacing a head office with multiple workspaces distributed across one or more countries, or by including and integrating a remote workforce. Whereas an all-remote company means that there is no company workspace and all work is done remotely from home spaces or anywhere the employees choose to work from.

Going remote can offer a company many benefits while also presenting some challenges. It is important to understand what remote work means and offers, and to compare that system with your company’s needs and goals.

What can remote offer?

Remote work offers a certain independence in terms of structure, but that does not mean working independently. Remote work is about offering freedom and choice, but maintaining community.

Human interaction, communication, and transparency are the backbone of a remote system’s success. As the "Slack generation", we’re lucky to have access to technology that allows for seamless aggregation of business communication. Being able to share files and communicate everything in one place, bridges the virtual gap and allows us to build relationships that maintain a personal feel while still providing accountability. These advancements are what allow for transparency within a remote workforce.

A remote workforce allows employees to work from anywhere that best suits their personal needs and life. That can mean working from home, while traveling, or any other scenario. The choice is in the employee’s hands, which allows for more freedom. Working in a remote company tends to emphasise the benefit of being able to structure your work around your life, rather than building your life around your work.

How can this structure benefit both the company and the employee? How does a remote company operate?

🏢 Company benefits:

  • It gives the company the ability to hire talent from all over the world, granting access to a greater employee pool.
  • It makes documenting progress and workflow easier as it is built in to how communication is managed.
  • Information, data, and procedure can be localized into one hub of information like a handbook. This allows for a common resource rather than a hierarchical chain of dissemination.
  • It facilitates the operation in multiple locations without inflating costs in infrastructure.
  • It promotes transparency and fosters trust.

👩‍💻 Talent benefits:

  • It provides employees with flexible work hours to fit around their lifestyles and allows them to work when they are most productive.
  • It is inherently structured to value the work accomplished, rather than the hours put in.
  • It saves time to commute and the stress of a possible relocation

How does remote fit, and is remote the right choice?

Remote work is not without its challenges. Finding the right fit can be difficult, and not every company can manage a remote workforce effectively. Nor will remote work be a good fit for every employee.

Depending on company goals, business structure, and employee lifestyles and abilities, a remote company may not always be the right choice. Some business models can allow work from anywhere. Some businesses, such as those built around manufacturing partnerships, may start out needing a closer proximity to different resources and facilities.

Here are some considerations regarding this company set up:

  • Transitioning from a traditional work environment can be a challenge. An employee may find that the first few months feel lonely and more isolating than they expected. Building relationships online can be difficult if the individual is used to a physical team environment. Furthermore, being brought onto a project can feel daunting due to the amount of self-teaching that may be necessary.

Note: There are helpful tools and techniques that can help facilitate this transition,  encourage engagement and make remote employees feel welcome. For example, public recognition can be a powerful method of encouragement. We listed some of the tools to help HR and People Ops teams set up for success. Some of these can be valuable to run a remote or distributed company.

  • Learning how to promote and value transparency and communication can be another challenge for a company that functions remotely. Leadership team needs to be conscious of the pitfalls and maintain a constant feeling of involvement and awareness. That’s why building a sense of purpose and connection in employees is vital to success.
  • Some people enjoy a dedicated workspace. It isn’t always easy to work from home. The environment in which someone sleeps and relaxes can be a hard place to work efficiently. However, finding the environment that works for each individual can be a process. Perhaps companies could offer co-working space resources for employees. If you don't have a WeWork around the corner, there are plenty of options around the globe.

Where do distributed models come in?

Distributed teams are a blend of onsite and remote workforces. Some companies have very dynamic needs and may want to augment a successful onsite system with remote teams. This can be very effective in a company transitioning to a fully remote setup. Some companies are operating effectively with an onsite workforce, but have situations in which a distributed team element can benefit. This could be something such as a valuable team member relocating and the company wanting to retain their abilities.

Implementation of a remote workforce structure

Completely remote workforces are gaining in popularity. In fact, there are start-ups who go all-remote right from inception. That being said, growth can often be the catalyst to push to a non localized workforce.

Hiring can be difficult. When dealing with a workforce from around the world, there are many regulations and challenges that can be unique to different countries. It’s important to invest the time in researching country regulations and labour/hiring laws to know what challenges you might face. Having clear policy outlines is one way to help mitigate some of these risks. In the end, the benefit of having the vast majority of the world to draw from will often far outweigh the challenges.

Transparency is the lynchpin of managing a remote workforce. To ensure success, it should be a top priority and guide every decision. It is important to note however, that how this transparency is executed and utilized is also paramount. Managerial training is key. Regular training and regular employee check-ins can be a crucial part of ensuring the system is working as designed. Understanding the unique challenges facing remote management is vital. Building a culture of communication, empathy, and concern for wellbeing is a crucial part of management.

Remote is not a trend and is here to stay

According to Buffer, 99% of the 2,500 remote workers questioned say they would like to continue working remotely, at least some of the time, for the rest of their careers. Additionally, remote workers also almost unanimously say they would recommend remote work to friends, family, and colleagues. Improvements and developments in communication technology has driven remote work from what used to be a relatively small sector to one that is quickly showing that it could eventually become the norm.

No longer do companies need to fly blind navigating the remote sector. Large companies such as Stripe, GitHub, and InVision have embraced remote work and can provide a strong framework for the benefits it provides and the challenges faced. Smaller enterprises such as Doist, Buffer, and Basecamp also have invaluable information about remote work. Doist has put out fantastic guides for remote work, and Basecamp literally wrote the book on remote. It’s definitely worth the read.

Technology has allowed for a level of boundary-less connectivity. This has opened many doors in the business sector. Remote workforces can enable access to resources that were previously unavailable, without relying on an on-site structure. Not only can this bring diversity and drive top talent to a company, but a remote workforce can intrinsically promote many positive qualities in overall work design and structure.

What's your experience with remote and distributed team compared to traditional models? Drop us a note on Twitter @HumaansHQ, we would love to know your thoughts 🤗

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