3 Secrets to Successfully Managing a Distributed Workforce

Overseeing a distributed workforce can be likened to herding cats. How can you manage it successfully?

October 26, 2016 by Alex Collins, IT Services Consultant

digital_nomadWhether you're managing a team of employees in geographically separated offices, or freelancers living the “digital nomad” lifestyle across the world, overseeing a distributed workforce can be likened to herding cats.

Nevertheless, business trends favor managers who keep that figurative catnip handy: from 2008 to 2015, the freelance workforce grew from 1.4 million to 1.91 million, a 36 percent increase.

Networking technology has empowered both managers and personnel, allowing the former to manage teams that work regardless of location, and the latter to free themselves from the shackles of the office without compromising productivity.

The millennial mindset is a large factor in this shift, too. With their numbers in the workforce growing by the day, “millennials do not believe that productivity should be measured by the number of hours worked at the office, but by the output of the work performed,” explains a generational study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the University of Southern California. “They view work as a ‘thing’ and not a ‘place.'”

Managing a distributed workforce requires a different approach if you want to get results as good as those of a conventional, non-distributed team. If you're looking to put “digital nomads” and other far-flung workers in your team, these three secrets will see you through.

Secret #1: Hire people who are suited for the job. And that's not just anybody: not all workers can stay productive when in a separate room from the boss, let alone separate continents.

“The thing about hiring people for a distributed team is that they need to be self-motivated and productive working at home, coffee shops or a co-working space,” writes Joel Gascoigne, co-founder and CEO of Buffer. “We look especially for people who have worked as freelancers or on startups.”

They also need to have the skills you need from the beginning, as the remote distances don't permit workers to learn from their peers the same way their location-dependent colleagues do. “The typical close management involved with upskilling someone would be extremely hard to perform with a remote employee,” explains Unified Inbox's Camilla Urdahl. “Hence, the person you hire for the job has to have the right skill set and mindset to perform it.”

Secret #2: Use the right tools. Software as a service allows a distributed team to securely access the company's own database, share files, and collaborate with each other without regard to the distance between users. work_from_home

Products like All Covered Workspaces are a boon to digital nomads: users can summon virtualized desktop environments that replicate the entire online business environment using any authorized device. Email, calendars, help desk ticketing, security, and file sharing can all take place without the need to plug into a physical office intranet!

The tools need to adapt to the users, not the other way around: this is key, writes Bloomberg's Boland Jones. “[Virtual] meetings stall when participants struggle with incompatible technology or lose momentum because they can’t share documents or updates,” says Jones.

“Select technology that allows participants to connect in the way that’s simplest for them,” Jones elaborates. “For some, that could mean firing up the webcam and embedded microphone. Your shyer colleagues may prefer a simple dial-in conference call.”

Secret #3: Find other ways to bring teammates together. Without the water cooler and occasional Chinese takeout at the break room to resort to, a distributed team needs other ways to bond.

“For most of our team, working from home is a lifestyle choice, but we still try to bring them in every couple of weeks for pizza and beers in the office,” explains Peter Johnston, founder and CEO of Lystable. Johnston makes “the extra effort” to meet regular contractors face to face, at one time flying a US-based designer to the UK for a meeting. “If you have the budget for that, it’s worth the investment,” says Johnston.

Buffer's Gascoigne takes it another level further, by holding Buffer retreats where they “gather the whole team in a single location,” he explains. “Most recently we gathered in Cape Town, South Africa, and we’ll be getting together again this fall in New York City!”