Distributed Teams Are Disrupting Tech. Here's How to Join Them. Remote employees offer a slew of advantages, but smoothly integrating them requires rethinking operations a bit.
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Whether their members are outsourced, independent contractors or employees allowed to work from home, distributed teams are on the rise globally. In fact, a Global Leadership Summit survey found that 59 percent of companies surveyed planned to have more than half their teams working remotely by 2020.
It's not hard to see why: Distributed teams move faster to produce better results and are more self-motivated than their cubicle-tethered counterparts. Who wouldn't be more motivated, after escaping a drab office filled with zombies to work at the beach, in a coffee cafe or at home? As the CEO of an entirely remote company, I know I certainly am.
Tech startups like Slack, GitHub and JPay all rely on distributed teams to develop the infrastructures of what are now widely known platforms. Are you on the bandwagon?
What sets distributed teams apart?
A distributed team helps you stay competitive by providing the following benefits:
• Greater speed to market. A survey of failed entrepreneurs found that 42 percent of participants couldn't determine a market need for their products. Consequently, if you're an entrepreneur taking too long to release a solution, your competitors can steal market share.
Outsourcing product development saves time and money in that it's not necessary to hire, train and onboard employees. Teams already exist with processes in place that can get a product ready to go to market much more quickly, which often leads to a greater ROI, providing financial benefits on both ends of the development spectrum.
• Remote authorship capabilities. Time is finite; entrepreneurs can address only so many issues at once. When you become reactionary from constantly dealing with problems, instead of proactively driving the organization, your company's momentum can die -- possibly along with the company itself.
Remote authorship tools allow remote teams to communicate, regardless of where everyone is. With a distributed team already accessing things remotely, you can do the same, eliminating friction and allowing projects to keep moving. You can provide feedback and respond to issues at your leisure via email and collaborative platforms, while your distributed team members make corrections on their own time.
• Latest trends and diverse approaches. Technology (especially web-based) is constantly changing, and having a remote team also allows you to pull in the latest design trends from around the world. For one of our clients in the Midwest, having a U.K.-based designer added edginess to the client's web design that resulted in more user engagement.
A recent study found that 51 percent of HR professionals surveyed attributed greater creativity to flexible work. Different people in distinct locations leverage different technology in different ways to complete the same tasks. That's what makes diversity key to competing in such a quickly evolving industry.
Incorporating distributed teams
Actually integrating distributed teams into your business means rethinking how you operate. Try these tactics to ensure the process happens more smoothly:
• Insist on overcommunicating. Even if you use localized teams, it can be difficult to hold critical daily huddles to discuss project backgrounds, solicit feedback and set expectations. With distributed teams, though, much of this communication can (and should) be accomplished in writing to ensure that the ball isn't being dropped as you increase transparency.
For Buffer, an almost entirely remote company, success hinged largely on the ability to communicate clearly with its distributed teams. So it made clear communication -- free of assumptions and cleverness -- one of its core values to make sure everyone sees the same big picture from any angle.
• Show your face. Not everything has to be done in writing. Just seeing your smiling face can go a long way in building morale and confidence in leadership among your distributed team members. A recent study found that 87 percent of people surveyed who were using video conferencing technologies said they felt more connected to their colleagues. That finding reflects how video helps remote workers feel more like part of a team.
Video-conferencing tools, in fact, have become ubiquitous, and this instant, face-to-face method of communicating is excellent for getting quick reactions or resolving small issues. More complex issues should still be communicated in writing for easier reference and searchability, though.
Of course, scope creep can make differentiating between "small" and "big" issues a challenge. As projects move through the completion cycle, features are often added that may seem like small tweaks but can delay project completion. So, while that initial change may be small, how it affects the project as a whole could amplify it into a larger issue that should be handled in writing, to be safe.
• Reduce intimidation. When key stakeholders work remotely, they're much less likely to be intimidated about speaking up and commenting on aspects of the project. Accenture recently found that 31 percent of employees it queried were unhappy because of a perceived lack of empowerment.
Remote team members are not visible to one another -- at least not physically -- and anybody who's ever read the comments section of a blog post or YouTube video knows how that feeling of safety and anonymity behind a screen boosts courage. Collaboration tools like Slack and InVision decrease intimidation by providing a simple platform for all project stakeholders to contribute to the feedback loop.
Studies have shown that employees who are empowered to make decisions and provide feedback are more likely to engage in critical thinking, making them more creative and productive. And this only enhances product development.
Keeping your team at a healthy distance
Product development is an integral part of any business' success, and you might be tempted to hire a local, in-house development team that can be micromanaged, to ensure your products will be both innovative and in-demand.
As I've tried to convey, however, that mindset couldn't be further from reality. Distributed teams provide a slew of advantages over localized teams. Remote workers are consistently cheaper, faster and more creative than on-site teams, which is why more and more companies utilize them.
If you want to survive the next evolution of the tech industry, you'd be wise to join them.