What is a Distributed Team?
By Katherine Schwartz
Demand Generation Specialist
Technology has made our world a whole lot smaller—to the point where distance is rarely an obstacle for white-collar work. Between cloud computing, software-as-a-service (SaaS) programs, 5G communication, and decentralized data, people can work from just about anywhere. For many people right now, that’s their home office—and for many more, it’s the way things will be for the foreseeable future. We’ve entered the age of distributed teams.
What is a distributed team? It’s a term you’ll hear more and more in reference to individuals who work together from home. Rosaria, Russell, and Ryan might’ve shared a desk cluster in the office, but now, they each work from home. They’re distributed, but still a team. They still need to collaborate, but do it without the physical proximity they’re used to.
Distance is a factor, not a definition
What does a distributed team mean? Apart from, well, being apart, distributed teams are also defined by their interactions. While most people think of their situation in terms of geographically distributed teams, there are other distributed dynamics at-play.
Time, for example. Michael, Marisol, and Maj might work in three different time zones. Distance isn’t the biggest obstacle they face—time is. This team faces temporal distribution, similar to how first- and second-shift teams might overlap in the workplace. It goes to show that while distance is a prominent factor in distributed teams, it’s not the only obstacle.
To understand the true meaning of a distributed team, look at how they interact. Can they collaborate without face-to-face presence? Are they accountable as individuals and as team members? Do they communicate effectively across interpersonal channels? Distributed teams are those that find ways to accomplish goals when forced to adapt outside of normal workplace interaction.
The anatomy of a distributed team
Distributed teams go beyond the people. What facilitates a distributed team are the technologies and resources that connect every individual and enable them to work collaboratively. As teams adapt to new distance and time obstacles, they rely increasingly on tools to help them collaborate, including:
- Messaging and chat apps
- File sharing applications
- Video conferencing tools
- Document editing software
- Project management platforms
Each of these tools makes up a framework for distributed team success. They act as replacements for traditional workplace elements. Messaging takes the place of a face-to-face chat. Document editing software supplants printed, marked-up memos. File sharing applications take the place of a network drive. These technologies form the digital workplace—a space where distributed teams gather to work collectively, regardless of where individuals are at any given time.
Distributed, but not disrupted
When a traditional workplace team becomes a distributed one, they face a degree of disruption. They effectively need to re-learn how to collaborate with peers in a remote capacity. It’s a process of recognizing old routines and habits and porting them over to new circumstances. While some level of adjustment is necessary, good teams will find their footing in their new digital workplace.
The key to minimizing disruptions is to focus on the team dynamic. What’s the best way to ensure Carla and Charlie communicate each day? What tools do Benji and Beth need to collaborate on a project? Can Raul and René check the same project log to see the status of each other’s tasks? Fill the gaps that distance creates with collaborative tools to ensure the success of a distributed team. Fewer gaps between team members equates to less disruption, despite new work scenarios and surroundings.
Are distributed teams the new norm?
COVID-19 has led to what workplace leaders are calling “the world’s largest work-from-home experiment.” The experiment is ongoing, but early results show positive sentiment about distributed workforces, from employers and employees alike. It’s likely distributed teams are here to stay—at least in some capacity.
Whether or not they had the infrastructure to support telecommuting, companies are getting a taste of what it means to have a distributed workforce. Beyond support for individuals as they transition to remote work, employers also need to preserve the team dynamics developed in-office. The rise of distributed teams calls for support. These teams need proper technologies, oversight, flexibility, and accountability to be as (or more) successful as traditional in-office teams.
The first step comes in understanding how they work and what challenges they face. Then, it’s up to employers to help distributed teams function efficiently despite spatial and temporal obstacles. Properly supported, these teams will eventually pick up right where they left off in the office.