Are Distributed Teams the Future of Work?

Employees are moving out of the office — and it is helping to build global business. Here is some advice on how to make a distributed team work for you.

The landscape of work is changing. By 2040, the global job market will be hardly recognisable! The 9-to-5 office routine will be replaced by a distributed workforce, one which works anywhere and at a time that fits their schedule.

It is not all just working from the beach, though. We are seeing the impact of this new way to work even today, with steady growth in the gig economy and for on-demand services. And, as entrepreneurship becomes more commonplace, it will drive an even larger distributed job market of freelance and independent contracting.

But don’t let the change scare you. This is good news for your company.

Why hire a distributed team?

Working with a distributed workforce has helped Pixc’s business grow at a very competitive pace. Within three years, I’ve built an international business, editing millions of images each month for customers around the world, and was recognized in Forbes 30 under 30 Asia: Retail and E-Commerce! Needless to say, it’s been a whirlwind!

Hiring a distributed team is all about building a robust business, helping your company grow quickly and efficiently.

A distributed workforce is flexible. You can hire as and when you need thanks to a variety of online staffing platforms. Building this flexibility into your business model will allow you to dynamically respond to the ebbs and flows of the marketplace.

A distributed workforce is scalable. You can secure the best talent possible for the job, no matter where you (or they) are located. Having a global workforce from day one allows you to quickly scale and grow your business beyond the limits of your local horizon.

A distributed workforce has a global mindset. Working with people from all over the world, you will be able to benefit from ideas and inspiration that you wouldn’t have otherwise had access to. This means you can broaden your business’s horizon, all while building a strong and dedicated team.

A distributed workforce is worth it. It isn’t always an easy task, and it certainly takes a lot of effort to set up a schedule and rhythm that works for you and your business. No one said hiring the workforce of the future would be easy, but it is worth it. And it does get easier with time!

Developing a flexible work environment as an established business

I hired a distributed workforce from the outset as I was based in regional Australia, but what if you’re an established business with a brick-and-mortar shop in a fixed location? You can still have a distributed workforce!

If you own a local clothing shop in Germany, what’s stopping you from hiring a web developer in Malaysia? Or if you’re a local print shop in Greece, why not hire a graphic designer in Australia?

This may seem daunting, but you don’t have to jump into it straight away. You can create a remote working culture with people you’ve already hired by allowing them to work from home once or twice a week — this is also known as teleworking. It will allow you to see what benefits both you and your employees gain from working in this new distributed environment.

Letting your employees choose where they work means they can find a workspace and routine that works best for them. That might not necessarily be the office, where work gets done in between meetings, coffee breaks, and pop-ins by colleagues.

By creating a flexible work environment, you will get the best out of the 9–5ers and the night owls!

Creating a more effective business model from the start

Newer businesses can hire a distributed staff from the outset, just like I did with Pixc.

There is a long list of jobs that can be done away from the confines of a traditional office, as long as there is a good internet connection!

I have hired more than 200 people online in a range of disciplines from law to accounting, graphic design and content writing, all located around the world. By hiring a team of freelancers and virtual assistants around the world, my business hours are not restricted to a single country of operation. Work gets done 24/7, meaning I can get more business done, faster. And how many people can say they are a productive entrepreneur while they sleep?

It also means that your business has a built-in international presence, which can be a great way to expand your network beyond the English-speaking world — or rather, the frame of countries that speak your native language. And it can act as a valuable source of local knowledge for ways to grow your business to meet new market needs, boosting reach and revenue.

Online hiring platforms like Upwork or Freeeup are a great resource for finding people of all disciplines around the world at the click of a button. It is a fast way to find new recruits, and I can even review their work before I approach them with a project.

Choosing a fixed vs. hourly rate contract

Being able to hire on a flexible basis means that when there is more work, I can contract more people! I have the freedom to focus on building the business that I want to develop for Pixc in a way that suits me.

On any given day at Pixc, I have a team consisting of 23 team members and anywhere between 100–200 freelance staff who do everything from design to bookkeeping.

The short-term nature of their employment means you can test and review without committing to a full-time, regulated member of staff. The whole process is also much quicker than a typical HR time frame.

But what kind of contract is best for these flexible employees: fixed contract or hourly rate? Honestly, it depends on what they’re doing. Each has advantages and disadvantages, and which you choose will ultimately depend on the type of work that needs to be done.

A fixed contract means paying a flat fee to a freelancer for an assigned project. I used fixed contracts a lot when starting Pixc because they are a great way to find new talent and check their work out without making a big commitment. Fixed contracts also made it easier to manage my budget because I immediately knew the cost associated with the deliverable.

But there are some disadvantages to paying a fixed contract fee. You may come across the phrase, “this is out of scope”, which means additional work to that described in the contract or brief. Sometimes, freelancers will ask you to pay hourly rates for these extra tasks.

Hourly rate contracts are also better suited for projects that are somewhat undefined which could potentially come with a lot of revisions and would take up a lot of the freelancer’s time. It gives you the flexibility to work on a dynamic project without worrying about going beyond a predefined set of job limits.

Today, I prefer using hourly rate contracts. By choosing this option, you are trusting the freelancer to manage their time and do the task as efficiently as possible. While I recommend starting with a fixed contract, it is easy to make the switch to hourly once you have built up trust a new member of your distributed team.

One key tip for any contracted employee, fixed or hourly rate: communicate throughout the whole process! That way you won’t get a shock when the final payment bill comes. But remember, a premium freelancer will charge premium rates, whichever contract you choose to employ them under.

Tips for managing a global and distributed team

While working with a distributed team increases your flexibility and helps you to grow a more robust and scalable business from day one, there are some downsides.

Continual hiring — Freelance teams shrink and grow according to your needs, but that means you could be hiring at least one person a week — maybe more! This can be tiring and feel like a never-ending process.

Minimal team culture — Working in different time zones on different projects, it can often feel like you have a group of individuals working for you rather than a team of freelancers or flexible employees. This can negatively impact the work culture.

Lack of vision — Working in a distributed environment means that people work in silos. They focus on the project they are given, but they don’t necessarily have a vision of your company goals (unless you constantly share it!). That means that they could not be as committed to — or invested in — the project as you are.

Ultimately, you can’t pop your head into someone’s office, so you have to find other ways to make sure your team is comfortable and happy with their work. A lot of these problems can be solved by hiring well and maintaining a good level of communication.

A hiring manager, for example, can help oversee the ongoing partnerships between freelance staff, helping to create a dynamic and inclusive atmosphere.

There are also some great tools to help create online communities among your dynamic and international workforce. I use Google Hangouts, Skype and private Facebook groups to build a professional network of Pixc employees. It lets them know that no matter where they are based, they are part of the Pixc family.

Excitingly, new, emerging tech like Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) could soon transform transcontinental meetings with your team as they become more affordable and sophisticated. Interactive and immersive by nature, they will make remote work more viable and enjoyable.

The workforce of the future

Any business — established or new — can create a distributed team. This applies to all types of businesses, from software companies to more traditional brick-and-mortar shops, across any industry or scale. Employing a flexible workforce allows you to create the business you want with a team that suits your needs. And they’re not going away anytime soon.