The benefits of distributing your workforce using modern communications are many. Just ask a company like 37signals - they've got employees all over the world! A distributed workforce means a bigger labor pool, reduced costs, flexibility for employees, and an oddly counter-intuitive increase in productivity.
Modern technology has allowed people to work from the Bahamas, their bedrooms, and from local coffee shops, but this spread out model comes with its own set of problems.
Luckily, so many companies employ people in differing locations that professional tools have been built to provide fixes. We've pulled together some common problems and solutions.
The Problem: Distributed workforce means distributed access to company files and resources, some of which are sensitive or only for certain people. Companies need to balance the need for reasonably easy access against the need to keep unwanted visitors on the other side of the firewall. Companies also run the risk of lost or stolen data if something goes wrong with a team member's personal device.
The Fix: Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) offers a fix for this by creating a 'virtual workstation' for each team member. All files reside on a server owned by the service company, accessible via mobile platforms anywhere with a connection, meaning lost or stolen devices never compromise data security. Login security is also less of an issue, since the team responsible for that security consists of specialists hired by the service provider. Three current leaders in the DaaS market include Toshiba, AT&T and Citrix.
The Problem: Old-school workforces enjoyed unified communication because they all worked in the same building, which was strung for landline phones and faxes. A distributed workforce lacks this infrastructure, leaving individual connections to local and even personal preferences. This in turn can create a less-than-professional appearance for people calling in, and make simple transfers or conference calls a challenge.
The Fix: Virtual phone systems are the most elegant solutions for this challenge. Much like DaaS does with computing resources, a virtual phone system places phone infrastructure on a server and routes calls to designated numbers. The phone tree and voicemail options can make a one-person shop seem like a Fortune 500 corporation, and the system supports hold, transfer and conferencing between phones regardless of physical location.
Lack of Face Time
The Problem: Despite the advantages of distribution, there's something to be said for seeing the faces of your team and experiencing the synergy of working together on a project in real time. Until they invent Star Trek style transporters, it'll be hard to bring your team together on a regular basis. Fear not- you can still make sure people are working together!
The Fix: Recognition and esprit de corps comes with seeing teammates on a regular basis over time. Make sure you can video conference, be sure to set up some collaboration apps, and get together once in awhile.
Video conferences such as those offered by Microsoft, Adobe and Cisco can do a lot to establish those personal connections. Join.me is a really popular one. You can also use Google Hangouts for meetings (super easy to do if you already have a Google account!) Skype works, too.
Real-time collaboration generates synergy and results simply from getting multiple minds on the same page at the same time. Companies of different sizes have different options for this kind of service. Large corporations can use DaaS suites with collaboration functionality, while a small outfit can use something as simple as Google Docs. Between the two, collaboration software apps like Campfire, Dropbox and Workflowy provide solid basic platforms to share worktime together as a team.
Consistent Meetups. Many companies make get-togethers a top priority. Offsite meetings in fun locations, complete with social activities, can hype everyone up about the company they work for. It's important to get everyone together to cultivate comradery and get employees on the same page.
The Distributed Workforce: A New Way to Do Business
Though these are some of the most frequently reported problems with distributed workforces, the list is far from complete. A distributed workforce is awesome, but it certainly has its challenges!
Readers, what challenges have you faced, and what solutions might you suggest to others? Join the conversation in the comments below.