The Distributed Workforce: Benefits and Caveats

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Despite how much I loved to work from home, I’d always felt people working remotely on a regular basis had more problems than benefits. I’ve even defended Melissa Mayer for her move to take the Yahoo! workforce back into the office. (How differently I see that entire situation now—and that’s a separate article.)

So when I decided to sell the commercial property in which I had the FrogDog headquarters, and the easiest between-offices setup looked like a work-remote setup, I had deep concerns. Though I could shift to furnished office suites as a stopgap, I wanted to make a summer of working from home possible—provided it didn’t destroy the team or our workflow.

The web told me that “distributed workforce” is the current term for a corporate structure in which all employees work remotely. Companies with distributed workforces have no central office, though they do have employees, not just contractors (a la the “gig economy”).

However, when I searched the web for advice on doing a distributed workforce well, even if just a temporarily distributed workforce, I couldn’t find any. I found a lot of information for employees on how to work from home effectively and on how to convince their bosses to allow them to work from home—and little information advising employers on how to successfully structure a remote workforce.

As I believe in getting advice from people with experience before making blind forays, I reached out to other CEOs and senior executives for guidance. I spoke to approximately a dozen people in all types of companies, from telecoms through to health care, across the entire United States, from Seattle to Boston. I gathered all the advice I could get and created a structure and a staged process to nurture the FrogDog team into a new temporary world order.

How’d we do?

We did well. Really well. In fact, after several months of a fully distributed workforce, it went so well—and even, in some ways, so much better than before—that I decided to make the new workforce structure permanent.

After a year of operating a distributed workforce, during which I leveraged the advice I received from CEOs and executives and created some of my own best practices, I’ve noted the following caveats and benefits for employers considering a distributed workforce structure for their teams:

Caveat: Not All Employees Want a Distributed Workforce

An entire company or team that works remotely won’t fit every person’s ideal. However, do remember: No company or work situation ever fits every person’s ideal.

Even in office environments, the setup works for some and not for others, whether due to the corporate culture, décor, building, or on and on ad nauseam. (However, open office setups work for no one, as I learned from expensive experience.)

Therefore, if you transition your team to a distributed workforce, some of your employees will decide to find other work environments. This happens if you move to a new office in a new building, too. And even, sometimes, people decide to find other jobs if you just move to a new office in the same building. People don’t like change.

Further, even people game to shift into working remotely can wither in a distributed workforce. Social animals and extroverts will miss the interpersonal, in-person interaction office environments provide.

Employees who need consistent social interaction must develop workarounds if their teams shift to work-from-home or work-remote structures: They should find workday networking events to attend, schedule regular coffees and lunches during the week, and meet friends after work for drinks and dinner more often. Even occasional stints working in coffee shops around other people can make them feel less isolated. You may need to help them see these opportunities, so that they can thrive in your new corporate world order.

Caveat (or Benefit): Intentionality Required

When in an office, a lot of things happen by chance that won’t happen when you shift to a distributed workforce. You can’t count on briefing a coworker when you see her in the hallway. You can’t know what’s happening in your employees’ lives through osmosis. You need to plan times to catch up casually with each team member. You need to structure social interactions between the larger group.

Also, you need more organization than you had in an office.

In our distributed workforce structure, we can’t fall into lazy habits for project management, documentation management, and client service. To function effectively and efficiently, we can’t simply pop into a colleague’s office when we need something and figure that we’ll file the information or document the conversation later. Discussions toward decisions need to happen in scheduled meetings. And to ensure the entire team working on the project has the information it needs, the people in the meeting need to document the conversation and its determinations immediately in a universally accessible place.

If you believed you documented everything carefully and kept all important and pertinent information in places the entire team could access at any time in the past, you’ll find when you move to a no-office workforce that you need to button-up these practices even more to keep everything humming efficiently.

Personally, I see immense benefits to the intentionality that distributed workforce structures require. For one, moving to a distributed workforce structure has made our company processes, procedures, and relationships stronger. For two, I can’t take for granted that I will connect with everyone through proximity, so I need to purposefully interact with my team and each member on my team. The distributed workforce structure has made me a better manager and leader.

Caveat: Soft Skills Training Gets Harder for Distributed Employees

Typically, junior employees need considerable soft-skills training. You’ll find this type of training hard to provide when you don’t work alongside junior employees and they can’t simply overhear conversations and sit in on meetings.

You can overcome this challenge with the aforementioned intentionality, which means adding training processes and bolstering your support structure for junior people. However, these additions will increase operations time and costs.

Caveat: Distributed Workforces Work Better When You Go All-in

A hybrid team—on which some people work in an office on a full-time basis and others work from home on a full-time basis—has significantly more challenges than having all of one or all of the other. Ideally, you go all-in when it comes to whatever structure you set.

When part of the team works remotely full-time and another part works in the office full-time, everyone may understand intellectually the importance of the intentionality and organization needed to support the full team, yet the in-office team won’t experience the necessity of it in the same way that the external team will, which means the structure needed for remote-work success doesn’t happen without a lot of management nagging. Office-working employees still see some of their team most of the time, so they don’t remember to document conversations in the project management system, ask questions of the full group, and interact with everyone via the digital collaboration tools.

In hybrid teams, the old habits of “out of sight, out of mind”—so true in office environments when someone takes just one work-from-home day—linger. The remote team members get left out of the mix too often and too easily, and they suffer as a result.

Benefit: Eliminate Geography from Employment Considerations

When you don’t have an office, you can’t lose great employee prospects because of your office location, set-up, décor, or building.

You won’t miss out on employees with great skills based on whether they will move to your town to work for you, whether they will commute from their exurb to your urban office each day, whether they want the office bright or dark or loud or quiet, or whatever other parameter or peculiarity that geography and location bring.

Benefit: Employee Performance Clarity

When I mentioned my company’s work-structure shift at a dinner party, another executive in attendance asked how I knew that people were actually working.

With a distributed workforce, I know exactly which employees actually work. In fact, I have more clarity on who actually works and who doesn’t work than I did when we all shared an office.

Everyone knows people who show up in the office every day and even seem to get there early and work late. We figure they have a lot going on. We guess work stuff keeps them really busy. They clearly have a lot to do. Right?

Yet some of these same people don’t seem to produce very much, despite all their in-office time. Herein lies a mystery every manager has tried to puzzle through answering.

With people working remotely, the focus shifts from time in the office to work produced. What matters most? That the jobs get done and they get done well.

As a manager, you’ll gain clarity quickly on who excels at their job and gets work done, who struggles to succeed, and who needs to find a new role.

Benefit: Capital Freed for Higher Value Uses

You may find that a distributed workforce structure requires more investment in technology. (In our case, we had already moved everything into the cloud, including all our files, our phones, and our accounting systems, so we effectively gathered in an office simply to work in the same place.)

In addition, with everyone working remotely, companies with distributed workforces should increase their budgets for annual or twice-annual employee retreats. An all-company retreat will get everyone in the same place to think big picture and work in tandem—something they’ll miss.

However, other than these investments, a distributed workforce structure frees up capital for growth, marketing, and payroll that you would otherwise spend on rent and real estate.

Benefit: Attract Organized and Efficient Employees

Though working in a distributed set-up doesn’t fit everyone’s style, the people it does fit may exactly suit your company’s needs.

Personality traits that line up with valuing flex time include the classic “type A,” hyper-organized, hyper-detailed type and the highly self-motivated, self-directed type.

Weigh the Caveats and Benefits According to Your Criteria

How I weigh the benefits and caveats above may differ from how you weigh them; it all depends on your company, your culture, and your work. As with all things, what fits us best may not fit you.

Also, whether a distributed workforce makes sense for your company depends on your appetite for change, for adjusting operations, and for undertaking a big transition. Maybe you’ll weigh the benefits and caveats and decide you should revisit the distributed workforce structure later in your company’s life cycle—or maybe you’ll decide it will never fit your needs and preferences. As we established above, nothing works for everyone.

As of this writing, we’ve just reached the one-year mark. My experiences will evolve the longer we stay in this new structure.

So far, though? So good.

As I’ve had several people ask for guidance on how to set up a distributed workforce based on what I’ve learned—just as I reached out to ask others for advice—I’ve written a how-to article.