The People Ops Guide to Managing a Distributed Workforce

The pandemic accelerated the shift toward remote and hybrid work models, causing incredible changes in how we work ever since 2020. However, this shift also put a lot of pressure on HR and People teams who:  

Companies that discovered the benefits of hiring distributed team members also need to learn very fast how to manage them properly.  If you’re still looking for a way to successfully adopt the distributed work model, this guide is for you.

Keep reading to learn how to maintain your company culture across the globe, modify your business processes, and copy strategies from companies that managed to adapt to the future of work.  

Is a distributed workforce the same as a remote workforce?  

Before we dive into strategies and tactics people ops and human resources managers can implement to enable their workers to perform at their best, let’s clarify what a distributed workforce means in comparison to a remote one.  

A remote workforce means there is one central location that your team members work remotely from. But “remote” loses its meaning when there is no “center of gravity” or HQ. Technically, your remote team members can be working from home, but in the same city or country, without coming to a physical location to work.  

In distributed workforces, team members reside in a multitude of locations: different cities, states, countries, and continents. In distributed workforce models, companies may not have an office space, despite having an address or any office workers.  

That said, distributed teams are more challenging to manage, both from the perspectives of admin/legal and worker experience.  

How People teams can adapt to manage distributed teams  

With remote work, workers save time on commuting, but their home office may not be set up appropriately to allow them to do good work. Employees have an opportunity to structure their own schedules, but along the way, their work-life balance may suffer if they’re not equipped to set boundaries.  

There are many buts and ifs that People teams need to figure out before their workforce is ready to break productivity records.  

1. Understand what’s different for your distributed team  

Lay down a list of what’s changed now that people don’t come into the office or join the team from another part of the world.  

For example, people can work with more focus when they’re not in a physical office because coworkers can’t stop by their desks every five minutes or are not distracted by the chatter or other people’s phone calls in open-space offices. On the other hand, many people receive hundreds of Slack messages daily, which can be just as distracting.  

Video-conferencing is super-useful because people can wear more casual clothes and even have their cameras off during an internal team meeting. Still, a bunch of back-to-back Zooms throughout the employee’s workday can drain their energy and leave little room for focused work.  

Video conferences become even more challenging when a single team is spread across time zones, so team members must wake up early to join a call or miss dinner with their kids to attend a late-evening team meeting.  Finally, people love working remotely but still miss face-to-face encounters as they help build relationships. The lack of in-person interactions with colleagues can make workers feel disconnected from their team and less motivated to work.  

Seeing all the challenges in one place, broken down into how they can affect the team and the business overall, is a good first step toward building an effective distributed workforce management strategy.  

2. Figure out what these changes mean for you  

As a People Ops professional, your job is evolving along with HR tech and changes in how we work. You need to tackle the cognitive load that comes with new tasks, changing roles and responsibilities, and the evolving purpose of your department. To ensure you support remote employees and distributed team members in the best possible way, you need to map out the new things on your plate first:  

  • What activities and processes are now obsolete? For example, your onboarding process will change as you no longer give tours of the office to new hires. You’ll need to think through access management now that all new hires will take online training.
  • What HR tools can you introduce to eliminate manual admin work, streamline and facilitate different processes, and allow more flexibility and autonomy to your distributed workforce A new hire doesn’t need to wait for an HR specialist to update their info in an HRIS; they should be able to do this themselves. Some parts of the process should be automated, like when employee data is updated in the central database, it automatically gets updated in other platforms.
  • What programs and strategies do you need to prioritize now to remain aligned with overall business goals? For instance, hiring new talent might not be your top priority right now; you’ll rather focus on achieving more with your existing workforce, meaning that fine-tuning employee engagement strategies, retention plans, and other tactics to build high-performing teams become your main focus.
  • How will you measure employee productivity and performance? In distributed work environments and virtual workspaces, productivity isn’t measured by the number of hours an employee puts in every week or their presence at the office. Instead, output and results are what counts. Startup leaders from all over the world confirm it:

 “In a distributed environment, the ability to measure the output of people based on time spent is not possible. Consider not assessing people on their presence. Instead, measure people on their results and how they’re contributing to the shared mission. Be deliberate and methodical in how you set objectives and key results, how they trickle across the organization, and how you measure them,” wrote Tony Jamous, CEO and founder at Oyster for Forbes.  

With this in mind, People teams should set up new score systems and performance management processes that will allow them to identify top performers and employees who need help and support both groups to do even better work.  

3. Document everything  

Running operations for a distributed workforce in most cases includes creating entirely new process documentation:  

  • Updating onboarding checklists (How will you order and deliver equipment for distributed team members? On what platform can new hires access company policies or product training? Where and how will you store compliance documentation for new employees?)
  • Creating new processes for async project management (What tools are you going to use for each team? What will the process look like for cross-team projects? How will you determine priorities and deadlines?)
  • Producing communication guidelines and best practices for remote collaboration (Will emails be used for external communication only? What should be communicated through Slack or another communication tool you may be using? Will all team members have permission to post in every Slack channel?)

You will be able to determine some of these rules at the very beginning, but don’t forget to keep them flexible. You will learn a lot on the go, and some of your assumptions may turn out to be wrong.  Update and adapt your processes as you learn about how your team works best, but make sure all these changes are regularly documented in one source of truth (for example, a Notion doc) that everyone in the company can access.  

4. Make company culture seen, known, and felt  

Other than technical challenges, many people teams face the challenge of maintaining the company culture across continents and different backgrounds people come from.  Working in a multicultural, distributed environment is a completely different experience from working with a local team in an office, so it’s fundamental to redefine your values and how you showcase company culture:  

  1. Provide perks and benefits that align with the needs of remote workers no matter where they’re located (like healthcare benefits or work-from-home allowance to equip home offices) and create an even-handed experience for everyone in the company
  3. Ensure a work environment free of negativity, toxicity, and micromanagement, where employees will be free to do their best work under flexible conditions but still accountable for their own KPIs and results
  5. Give formal encouragement to employees to take PTO and aim for a healthy work-life balance, prompting the leadership to model this kind of behavior and lead by example, to help your workers avoid burnout
  7. Bake in employee recognition into everyday work, establishing practices that include verbal praise (like giving kudos in a Slack channel) to rewards, promotions, and raises to incentivize great performance
  9. Provide employees with spaces for real-time, in-person connections, whether they’re formal meetings or informal watercooler meetups, because face-to-face interactions will positively impact employee engagement and, consequently, overall business performance.
 “People feel engaged and connected to you as an organization when they feel connected and engaged with the people, including their manager, leadership, cross-functional partners, and peers they connect with across various interest groups,” says Casey Bailey, Head of People at Deel in an article for TroopHR.  

5. (Over)Communicate  

There’s no such thing as over-communicating in a remote or distributed environment. Misunderstandings happen even when people work in the same place and communicate in the same way, let alone when you have a team of people who never saw each other in person (and many of them never will).  Provide your team with communication guidelines to help them learn that nothing should be assumed in a distributed team.

For instance, if you need help from a coworker from another team for a project you’re running, your approach needs to be as if they didn’t know anything about it.  Another key aspect of successful communication in distributed workforces is feedback. Collect feedback on everything from performance and team communication to employee experience and relationship-building at work so that you can fine-tune your processes based on what works and what doesn’t.  

Structure company-wide and 1-on-1 communication to help employees learn when they should say something, to whom, and through which channel. For example, a specific issue might be more suitable for a 1-on-1 check-in with the manager than for a public Slack channel.  Don’t forget employee engagement surveys as pulse checks.

While you should create a psychologically safe environment where your employees will feel comfortable sharing their feelings, ensure you provide an option to complete these surveys anonymously.  

“Success in a hybrid work environment requires employers to move beyond viewing remote or hybrid environments as a temporary or short-term strategy and to treat it as an opportunity. To thrive in today’s new work environment, leaders must embrace open communication, collaboration, and clarity around roles and goal setting to build trust,” explained George Penn, VP of Gartner HR in an interview.  

6. Stay on top of distributed work trends and research  

Distributed and remote work is new to everyone. HR professionals around the world are only learning how to successfully manage global teams, so you don’t need to have every single answer right now. Look at how others do it and exchange ideas: you’ll learn new insights and test how to adapt them to your company’s needs.  

One thing to stay on top of is automation and tech trends. AI is already changing the recruitment game, employer branding is becoming a reliable strategy for talent attraction, and HRIS platforms and automation apps are letting people teams focus on people rather than on paperwork.  Make sure you keep tabs on these changing trends so you can implement them to streamline workflows and processes and run a more efficient workforce.  

Success stories: How these 3 companies reap the benefits of a distributed workforce  

Enough with theory—let’s see how companies apply all these tips in real life. Gable has worked with many global companies, so here’s how some of them leveraged the benefits of flexible workspaces to increase engagement in their teams and keep employees connected. (You’ll also see that Gable helped elevate their ideas and make them even more effective!)  

Instapage successfully transformed office-based culture into a distributed one  

Instapage helps businesses increase their digital advertising results with relevant, conversion-optimized landing pages for all of their campaigns. The main challenge for them was the transition from a San Francisco office to a fully-remote company hiring around the world.  Workspace solutions similar to Gable never worked well because Instapage’s People team didn’t have enough insight into who was actually using flexible office spaces, where, and how often. This lack of visibility, combined with struggles to control the budget, made the results unsatisfactory for Instapage, which is why they turned to Gable.  Now, the situation is different. Workspace usage increased by 50%, and team engagement rates grew by 30%. “In our engagement surveys, the sales team consistently has high scores of team connectivity. I draw a direct correlation to Gable since it empowers the team to meet often and leverage that time to work better together,” the Postclick team shares.    

Read more about how Instapage created a data-driven workplace with Gable.    

Future established genuine interpersonal relationships in a distributed team  

Future provides custom-made training plans and audio coaching, allowing employees to work out from anywhere on their own, flexible terms. The main challenge this innovative company faced was how to find a way to keep its distributed team excited, engaged, and connected.  Using Gable, Future provided autonomy to its employees by letting them book workspaces according to their needs. At the same time, Future ensured a space for the team to connect and improve collaboration face-to-face.

The success of this action is clearly reflected in the number of monthly bookings coaches from Future make: over 50!  

“The biggest challenge Gable solved for us was enabling people to gather in an easy, organized way. Employees can easily see where their teammates are headed and join them without anyone having to coordinate or guide them,” says the Future team.    

Read more about how Future’s people team uses Gable.    

Wheel scaled a distributed team while keeping the members connected  

Wheel provides companies and clinicians with everything they need to deliver high-quality virtual care, putting great care within everyone’s reach. Wheel’s people team wanted to find a way to keep a rapidly growing team connected despite the physical distance between them, so they organized hybrid events.

However, this was more of a short-term fix rather than a long-term solution.  When Wheel started using Gable, they finally saw the results of their great ideas roll in. The usage of flexible workspaces grew by 30%, and their people team saved 30 hours monthly because of Gable’s streamlined dashboard and ease of workspace booking and management.  

"The difference with Gable is night and day. We established relationships, trust, and credibility immediately, which is irreplaceable. Customization and flexibility are important for us, and the team at Gable is setting us up for success at every step,” shares Wheel’s team.    

Read more about how Wheel leverages Gable to grow their team.    

Start writing your success story with Gable  

Still not sure what kind of magic Gable performs to help distributed teams grow, become more engaged, and stay connected?  Book a demo and learn how we can help you easily source, book, and manage flexible workspaces for your team no matter where they’re located.

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Andrea Rajic