4 Benefits And Challenges Of Managing Decentralized, Distributed Teams
Recently, I was on a call with the leadership team of a tech company, and they told me, “We need people here at 9 a.m. and need to see that everyone puts in an 8-hour work day.”
Many people understand this line of thinking because, in a traditional company, it’s typical to use time as the most important metric for gauging productivity and success. Even freelancers are often paid an hourly rate, rather than by project.
But for others, myself included, time is not actually a great measure of productivity.
I’ve worked with a fully-distributed team of about 1,000 people and have also spent time on traditional tech teams, so I’ve had an opportunity to see how both operate.
The value of being co-located is vastly outweighed by the benefits of having the right people working productively — wherever they are in the world.
For those who think distributed work is impossible with a large team or when thinking long-term, just look at Basecamp or InVision. Basecamp was distributed from day one, which was two decades ago. And although they have an office in Chicago now, they still allow their employees the flexibility of remote work. InVision is a completely distributed team of 800, and they’ve still managed to hit unicorn status with a $1.9 billion valuation and see $100 million in annual recurring revenue.
Something is clearly working there.
Managing a distributed team certainly can be done. If you’re thinking about starting a company of your own, it’s worthwhile to consider both the pros and the cons of a dispersed team.
Benefits Of A Distributed Team
1. Access to global talent
San Francisco is a talent war zone.
Every company is competing with everyone else for talented employees, and constant poaching is simply an act of survival. It’s genuinely difficult to say whether there are more engineers or recruiters running around the Bay area. As a company, a large portion of your time is spent trying to keep your team together, which is a huge distraction.
On the other hand, a distributed team allows you access to a global talent pool, not only the people within a 20-mile radius. It also means you don’t have to worry about the startup next door that just closed their Series B round with a chef on site for lunch and a puppy petting zoo.
Keep in mind, not everyone wants to move to a tech hub.
Talented people aren’t universally drawn to paying on average $3,000 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. They may want to stay right where they are, which means the only way you can access that talent is through a distributed team.
2. Happier teams
Do you know what’s much better than any office perk?
Making a solid salary while living somewhere affordable.
Traveling the world without burning PTO.
Working where you feel most inspired, and taking care of yourself.
The autonomy of working on a remote team is simply unrivaled. People are happier because they can get their work done without anyone peeking over their shoulder. They can work when they’re energized and recuperate when they’re not. They can listen to their natural rhythms and accomplish more in shorter amounts of time than they would at the office.
That’s the recipe for a happy team.
3. Increased loyalty and lower turnover
Some may say that not seeing your co-workers every day will lead to a lack of loyalty. They couldn’t be further from the truth.
Researchers at the University of Manchester found that “employees who have been allowed to work flexibly tend to demonstrate greater commitment and a willingness to ‘give back’ to the organisation.”
When people feel comfortable and taken care of, they’re going to want to maintain that situation for as long as possible.
Distributed teams are often much more sustainable for both the business and the employees because of the benefits they provide to talented individuals. Being able to work remotely isn’t something people will quickly give up in place of a slight salary bump or personal laundry services.
By allowing your team more freedom, you’re building greater loyalty.
4. Less overhead and fewer costs
Any business owner can tell you that overhead costs eat up more of their budget than they’d like. Obviously, a distributed team doesn’t require an office or any of the little expenses that come along with renting and maintaining a working environment.
Fewer overhead costs mean more money available to spend keeping your team happy. There’s simply more in the budget for benefits, pay, leave policies and perks like gym memberships or co-working spaces.
Challenges Of A Distributed Team
As with any new concept, there are challenges involved in making a distributed team work smoothly. They aren’t impossible to overcome, but it’s best to be aware of them.
1. Adjusting to different process management
Part of the reason people are so afraid to use distributed teams is that they’ve learned productivity methodologies that work much better in person. Agile, Waterfall, Kanban and other techniques aren’t built for remote workers in different time zones.
For a multi-national distributed team, a meeting being held at 10 a.m. in San Francisco could require engineers in Ukraine to be up until 11 p.m. The difference between time zones is undeniably an issue.
It’s possible to mitigate that difficulty with the right processes and tools, however. Having flexible working styles means you’re going to have to try something new, develop a novel process or use an unfamiliar management system — and for many, that risk isn’t worth taking.
2. Building trust
Obviously, you’re not going to be able to poke your head into someone’s office every half hour to make sure they’re getting their work done.
You have to take it on faith that they’re doing what they need to.
To trust people to work without supervision, every single hire needs to be the best hire.
You have to be certain this person is a self-starter, that they’re their own entrepreneur and can manage themselves effectively. It’s a different style, and not everyone is able to work that way.
3. A willingness to try new processes
Leadership today is largely made up of a generation of MBAs who have traditional, hierarchical organization models etched into their brains.
When working with a distributed team, you have to rid yourself of the mindset that everyone has to be “present” from nine to five. You have to be ready to work without a perfectly distinguished hierarchy.
That means ensuring everyone feels comfortable working remotely from the get-go. Everyone, in every time zone, has to be treated equally.
Equality means setting clear boundaries for both employees and yourself.
Yes, people can work whenever they want, but they can’t be expected to be on call at all hours just because they work from home. When that happens, people lose control over their schedules and the benefits of remote work are essentially negated.
4. Making sure everyone checks their egos
I read somewhere that when managers are adamantly opposed to distributed to teams, they’re essentially protecting their egos. They want to have control over their underlings, and they feel a loss of power when they can’t actually see them and physically check on them.
In a decentralized organization, people don’t get the rush of ordering others around — but the lack of hierarchy does speed up innovation. In fact, it creates a more equitable, collaborative environment for people to test ideas and think independently.
Some leaders argue that a company needs to be co-located because of the pace of innovation. A team needs to be able to sit down and talk to each other. But realistically, the biggest innovations are occurring in the blockchain and crypto spaces, and those communities are leading the way in working together from all over the globe.
Yes, you may have to take a step back, check your ego and worry less about hierarchy. But the end result will be a much happier and more productive team that will actually stick with you through thick and thin.
Thanks for reading!