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What is a Distributed Workforce and 7 Steps to Manage It

Learn the intricacies of a distributed workforce. Explore benefits & challenges of a distributed workforce & practical steps for managing effectively.


By ActivTrak

What is a Distributed Workforce and 7 Steps to Manage It

The concept of a distributed workforce has gained immense popularity over the past decade, thanks to advanced technology and changing workforce dynamics. The COVID-19 pandemic made distributed teams a reality for workplaces, showing how prepared organizations could hit the ground running when they needed to.

As more companies allow employees to work from anywhere in the world, competitive organizations must learn the intricacies of a distributed workforce. Explore the benefits and challenges of a distributed workforce and seven practical steps for managing one effectively. 

What is a distributed workforce?

A distributed workforce is a team of employees located in different geographic locations working together to achieve common organizational goals. Unlike a traditional office setting, where all employees are present in the same physical location (usually at the same time), a distributed workforce harnesses the power of technology to connect and collaborate virtually. 

The differences between distributed, remote and hybrid employees

People may casually refer to employees who don’t work on-site in an office together as distributed, remote or hybrid, but there are distinct differences between each work situation.

Hybrid employees split their time between a central office and a remote location, usually their home office. Remote workers may work from home but still report to a central office, although they may not do so in person. Many employers only allow remote work for certain individuals or have geographical constraints on where the employee can work, often to deal with compliance requirements such as with government employees.

In contrast, a distributed workforce refers to an organization’s commitment to having workers spread out, sometimes around the world. The organization may set up satellite offices for leadership or HR functions, but processes and policies will center around having workers report from multiple locations. 

Benefits of a distributed workforce

A distributed workforce offers many benefits to employers and employees alike. One of the main advantages of a distributed workforce is access to a global talent pool. As employees increasingly say they’d prefer to work remotely, employers who implement a distributed workforce plan become more competitive in the hiring market. By removing geographic constraints, companies can recruit the best talent from around the world, bringing in diverse perspectives and expertise. This enhances creativity and innovation while allowing organizations to tap into new markets more effectively.

Another benefit of distributed organizations is cost savings. Businesses save significantly on office space, utilities and other overhead needed to maintain a physical office presence. Offering remote work reduces employee turnover rates and increases job satisfaction, leading to higher productivity and ultimately boosting the organization’s bottom line. 

General benefits of a distributed workforce include:

  • Reduced office space costs
  • Increased employee engagement
  • No time wasted on employee commutes
  • Larger talent pool
  • More diverse candidates
  • Better employee mental health and wellness
  • Increased employee retention rates
  • More competitive recruiting
  • Greater organizational flexibility
  • Increased creativity across the organization

Challenges of a distributed workforce

Distributing your workforce poses challenges, from security to management and processes to company culture. Each workplace will face unique challenges based on its needs, but general issues include:

  • Effective communication: When employees don’t see each other face to face, it’s difficult to keep everyone in the loop, whether it’s a major company change or daily tasks.
  • Managing time zones: Many distributed workforces have employees in a variety of time zones, which makes it difficult to hold company-wide meetings or keep calendars straight.
  • Accountability: Clear reporting lines often fade in a remote setting if they’re not established properly. 
  • Ensuring productivity: When a manager doesn’t see direct reports on a daily basis, it’s difficult to ensure work is being done to the right standards and on time. 
  • Workplace culture: Employees who gather in person have an easier time establishing trust and camaraderie, which increases productivity and satisfaction. 
  • Employee engagement: When an employee works remotely, they can feel removed from the organization’s goals and experience reduced engagement with their work and the business. 
  • Micromanagement: Managers may feel the need to micromanage employees if they can’t see them working physically at their desks and may check in too frequently or waste time with unnecessary meetings.
  • Security: Remote employees don’t have the benefit of a centralized IT infrastructure, which can open the organization to cybersecurity risks without firewalls and controlled internet access.
  • Poor work environment: Having a physical office allows the employer to better control aspects of the work environment, such as managing distractions and access to tools. 

7 steps to effectively manage a distributed workforce

To combat the challenges of a distributed workforce and reap the benefits, it’s important to have a strategic approach and carefully consider various contributing factors. Here are seven practical steps businesses can take to effectively manage distributed teams:

1. Invest in technology

Distributed teams need advanced technology to stay connected and complete tasks. This includes communication technology such as direct messaging and video conferencing, collaboration tools and cloud access, project management technology and security infrastructure. Equip employees with the tools they need to get the job done in real time, along with training to use them effectively from day one. 

At the same time, managers need insight into distributed employees’ performance and well-being. ActivTrak’s workforce management software provides these insights to help managers support distributed employees. Use quantitative metrics to understand employee productivity, including factors that positively and negatively impact it. The software also provides insight into inefficient processes that take longer than expected due to bottlenecks, and tracks engagement metrics to identify early signs of burnout among distributed teams. Use a combination of these insights and others to tweak policies and better support distributed workforces. Then use change management data to determine the effectiveness of these updates.

2. Set clear expectations

Team members need clear guidance on what’s expected of them. Strong remote work policies can clear up the question of when employees are expected to work, what work they’re expected to complete and what it means to do good work. This should include a roadmap for goal setting, benchmarking and development opportunities down the line. Another aspect of clear expectations is a clear line of accountability so employees know who to contact if they have questions or issues.  

3. Establish strong communication

Communication and collaboration are key to an effective distributed workforce. Managers need to contact individuals and teams regularly to communicate goals and ensure distributed team members are at their most productive. It’s important to ensure communication is effective and not wasteful. For instance, daily team meetings may give employees an opportunity to interact but waste important time for accomplishing tasks. Similarly, nonstop emails communicating company directives can easily get lost in the inbox without a second thought. 

4. Create a culture of trust and transparency

One of the most notable challenges to distributed teams is a lack of trust, especially from management. Providing leaders the tools they need to allow employees to work without micromanaging empowers teams to get work done in the most efficient way for them. Team members also need to trust an organization isn’t violating their privacy with invasive monitoring software. ActivTrak’s employee productivity monitoring solution gives both employers and employees insight into productivity across the organization so teams can trust each other and work together to accomplish tasks without micromanagement. 

5. Prioritize employee engagement

Employee engagement is a measure of how active and invested employees are in their work and within an organization. It’s also a key factor in company success, as engaged employees not only complete tasks on time; they also contribute to creative solutions and workplace culture. In a distributed or remote workforce setting, it’s essential for managers to understand and promote employee engagement. While working in a traditional office, it may be easy to see who’s engaged and invested in their work. However, this is significantly harder with distributed teams because managers have limited interactions. This ties back to using the right technology to track employee engagement, but beyond measurement, it’s also imperative for managers of distributed teams to promote engagement given its role in business performance.

6. Provide a secure working environment

The 2024 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report reiterated employees still cause a majority of cybersecurity breaches by accident. Set your employees up for success by providing security built into their remote working conditions. Ensure all employees log in to a company-managed VPN to access collaboration tools or work documents. Set laptops or workstations to automatically lock after a set amount of time and ensure employees have passcodes on any devices used for work. Provide ample training on how to spot and prevent phishing or scam attacks and set up filters on email or other communication to prevent these attacks from even getting to your employees in the first place. Activity monitoring software can also be used to flag risky actions as they happen, so you can immediately address the situation before it leads to a serious data breach

7. Encourage feedback

Distributed workers need to feel empowered to provide feedback to the organization — both to keep them engaged and to encourage continuous improvement. Tap into the differing points of view of a global team by offering employees channels to provide suggestions or ask questions. Anonymous feedback gives employees a chance to feel safe in commenting on sensitive topics. Feedback is also a two-way street and employees need to know how they’re doing, regardless of where they’re working. Regular performance reviews and one-on-one meetings with managers provide places for employees to have important discussions. Celebrating employees and team accomplishments is especially important in a distributed setting where employees may not hear what others are working on. 

Manage distributed workforces effectively with ActivTrak

Distributed work has the potential to transform organizations by harnessing the benefits of remote work and diverse teams. Empower your organization to address the challenges and effectively manage a distributed workforce to unlock a world of opportunities and position your business for future growth with ActivTrak’s workforce management solution.

Harness the insights you need to measure productivity, ensure employee well-being and optimize your organization’s outcomes. Our award-winning workforce analytics cloud arms you with information to make data-driven decisions that drive success. Trusted by over 9,500 customers and backed by industry accolades, ActivTrak’s solutions give you what you need to manage remote teams, monitor employee productivity and prevent burnout. Contact our sales team today to discover how ActivTrak can transform your business for the future of work.

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