The 2021 Guide to Setting Up and Managing Distributed Teams

distributed teams

Curious about distributed teams?

The global pandemic has ushered in a new way of conducting business, with several companies leaning towards ditching the traditional office in favor of remote work.

So if you’re wondering how you can get distributed teams off the ground, you’re in the right place. 

In this article, we’ll take you through the process of setting up and managing distributed teams. We’ll also take a look at their key benefits, how they differ from remote teams, and more.

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Let’s get started.

What are Distributed Teams?

A distributed team consists of employees who work in a variety of different locations. 

Most often, distributed teams include employees sprawled across different cities or countries. 

A distributed team can also include employees who work from a physical office space or their home.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, distributed teams have become part of the ‘new normal’ — with corporations and startups across the United States and the globe jumping on the bandwagon.

Wait, isn’t a distributed team the same as remote work? 

While the terms are used interchangeably and often confused, there are some differences when comparing remote work with distributed teams.

Distributed Team vs. Remote Team: What’s the Difference?

When looking at a team’s integration, connection, and location, you’ll be able to differentiate between the two terms.

A. What are the Characteristics of Distributed Teams?

Fundamentally, team members are located or distributed away from each other.

Whether working from a home office (anywhere in the world) or a physical office with no coworkers present, distributed teams rarely see each other. 

Employees work in seclusion (from various locations) without being in the physical presence of another worker. They utilize their workspaces and entirely depend on virtual communication and collaboration.

What are the Characteristics of a Remote Team?

Much like distributed teams, remote team members work away from each other.
However, not all employees work remotely. 

Most team members are located centrally, with a few team members deployed in different locations.

A remote worker can also be location-based or collocated. 

This means that remote employees can work from their home office but should reside within reasonable proximity to a physical office where they’ll occasionally meet-up.

Still a little confused?

An excellent example of where distributed teams work well is in the SaaS (Software as a Service) company environment.

Employees can be stationed internationally as all company functions occur via the internet using software platforms and a collaboration tool to aid with communication. 

There is no need for team members to meet physically because the nature of their work doesn’t require it. You execute all communication using various tools.

On the other end of the spectrum, let’s work with the same example but add in a physical office. 

Remote working occurs when required, but employees must make a trip to their office now and again.

For instance, in IT (specifically an Agile team), a product owner might require pair programming to take place.

Sure, you can do pair programming in a distributed environment, but it’s not as easy because communication is limited to chats and calls. 

Within the remote work setting, pair programming works better as both programmers are physically present and can execute the task without back and forth.

With that said, some tasks will require a defined team structure, and it’s not uncommon for a company to use both a distributed and remote workforce to optimize team effectiveness.

How to Set Up and Manage a Distributed Team

set up distributed team

We know what you’re thinking, ‘where do I start’? 

Don’t stress because we’ve got you covered. There are best practices and methodologies you can follow to guide you on managing distributed teams.

This step-by-step plan covers everything you’ll need to know.

Step 1: Recruit the Right Talent

Whether you’re a Scrum master looking to implement an Agile co located team or an editor wanting to hire a team of international writers — you must employ the right people

A distributed workforce must consist of trustworthy individuals who are comfortable enough to work on their own

Think self-motivated, independent, and autonomous decision-making capabilities.

In terms of managing distributed teams, you won’t have the time or energy to continually check-in with distributed employees all the time.

Moreover, a distributed team model comes with unique challenges and not everyone is cut out to work in a distributed workforce. 

Hiring an employee with the right caliber from the onset will positively impact team effectiveness later on down the line.

Step 2: Perfect your Onboarding Process

Your onboarding process can make or break your distributed model so spend time on making it as robust and holistic as possible.

Do your best to make your new employees feel valued and part of the team from inception. 

This is very important, specifically for creating a positive company culture.

You’ll want your new hires quickly acclimated to their jobs and get them familiar with their virtual team face-to-face using a video conferencing tool. Video calls are great at encouraging collaboration and teamwork.

Take your onboarding process a step further and use the opportunity to create a rapport with your team with fun virtual icebreakers.

Check out our list of 15 fun Zoom happy hour activities that can help you do just this!

Additionally, consider assigning a mentor to your newbies to help smooth the transition into their new roles. 

Mentors can help you set the right tone for your company culture and take loads of stress off your shoulders. Use them as a go-to resource for your virtual teams.

Step 3: Define Clear Expectations

Having clear, defined expectations and metrics are crucial to the success of distributed teams.


A virtual environment eliminates the personal nuances of work. 

The ability to pick up on social cues, like interpreting body language and reading between the lines, is thrown out the window.

Misunderstandings and overlooking instructions are commonplace in a distributed environment, so clear and realistic expectations are important.

Have multiple communication channels available and offer unwavering support to encourage collaboration among your virtual team and freelancers.

Ensure you communicate and clarify: 

  • The tools you use and how employees can access them.
  • Methods of communication.
  • Working hours and deadlines.

This encourages employee engagement and eliminates any ambiguity and confusion.

Step 4: Use the Right Software

After you have clearly defined your expectations, you’ll need to find the right tools to help your team meet expectations and to ensure things run efficiently

To avoid confusion, be sure to utilize only the necessary and useful tools in your distributed teams.

Later on, we’ll show you which tools you can use to make it easy to stay in constant communication with a remote team. Determine which collaboration tool will work best for you and your team and ask your team members to install the app.

Step 5: Focus on Results

Your main focus when managing a distributed team is to ensure your team delivers timely and accurate results.

Managers of successful distributed teams will request daily summary reports, tasks, checklists, and check productivity trackers to gauge whether the job’s done.

Keep micro-management to a bare minimum because it can derail an active and ready-to-work employee.

Sure, you will have the odd employee that will need to be micromanaged but don’t use this as a one size fits all approach. Your ‘doers’ will not appreciate it and it will impact morale negatively.

Strike a balance.

Maintain a certain level of trust and conduct random, regular team check-ins. 

Trust in a remote work environment is essential as it fosters employee engagement and collaboration within a distributed company.

What Tools Do You Use in Distributed Teams?

Managing distributed teams comes with unique challenges and the tools you use will be a critical factor in determining your success.

We all know how difficult project management can be under normal circumstances — add remote work to the equation, and you’re looking at a whole new ball game. 

This is why you need to select your tools wisely.

We’ve listed the most reliable and popular tools to help launch your distributed workforce.

1. Productivity Management Tools

A productivity management tool allows you to monitor your team’s productivity.

They are important in the remote work sphere because they:

  • Track progress on tasks.
  • Allow for accurate reporting.
  • Allow for accurate billing.

User-friendly tools like Time Doctor are intuitive and encourage employee productivity by giving you in-depth insights into how your employees spend their time. 

With Time Doctor, you’re able to:

  • View the amount of time employees spend on projects and tasks.
  • View screenshots of what employees are busy with.
  • Enhance employee productivity and collaboration with in-depth performance reports.
  • Customization lets you label unproductive sites and applications.
  • Generate payroll to bill your clients and pay your remote team, and more.

With all of this information at your fingertips, you won’t have to use hundreds of different apps — a pain point that often comes along with remote work.

2. Communication Tools

The ability to communicate with an employee thousands of miles away should be as easy as possible.

Fortunately, these two communication tools help you collaborate with your distributed team members with ease:

A. Instant Messaging

With an arsenal of communication tools to choose from, consider using the widely popular instant messaging tool — Slack.

Slack’s intuitive and user-friendly interface makes communication and collaboration a breeze. 

If your employee can send a text, they’ll be able to use Slack. There’s no training required. Real-time messaging and notifications ensure that your team is always up to speed with the latest info.

B. Video Conferencing Tools

Without tangible meeting spaces, distributed teams rely on video conferencing tools to add that face-to-face element to the global office.

Although distributed teams depend mostly on collaboration platforms, there are times where face-to-face interactions and meetings are necessary.

A robust and user-friendly video conferencing tool like Zoom helps bridge the gap between your distributed teams. 

It’s simple to use, and even the most technically challenged can use it with ease. You can even hold meetings in real-time, record them, and play them later.

3. Recruitment Tools

Whether you want to parse resumes, source, and track applicants, or conduct interviews, BreezyHR is a popular choice for managing recruitment activities.

This tool allows you to gain access to a global talent pool without breaking a sweat. It includes everything expected from a recruitment platform and more.

4. Payroll Tools

With payday around the corner, you’ll need a dependable platform to pay your distributed workers timeously.

As a pivotal cog in the wheel of running a distributed team, ensuring your team members get paid is very important to maintain trust.

Getting it wrong could impact your distributed team’s productivity and retention strategy negatively.

Platforms like Payoneer are skyrocketing in popularity because they can facilitate payments worldwide.

Payoneer’s international payments platform allows you to send and receive payments in more than 150 currencies.

With a plethora of ways to pay your employees, such as prepaid MasterCard®, bank transfers, and e-wallets, Payoneer takes this painstaking process off your shoulders.

What are the Benefits of Distributed Teams? 

With the help of powerful technology, distributed teams are revolutionizing the world of work.

Let’s take a look at how distributed teams benefit both employers and employees.

benefits of distributed teams

A. Employer Benefits

1. Massive Cost Savings

Office space, utilities, and leases. Say goodbye to these pesky bills!

Distributed teams will save you a ton of money because your entire team will be operating virtually. 

2. Access a Global Talent Pool

With a distributed team, you can defy geographical locations and hire the most talented and skilled employees from a global talent pool

Having an entire team that is globally diverse will ensure your distributed organization has skilled individuals with the ability to innovate, problem-solve, and provide you with unparalleled insights and teamwork.

This is a smart way to operate your company and retain and attract millennials to your workforce.

3. Unparalleled Coverage and Diversity

You’ll also have the benefit of collaborating with different cultures and time zones from across the globe. 

This is very beneficial for a distributed organization seeking a local presence in a specific territory. Additionally, having staff in different time zones means you can practically provide a 24-hour service.

B. Employee Benefits

Here are some perks an employee in a distributed team enjoys:

1. Work-Life Balance and Flexibility 

Working as an employee in a distributed workforce means that you can work when it’s most convenient for you. 

Spending more time with your friends, children and family allows for a better work life balance, which increases motivation and productivity levels.  

2. Increased Productivity 

Since you can work when you’re the most productive, you can get more work done with fewer interruptions and distractions.

A recent Stanford University study revealed that distributed team employees: 

  • Experienced an increase in concentration levels.
  • Took significantly fewer leave and sick days.
  • Completed an extra full day of work in any given week.
  • Decreased company attrition rates by 50%.

3.Cost Savings

Work on a distributed team, and you can save a significant amount of money.

You’ll be saving a large chunk of money on gas, transport, and insurance.

Moreover, you’ll save money on food as you’ll not be tempted to eat out as much, and you’ll have access to healthier options at home.

Distributed work means you’ll be spending your days at home. This means you’ll save money significantly on office attire, laundry, and dry-cleaning bills.

Final Thoughts 

Distributed teams and remote workers are the way of the future. 

If you want to ensure the survival of your company during these uncertain times you’re going to have to think outside of the box and move away from the traditional way of work.

Your ability to build a flexible, Agile team will mean that you’ll have to consider implementing a distributed workforce to keep up with company trends.

Whether you’re a startup, product owner, or Scrum master, use the tips and tools we’ve provided to set up and manage your distributed teams easily.

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