A distributed workforce is becoming much more mainstream in today’s economy. Control over path and pace is not just for online learners – it’s for companies now, too. When given flexibility over working location, I’ve seen team members thrive. Allowing team members to work in an environment that is most productive for them has yielded great results.

However, making a distributed and collaborative situation work well requires more than just setting everyone loose and hoping for the best. It’s essential to communicate and adapt on a regular basis. For some team members, working remotely full-time may work well and others still prefer a traditional office setting. At Getting Smart we have team members located in four different states most days. While it is not always ideal to have people spread out across time zones and different work settings, we found passionate, hard-working team members who we’d rather allow to work remotely than risk not having their contribution. Just like students, a team members zip code should not limit their career opportunities. We’ve turned challenges into assets. Having team members working coast-to-coast actually extends our working day, allows us to cover more events, and better support clients in different time zones.

We’ve worked hard to provide what I like to call – flexible structure. It’s a framework that can adjust for staffing, adapt to workloads and varying schedules.

Our team is a mix of:

  • Full-time virtual members – full-time remote team members located in a different state from our main office.

  • Blended learning members – team members located in the Seattle area that work part-time at a home office and part-time at our main office.

  • Traditional members – team members that prefer to be in our main office full-time.

This type of hybrid working environment is not for everyone. It’s a strange, fun combo of working styles, hours and locations that brings together a wonderfully-talented group of people for our team. It’s been a learning process that continues to evolve, but there are a few keys to make this hybrid distributed workforce keep moving:

  1. Clear Expectations: It’s crucial for all team members to understand how they fit in. Ensuring that on a weekly, monthly and quarterly basis team members know what is expected of them and what the tasks are for the major projects they are focused on can eliminate confusion and increase productivity in a hybrid work setting. In this work setting, you’ll very often have team members working different time zones that do not include the full team. Making sure any team member can productively work independently on delegated tasks and projects is a key to keeping productivity high throughout the work day.

  2. Be Flexible: Life happens. While it is helpful to have team members working similar hours, allow for some flexibility during the day and week. One of our east-coast team members shifts her hours on Wednesdays to start late and work late – we call “West Coast Wednesday”. This allows for a morning with her daughters, and added working hours with the full team later in the day than usual. Its a win-win for our team.

  3. Provide Structure: While being flexible is one of the keys, it must also be paired with structure (remember flexible structure?). Ensuring that there are working norms, like common work hours and days, provides stability and ample collaborative working time. At Getting Smart we still provide vacation and sick/flex days and encourage team members to take advantage of that time. Even for remote team members we ask for notification of extended time away from their office during the work day. Providing structure and process has created an environment of trust between all team members.

  4. Regular Communication: Communication is the key in this hybrid working setting. Our team has a full team meeting on Tuesdays where we go over every segment of our work and allow project managers to raise questions and inform our team of updates. In addition to the full-team meeting, each project group touches base on daily and weekly basis as needed. We’ve created teams of people to tackle big projects so that work can continue, even when workloads shift and time zones split up the working hours.

  5. Daily Check-Ins: I speak with every member of our team on a daily basis. As a small company, I have the great fortune to be able to interact and participate in all aspects of our work. Checking in with my team members frequently has allowed me to quickly learn working styles, preferred feedback methods and desired workload. Our team has chosen Skype as a daily check-in program. We use the features like a traditional office would use office doors. When someone is unavailable, they simply put their Skype window on “Do Not Disturb” which we equate to shutting an office door.

  6. Face-to-Face Time: As blended learning has suggested, for most people you can not replace face time. While we’ve developed a great process for working remotely, its essential to have time in person with your team members. Sometimes this means in small working groups, meeting at conferences or entire staff retreats. We try to plan 3-4 times yearly that our entire team can be together in person for both social and working time.

  7. Video Meetings: With remote team members, face time does not happen as often as we’d hope. However, with FaceTime, Skype video and Google Hangouts, we’ve been able to connect more than ever. Just being able to see a person’s facial reactions during a conversation can be extremely helpful. Understanding that a long pause, can mean someone is thinking and not that a call has dropped has proven helpful for our team. (Anyone who has been on a call with Tom can understand this statement well.)

  8. Collaborative Programs: Our team uses a mix of programs and products that allow us to collaborate in the cloud. We use DropBox for storage of shared documents. Google Drive allows us to collaborate on call notes, timelines and written work. Daylite has been a great contact database that also acts as a project management tool. We couldn’t live without a shared calendar like iCloud and appreciate the ability to iMessage across all our devices. Creating an (almost) paperless office has allowed remote team members to have as much access to company materials as anyone onsite has.

  9. Encourage Device-Free Time: Both work and personal life for me is increasingly becoming centered around devices. While I appreciate team members who check in on nights and weekends to complete projects and respond to urgent requests, its important to have time away. Especially in a remote working situation where a team member is home-office based, it’s important to encourage time away from the computer and iPhone. Even during the work day, I encourage team members to go out for a walk, grab lunch with a friend, roll out a yoga mat or grab a coffee. Its helpful to refuel your brain and give your eyes a break no matter your working location.

  10. Keep It Light: On busy days and weeks, it’s important to have a team that can laugh together. To foster a collaborative and fun environment we’ve set up “work conversations” and “fun conversations” in designated Skype windows. This delegation of conversation topics, allows for the needed “water-cooler chat” about what everyone is having for dinner and doing over the weekend. Its allowed our team members across the country to still feel connected to the social aspects of an office setting. We’ve tried to create a culture where everyone is able to work hard and have fun.

Like so many schools across the country, blended work environments are evolving. As we’ve mentioned before, a distributed workforce can create better conditions and outcomes for your team when managed successfully. How are you blending your work environment? What other keys to success would you list?

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