The distributed workforce: Good for small business, good for the country
Fast Company | January 09 2024
Perfecting the distributed workforce model will ultimately prove to be not only a matter of a company’s success, but one of national economic advantage.
One thing that keeps business leaders up at night is the quest for the best talent. The best change-makers, innovators, and creative thinkers across all industries are highly coveted. The competition to attract them to your company is fierce.
Over the past two decades, we have found that deploying a distributed workforce, which allows us to attract this in-demand talent from anywhere in the world, gives us a competitive advantage in the industries in which our companies operate. After working this way for so long, I’ve come to believe that perfecting the distributed workforce model will ultimately prove to be not only a matter of our company’s success, but one of national economic advantage.
BUILDING STRONG CULTURE IN A DISTRIBUTED WORKFORCE
As owners and managers, we worry about culture. Rightfully so. Great corporate cultures are essential to a healthy and successful business. I submit, however, that staffed physical offices are a 20th-century vestige of how corporate cultures used to be cultivated. As any HR professional will espouse, building corporate culture takes intentionality and effort. So, too, in a distributed workforce—we are all just less practiced in it.
The countless companies that have clawed back employee freedoms by mandating a certain number of days in an office—and think that will build their culture—simply lack imagination. Sure, it’s easier to just return to the pre-pandemic work world. But just because it’s easier doesn’t make it the right or most economically advantageous thing to do.
When I launched my company 26 years ago, our nascent team worked in different locations out of sheer necessity. We were bootstrapped, young, and entrepreneurial. As we “grew up,” for a time between 2011 and 2020, we experimented with a hybrid model where approximately 50% of our staff was based in New York City, all going into a single office five days a week. Today, jolted back to our fully distributed roots by the pandemic, we are happier, more profitable, and more committed than ever to never going back. And while we maintain a New York office for meetings and in-person collaborations, only three of our 100+ people use it daily. At any given time, the rest work remotely in 90-plus locations of choice in 14 countries.
Like every other management team, we realize building culture is an intentional act designed to make sure we can attract great talent who can do great work and succeed together.
So we swap “water cooler gossip” for the chance to regularly engage with wildly different and interesting people living all over the world. We trade the flexibility of calling impromptu team meetings for the joys of deeper, uninterrupted work that requires us all to be more intentional with and respectful of each other’s time.
A CRITICAL ELEMENT: FOCUS ON PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY
In 2012, Google launched Project Aristotle in order to discover what makes teams successful. They found that workers need psychological safety, which ensures team members have a safe space to work, question, take risks, and make mistakes without the fear of judgment, feeling incompetent, or greater ramifications.
We now know that psychological safety is place-agnostic. It doesn’t require an office to establish—and whether you are in a physical office or not—it is the base layer from which healthy culture can grow. And while there are many great books written about how to build a culture of psychological safety, we’ve found it all comes down to intentionality, modeling, and most importantly, establishing trust.
Trust, as it turns out, is at the root of the argument between return to work and distributed office cultures. Our approach to building trust starts with Stephen M.R. Covey’s insight that in order to earn trust as a manager, it is essential to give trust. We’ve found that this “trust exchange” is even easier in a distributed workforce where all types of workers can operate at their highest potential. For introverted staff, distributed work provides more structured and predictable meetings, which allows them to show up and be their “best professional selves.” Conversely, extroverts can focus on things that give them the most energy—establishing cultural moments, being cheerleaders in live get-togethers, and hosting in-person conferences.
If you haven’t tried a silent meeting, it’s really worth learning about. A properly run distributed meeting assures all types of workers’ contributions are heard. This democratization gives everyone the chance to demonstrate to their co-workers and managers their contributions and hear feedback in a safe environment, sans closed-door meetings, side-bars, or other extraneous side activities that could erode trust among teams.
A CRITICAL BENEFIT: GREATER INCLUSION
Another benefit of a distributed model is being able to access a level of diversity, equity, and inclusion that is much wider than available to any one location alone. We know it’s important to seek greater inclusivity of race, age, and gender, but a distributed workforce allows companies to transcend those and benefit from different cultures, life experiences, languages, and lived insights that dramatically increase the cognitive diversity of a team. When our teams meet, it is not uncommon for one person to be in India, another in Pakistan, a third in South Africa, and a pair in two different U.S. cities. Every day we have folks from all over the world coming together in small teams with high psychological safety. This is a recipe for a winning approach for any company, and especially for America’s small businesses.
The technology being released each week is enabling distributed work in amazing and ever-improving new ways. New advances continue to close the “disconnection gap” among co-workers on distributed teams. We owe it to our teams, our customers, and our economy to embrace this opportunity and not cede it to rival businesses or nations.