In 2023, everyone will work on a distributed team.
Remote, hybrid, flexible, co-located; Even if your team sits in the same location, your customers, partners, and suppliers are all over the world.
In this article, we’ll explore how the only thing that has changed is the technology involved, the future of distributed teams, and what this means for leading your team.
What is a Distributed Team?
What’s Old is New Again
More than 800 years ago, the barons of medieval England, exhausted by oppression, forced King Henry III to re-negotiate a charter of royal rights.
But Henry III was living in a disastrous failed project. His father, and the barons who negotiated the first charter, had ignored the agreement. Across the continent of Europe, the Pope had annulled the original document.
Henry was fighting for his life (literally) to negotiate a new deal with an island of rowdy barons and the powerful Catholic leader a thousand miles away. All in an age when the fastest way for project updates to travel was on horseback.
The cost of project failure? Civil war.
Instead, this medieval distributed team drafted one of the most important documents in history: the Magna Carta. This agreement became the foundation of English law. It codified concepts vital to western civilization, including freedom of religion, the right to be governed locally, and what would become the right to a fair trial.
Quite the accomplishment in an age of horses and carriages, quills and parchment, knights and kings.
The Point: We’ve always led distributed teams. All that’s really changed is the technology.
Living in a Distributed Future
Remote work is on the rise. Forbes believes that 25% of all professional jobs will be remote by 2023. That number will grow as employees expect remote options, companies reap the benefits, and technology like Extelli makes it easier to capture, organize, and share lessons learned.
Hybrid work – where your location isn’t set every day – is now the dominant mode. Zippia reports that 3 of every 4 companies plan to offer hybrid options while 55% of employees expect to work remotely at least 3 days per week. In other words, most companies and most employees expect hybrid work.
If your team is co-located, they’re working with customers, partners, and suppliers globally. Even partners in the same city are on different floors, different buildings, or across town.
You won’t recruit talent, meet performance goals, or achieve your mission if you don’t embrace distributed teams.
The Tools of Flexible Work
Knowledge work is at the center of everything. Forbes estimated in 2020 that at least 1 billion jobs are purely knowledge work, or 35% of the entire global workforce.
Flexible tools create innovative results
The meteoric rise of tools like Zoom (virtual calling), Slack (team collaboration), and Figma (flexible design) show how flexible tools create innovative results. They’re not just new ways of doing old things – they’re engines of innovation.
Zoom makes it effortless for a sales representative to make a human connection with a customer anywhere they have Internet. What 20th century sales rep wouldn’t love to reach a client anywhere they are?
Slack helps teams learn from each other, on demand and asynchronously, by text, voice, video, and files. No need to bring everyone together for tedious updates.
Figma makes it easier than ever to invent the first version of a new software tool with the only expense being employee time and a monthly subscription. Why pay someone to make a concept when you can draft it in days?
Enterprise tools turn knowledge into action
It’s not enough for a team to know. The company has to turn that knowledge into results. We’ve watched companies like SAP and Salesforce rise to the mountaintop of business success exactly because they bring all the knowledge together into action: finished projects, implemented upgrades, and the most effective sales cycles ever.
New Obstacles Create New Opportunities
Learning a new way of doing things can be scary. After all, we’re taught the tried-and-true. But the distributed world of work eliminates many of the tedious challenges of management while helping you focus on the work that can make your team truly great.
It’s easy for culture to form when everyone’s sitting together. The unspoken secret is that culture forms in distributed teams, too – but it can be hidden.
Healthy distributed cultures are intentional.
It’s the fear of every manager: How do you know someone’s connected to their work if you can’t easily check on them?
As old ways of “drive-by management” fall away, it’s more important than ever to align your team around a shared mission, clear culture, and valued incentives.
Is it more work up front? Absolutely. Does it unlock 24/7 creativity? Absolutely.
You’ve created a healthy culture of engaged team members working from all locations. This win is the beginning, not the end. Bringing all this creative work from happy team members together into a completed, sustainable project that contributes to the company’s mission is tough.
With tools like SAP or Salesforce, it’s becoming easier. ERP projects were once the death of up-and-coming managers. Now their skills that are essential for success.
Leading a Distributed Team
What a huge challenge. Your team could be all over the world, only ever communicating through a screen, based in different cultures, with your competition learning as fast as you are, while mistakes are magnified by social media. It’s easy to understand why people want the Good Old Days of office work.
But those days didn’t ever exist. Anyone who managed teams back in the day remembers how tough it was to make a single report appear, or to find the inventory levels of a remote warehouse, or the endless time on planes to catch clients for 20 minutes.
So, how do you lead?