This article is part of our Distributed Enterprises Series.
Becoming a distributed enterprise might have a lot of benefits, but it also certainly has its challenges. We have already covered some of them, especially those that affect the early stages of a company making the switch to a distributed approach. However, there are other obstacles that go beyond those first steps and that might pop up well after you’ve fully embraced the approach.
In fact, many of the most common issues you’ll face after implementing the distributed model stem from having team members in different physical locations. From lack of in-person interactions to a decrease in the cohesiveness of your corporate culture, there are multiple threats you need to address when operating as a distributed enterprise.
Here are 5 of the most common ones you need to keep on your radar, along with solutions to tackle them.
1. Less managerial oversight
This is probably the most popular reason to oppose distributed or remote work. Many managers don’t want to renounce in-office work because they feel they’ll lose the ability to control and manage all of their team members. This can be for a number of reasons, including the impossibility of tracking all of the employees’ activities and the lack of trust in the team members’ ability to do their jobs.
The solution: There are a couple of things worth mentioning here. First and foremost, it’s important to point out that several managers don’t want to work remotely because they can’t micromanage all of their team members. While it’s common to think of micromanagement as a closer control over a team, the reality is that it does more harm than good, so shifting to a distributed scheme is the perfect opportunity for managers to leave that toxic practice behind.
Besides that, it’s important for managers to understand that they can’t expect to handle their teams in the same way they did during the in-office days. A distributed team calls for a different approach to management, one that includes cloud-based platforms to track work and progress and that redefines success focusing on measurable goals rather than on hours worked.
All in all, it’s a matter of managers developing a new managerial style that worries only about the predefined objectives and whether the team is achieving them or not, regardless of how they use their time to do so.
2. Increased disconnect between team members and goals
When a team works distributedly, it’s easy for its members to lose sight of the big picture. That can happen because casual interactions between them are less frequent or because the managers/leaders/companies fail to properly communicate their objectives and the roadmap ahead.
In fact, the distributed approach can quickly usher in a sense of disconnect between your employees and your overall goals. If that happens, you’ll see that silos start to emerge across your team. In the end, those silos can severely impact your work because your team members will lose track of why they are doing what they are doing, which can lead to a drop in productivity and motivation.
The solution: One of the benefits of the distributed approach is that it can elevate your company’s productivity. But that will happen as long as everyone has a clear understanding of the work they do and how that work contributes to the overall success of the company’s projects. That means that you’ll be transparent and proactive with your communications.
One of the best ways to do so is to communicate as often and as efficiently as possible. Arrange frequent meetings to stay on top of things but also to make sure that everyone is in the loop. Explain to the team what you’re trying to accomplish and provide your employees with updates on that plan’s progress. Finally, make sure that team members feel part of the final results: show them the finished work, explain the results, and acknowledge their contributions.
3. Lack of in-person interactions
I’ve already mentioned that the distributed approach can lead to fewer casual interactions. A lot of people that oppose this model cite the lack of these interactions as the main reason why they shy away from becoming a distributed enterprise.
To their eyes, the distributed approach doesn’t have that micro-moments where you can interact with your co-workers, be it to spark a new idea or to bond over a specific topic. Given that most human communication is non-verbal, these people find it difficult to replace in-person interactions with online communications.
The solution: Enforce a communication policy with an emphasis on video. While not the same, using video will help your team communicate better, as many non-verbal cues are present when in a video call. Sure, video conferencing might not replace casual encounters entirely, but it can really help in this model.
Also, make sure you organize casual meetings that can help the team bond over something besides work. You can arrange online games, virtual gatherings, or even plan for an in-person meeting of the team once in a while.
4. Diminished corporate culture
Another direct consequence of the lack of interactions might be that your corporate culture doesn’t stick with some (or most) of your team members. This is closely related to the previous points, as a poor managerial style with fewer interactions and missing a clear communication policy will undoubtedly result in a disjointed company culture that won’t feel like a unified front.
In fact, if you don’t establish clear values and expectations regarding your company, your team members will likely fill that void organically. And while corporate culture is often molded by day-to-day activities, the reality is that you need to control key aspects of it to ensure that people working in your company as well as clients, partners, and suppliers, have the same experience and expectations when engaging with your brand.
The solution: The online games and virtual get-togethers I mentioned above are good to help you cement your values, but they won’t be enough. While it’s good to have moments of casual fun that provide bonding opportunities, you’ll also need to foster other instances that also help strengthen your values while boosting your professionals.
In that way, it’s great to complement your efforts to informally connect your team with professionally-oriented encounters that can instill your culture in the minds of your workforce. For instance, you can institute training sessions to reskill or upskill team members, which can serve a threefold objective: developing their skill sets, showing them your expectations for their roles, and establishing your culture. Pairing workers for specific projects or using mentoring programs can also help here.
5. Operational inefficiencies
Finally, a rushed implementation of the distributed model can bring many issues with the operational side of things. Given that the team is scattered across different cities, countries, or even regions, there may be issues related to the infrastructure (both at a software and hardware level), the normal procedures around work, and even language, communication style, and time zone alignment.
For instance, many team members might not have too much time overlap to meet and talk things directly. Some platforms might not be available in certain countries. Some team members might not have the same language level as the others, thus increasing the probability of miscommunication. There are many operational inefficiencies that might arise if you don’t think things through.
The solution: We already talked about the need of developing a proper strategy before becoming a distributed company. However, there might be details that you don’t cover in that first instance. Don’t worry, though—going back to adapt your initial strategy is a must in this approach.
For example, you might go with new platforms to better serve everyone (even to the point of developing your own). You can restrict the regions you go fishing for talent to make sure that some time zone alignment is possible. You can even offer language classes for valuable talent that need to polish their speaking skills. There are many potential operational issues, sure, but if you put your creativity to work, you can find as many solutions to all of them.
The Right Mindset
There are many reasons you might cite to push back against the adoption of a distributed approach in your company. However, I think that opposing this model will do you more harm than good. There are plenty of benefits to be had in a distributed model. Besides, the workforce is strongly in favor of this approach, even if they do so partially.
So, instead of fighting against becoming a distributed company, think about how you can adapt that model to your situation and specific needs. Sketching an initial strategy about it is a good start but you also need to plan for the most common issues. While they are too many to mention, the ones listed here should provide you with a clearer picture and help put you in the right mindset to tackle a successful switch to this model.
More related articles on our Distributed Enterprises Series.