Distributed Teams Vs. Remote Teams: From the Physical HQ to the 100% Virtual Office

Onsite, remote, distributed, oh my! If all these new types of teams have you tongue-tied, today we’re going to look at what defines remote vs. distributed teams. When building your teams to their full potential, understanding the difference between these two models is key. Get in the know by finding out their major similarities and differences, as well as the challenges and benefits of both models.

Defining Remote Teams

Remote teams aren’t necessarily distributed teams. Was mind blown? Let’s take a look at why.

Remote teams are highly dynamic. Because they don’t have a physical office, remote employees work from wherever they are, usually a home office or a co-working space. Oftentimes, remote companies go global to get the best talent possible, which means their team is spread out across the world. By using a global pool of candidates, location becomes a non-issue, though sometimes companies will choose to hire within overlapping time zones of their major clients.

This new trend of remote teams has become popular with companies such as Buffer, Zapier, HelpScout, and InVision. These 100% remote companies exclusively use remote teams to meet their needs. Specifically, Buffer is known for their remote model with teams on every continent and almost every time zone. Generally speaking, remote companies are considered to be at the forefront of innovating and improving the way we work.

Because there’s no physical office, remote teams feel like they’re on “equal footing” when it comes to communication and culture. Everybody works remotely, so there’s a strong sense of how to communicate effectively so that being in different hemispheres has no effect on getting great work done.

In summary, a remote team has:

  • No physical onsite office.
  • Team members work from any location across the globe, usually from home offices.

Defining Distributed Teams

On the other hand, distributed teams involve a hybrid approach of both onsite and remote workers. This blended model uses an onsite team at a physical office somewhere in the world, as well as remote workers in their home offices. The percentage of each type of worker will depend on the company’s needs.

Many successful companies use this distributed model. They keep their headquarters in a specific office but then hire out remotely to cover any needs. Often this happens for dynamic needs in the tech industry, during a startup transition, or due to a change in the employee’s geographic location. More specifically, this model is used in these cases:

  • Especially in the tech industry, many companies have dynamic needs. In order to enhance its offerings or inject new talent into its initiatives, a company may decide to hire remotely and stay nimble. Sometimes this is called staff augmentation, which is when companies hand-pick remote employees to fill skills gaps and support their core onsite team.
  • Startups often use distributed teams as they move from a physical office to a 100% remote way of work. The distributed model lets them downsize their overhead costs at a physical office while leveraging remote talent around the world at the same time. This win-win is great for startups with ever-changing requirements.
  • A top employee moves to another state or country due to personal reasons. A distributed company might decide to retain him/her as a remote employee, while other team members stay onsite. This way, they won’t have to say goodbye to an employee with a proven track record.

To recap, distributed teams are defined by:

  • The company employs both onsite and remote workers.
  • They have a physical office where some of the employees work.
  • They apply a hybrid model that relies on mixing remote and on-site culture and practices.

Challenges of Remote Teams

Remote teams have an easier time when it comes to hiring, culture, and communication because of the consistency of having everybody online. This ensures a “remote-first” mindset that includes every single team member, instead of having two competing models of work.

However, that doesn’t mean that remote teams aren’t without challenges. Some of the major issues when it comes to remote teams include:

  • Culture: Establishing a 100%-remote culture can be a challenge, especially in the beginning. It’s key to find ways to build relationships within the team, including creating a “virtual office” space, encouraging social interactions on company message boards, and hosting weekly events such as “virtual happy hour” or “virtual coffee break” so that employees feel connected, engaged and part of a bigger picture.
  • Communication: Cultivating effective communication is also a challenge for remote teams. Luckily, remote teams have the opportunity to create consistent across-the-board communication methods, such as using tools like Slack, Zoom, Trello, etc. The ability to think remote-first is great for figuring out what communication protocols work for everybody at your company. It’s important to leverage these tools so that it’s easy for your team to collaborate. 
  • Asynchronous Schedules: Finally, another big challenge for remote teams is having asynchronous schedules. Because remote teams involve numerous individuals across the globe, it can be a challenge to chat about projects, give/receive feedback in a timely manner or even feel connected to your teammates. To master asynchronous schedules, it’s important to know who’s in what time zone - for example, by using cloud-based systems tools like a Float - and then to create clear communication protocols so that the workflow is never put on hold due to geographical differences. In fact, many companies find that asynchronous schedules are actually a benefit. If you work with clients all over the world, you’ll always have somebody available - as long as communication among team members stays strong.

Benefits of Remote Teams

The strongest benefit for remote teams is feeling a sense of community, which comes from a remote-first outlook. It’s also a great feeling to have everybody under equal conditions so that there’s no difference in the way you’re treated between onsite vs. remote. Usually, remote teams also have more flexible mindsets in terms of scheduling and benefits - unlike distributed teams, which are still heavily linked to in-office cultural norms. For many, remote teams also feel like the future, with employees all over the world coming together from their home offices. Being able to attract the top talent worldwide without any restrictions is also a huge advantage when it comes to retaining highly skilled workers and keeping them happy at your company.

Challenges of Distributed Teams

You may think the difference between a remote and a distributed team is slight, but the impacts are actually quite important. Remember that distributed teams still include an onsite component, which sometimes means that there’s less flexibility in terms of hiring, culture and communication.

  • Hiring: A company with a distributed team sometimes looks at remote work as an exception. The core onsite location may be where most employees work and may be their primary working model. In this case, they may prefer to keep team members at the office, near the office, or within the same time zone, which can be limiting.
  • Culture: Remote workers can sometimes struggle with the culture of distributed teams. That’s because there’s still some of their team members at the office, so remote workers may feel isolated from their onsite coworkers socially and professionally. A big issue here is that onsite coworkers might go to lunch together, or attend happy hour, while the remote workers are left out. Some companies try to balance this out by having remote workers come into the office once a year, or by hosting webinar events that bring together both sides of the team. However, this continues to be a point of conflict for many remote workers, who may feel “second-rate” compared to the onsite team.
  • Communication: Communication can also be a problematic point for the distributed model. Because lots of collaboration will happen in the office, this makes for inconsistent communication between teams. For example, the onsite team may have a quick stand-up meeting in the hallway, or stop by a coworker’s office to chat about an issue. These types of communication methods aren’t possible between the remote and onsite teams, which means they will have to work harder to create consistent communication channels. They may have to create protocols that ensure no decisions are being made in-person without being communicated to the remote team, or that all discussions are recorded using digital tools so that nobody feels out of the loop.

Benefits of Distributed Teams

Of course, there are great benefits to distributed teams too. The #1 advantage is the flexibility and leverage that having both onsite and remote components gives a company. As mentioned above, companies with dynamic needs, or startups with constantly changing requirements, can use remote teams to enhance their onsite skill sets. Remote hiring for distributed teams lets them leverage the onsite team strengths, while being able to tap into new talent markets and skills. By filling gaps using staff augmentation, companies can scale their business according to their needs.

Final Takeaway

Both remote and distributed teams have their ups and downs. While distributed teams let a company expand and support their current services, remote teams have a remote-first outlook on work that creates consistent company culture and leverages top talent across the world. Whichever model you use, culture and communication are the two biggest challenges, which can be avoided by establishing ways to build relationships among coworkers and using clear communications methods and tools.

Now that you know the difference… which model do you use? In your opinion, what are the benefits?

And don't forget to check out our 2021 report on Remote Work Stats!

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