Beyond Home versus Office – Dispersed, Decentralised and Async Work

We talk a lot these days about remote work and hybrid work, but one concept that gets less attention is what I’d term dispersed work – the notion that team members are working together across different locations. In fact this kind of work has been common a lot longer than the concept of hybrid. While getting dispersed work right has a lot in common with both remote and hybrid it’s not quite the same set of challenges – and for many companies has the potential to yield huge benefits.

I’ve spent a significant proportion of my career working in dispersed teams – and not only in large companies either. Smaller companies can use dispersed work to team up for delivering projects in different locations, to retain employees moving for personal reasons, to diversify business across 2 or 3 smaller (potentially lower cost or busier markets) office locations or even to hire remote employees. Larger companies more naturally have multiple offices but dispersed teams can allow for better balance of resources to meet demand, reduce hiring or overhead costs or to tap into specialists which are not feasible to employ at every location. It’s also very similar to the way, DBEI have worked to deliver the BILT event series.

Different reasons and structures behind dispersed work will result in different models. Maybe you only need consult a remote specialist now and again for a particular project – or maybe your team is spread across different locations around the world.  Maybe you get together in person once or twice a year, or maybe your face to face time is project related.  Regardless of face to face time. when you work in a dispersed team some of your colleagues and maybe your boss are remote pretty much every day – and it doesn’t matter who is in the office or at home. At an extreme this could mean you have an office, perhaps full of colleagues (fellow employees) but there are no team members (people you actually work with) to see when you go there. Every day is a remote day in some sense. You have to have virtual team meetings, training, social catch-ups or one on ones – your only choice when you have a geographically dispersed team is to have these events virtually or to not have them at all.  In any ways work needs to be managed as if everyone is remote, working from home.  At the same time though the office offers opportunities for cross team connections, training and socialising but with a lot less daily benefits to going there. 

Dispersed work frequently used to involve a lot of travel. Sometimes it meant people literally would wait a week to ask a simple question (I’ll talk to you when you are in) These last 3 years have all of a sudden made dispersed teams a lot more manageable. Now its much easier than it was 15 years ago and people are way more accepting of the concept. In the past most people were unused to any virtual or remote working, these days most knowledge workers have at least a regular acquaintance with teams or zoom. But like remote and hybrid work, dispersed work takes more than the ability to use a video call to be a genuine and ongoing replacement for all sitting in the same place.

Dispersed work naturally sits alongside the concept of async work – once you introduce teams in different locations the likelihood is you will start to work across timezones. I had been working in dispersed for many years before I came across the concept of async and it was one that totally resonated with me. (this is a great resource on async work)

What do we need to do to support dispersed work and build genuine and deep cross locational teams and relationships? I think it’s a mix of the same things that support other forms of work that are not in person such as remote, hybrid and async work.

  • All meetings are virtual. Ideally each person has their own screen even if in one room.
  • Regular team meetings are essential. It’s a key way team members connect. But they should have a specific purpose and reason to attend . There might be different meetings for sharing knowledge and training, for socialising or for specific tasks (marketing, specific software or project teams etc). Maybe the whole team doesn’t need to be part of all the meetings either.
  • One on ones – and not just with your manager. You need to allocate some time to get to know your allow team members more informally so spend some time with each person who you work closely with.
  • Use your meetings to build relationships and rapport.  I think this is the explanation behind why  I am  against a “no recurring meetings” culture!

But it’s not all about meetings and virtual  “face to face” time, if meetings are focused on relationship building how do we get the work done? While sometimes a virtual meeting, workshop or video call is the answer, if this is our default, we struggle to find time to get work done. Chat is one answer but again can become stream of interruptions.  Some of my suggestions are

  • Replace daily scrum or update meetings with virtual updates via chat (or you could also  try voice message?) – this allows for different start times and time zones whilst still building into your daily routine a check in and hello to your team members
  • Review documents and provide comments using cloud collaboration tools (as basic as Microsoft’s commenting tools through to specialised collaboration software for your industry like Revizto and BIM Track) as a starting point  – follow up with a meeting only if required.
  • Use written / recorded briefs / instructions as a starting point – again follow up with a meeting if required.
  • Use tools like Trello or Monday to plan and share work across the team.

One of the biggest challenges to dispersed work in larger companies  can be in relating to other teams who are less widely distributed and maybe still have very office first cultures. I would describe these as hyper local. Often there might be a basis of functional reasons for why these teams are less dispersed (eg roles that require physical presence) or maybe they have just never had any reason to get used to remote or hybrid ways of working – and often see no benefits to themselves or their teams in changing the ways they work. In these situations it can be difficult to agree on a set of etiquettes that apply as the two team’s etiquettes are likely very different. Should the dispersed team members have to revert to the etiquette of face to face? The skills and etiquettes of working face to face and working in a dispersed team are very different and meshing the two cultures can be hard.

The likelihood is though that in the future dispersed work will become ever more common. This article from Workforce Futurist talks about the concept of decentralised work – this concept is linked to dispersed work but is one step further, essentially the potential for work to be based more and more around individuals coming together on a project basis (more like a movie structure than a typical company structure). This idea has been discussed in future of work writing for some time but as this article discusses, technologies make this possibility easier and a more likely future.

I believe the concepts of dispersed and decentralised work take us beyond the polarising debate of home versus office and into the future of work. Work is not the same today as it was in the twentieth century when the office as a concept came into being – its not even the same as it was in 2000 (which is around when I started working) despite the fact we had email and computers by then. Even before the pandemic technology was changing the way we worked and allowing different modes of work to exist. Workplace Futurist (and others) liken this change to the industrial revolution. People will continue to work from offices, they will just use them differently. People will also work from other places (as many already did). The biggest challenge is how we develop our workplaces, processes and cultures to support these new ways of working. Most importantly not only at a company or team scale but how we can support individuals to work together in ways that allow autonomy, flexibility and each of us to produce our best work.

What do you think? Can we move beyond the home versus office, remote versus in person debate? How do we help both teams and individuals transition to new ways of working?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image credit: Compact Fibre via Unsplash