The Five Pillars of a Great Distributed Team

The workplace of the twenty-first century has undergone multiple structural transformations in a relatively short space of time. From the widespread adoption of open-plan design in the early 2010s to the recent phenomenon of hot-desking, our offices and the people who work within them are regularly subjected to corporate experimentation. Newest to the workplace is the concept of Distributed Teams, where employees that would have previously worked together in a co-located space have begun to work in different locations, or from home.

While there have been early adopters of the distributed work structure, it has not undergone the test of mass adoption, and all the positive and negative outcomes associated with it have not been widely understood. Other revolutionary systems, once tried and tested, were discovered to have substantial drawbacks inherent to their design. Open-plan offices contend with the noise pollution of the entire workforce, such that distraction is a major disruptor of productivity. Hot-desking employees can contend with a sense of their impermanence in the organisation, and in larger companies may even struggle locating their co-workers. Of course some employees thrive in these environments, enjoying the sense of community in a busy office or are so mobile in their activities that a permanent desk would only slow them down. Organisations can maximise their success by playing to the strengths of their chosen system, taking it into account when making decisions on personnel, daily practices and company culture. Each structure has it’s place, and is ideally suited to specific styles of work and industries.

The workplace informs the way in which people collaborate, and the way in which teams are deployed to focus on specific tasks. Proximity to colleagues with similar roles, shared spaces for inter-department meetings, and tiered leadership organisation are some of the responses to the allocation of space in an office. When moving to distributed work, should physical team structures automatically translate to a virtual replica of the workplace, or should they be built based off the inherent dynamics of the new network? When looking to integrate distributed teams into their workplace, companies must understand what employees in this space value, and what they require to operate.

We believe that there are five “pillars” of distributed workplaces that, once properly addressed, enable workers to deliver efficiently and thrive personally within their business. Each must be designed for, built up and maintained with intentional focus from management and leadership.

Consistent and Credible Communication

Distance and separation from co-workers is the core factor of a distributed workforce, since it is communication technology that has enabled this form of work to operate at all. Surprisingly, it is easy to allow this core element to become a secondary focus, and even for it to be avoided by some staff. Communication must be regular, and rich in content. A range of mediums should be used, including group based chat boards like Slack or Microsoft Teams, voice and video calls, both in small groups and one on one. The information exchanged in these formats must also be actionable, and team members must be confident that they can rely on its authority to make decisions, like they would with an in person directive or an email.

If employees are allowed to feel isolated from their teammates, a whole host of barriers to collaboration and healthy functioning are introduced to their work. Scheduling daily “check in” events where the team has a chance to chat, both formally about work and informally, gives affirmation of their common goals and professional relationships. Leaders and Managers should also maintain regular communication one on one with individuals, such that they are confident they are able to reach out for help should they need it.

Structure and Flexibility

What may seem like two opposing concepts really go hand in hand when speaking about a team member’s experience of working from home, or in a distributed team. When at home, or in a solo office there is a lack of external scrutiny on the moment to moment decisions of where to allocate time and energy, and while this may seem freeing to some, the shine wears off when there is too much freedom and not enough structure. Distributed employees value clear structure within a businesses operation very highly, because it gives them a roadmap to the successful execution of their responsibilities. This structure should explicitly state which areas employees must adhere to a schedule, and in which they have more flexibility. For example, employees must make themselves available for particular events in the work day, but they are allowed to deliver certain projects before or after standard 9–5 hours. Ideally, the structure should be built up with the input of the team that it relates to. When people have a hand in creating the structure of their work days they are more invested in performing within them.

Relational Capital Building

Of the five pillars discussed here, Relational Capital Building may be the most taxing on the time, energy, and budgets of Distributed Teams. If any amount of collaboration is required between members of a team, there must be enough relational capital present to look past differences in ideas, personality, and values to focus on the task at hand. While there exists a baseline level of reciprocity within the vast majority of people, this can be eroded particularly rapidly when physically separated from their co-workers. Without the daily incidental interactions employees have in an office, it becomes much more difficult to develop professional relationships with depth. The proverbial water cooler sees no rhythm of chit-chat, joking and downright gossip that has been the glue of organisations since their inception. In a distributed setting, employers must deploy a series of team building resources and exercises that encourage relational capital, and in turn enthusiastic participation in the workplace. A sometimes unavoidable expense is that of a physical “kick off” event where distributed employees are physically brought to the same location, where it will be much easier to start (or maintain) the work of team building.


Thankfully, not all aspects of running a distributed team are as difficult as each other, and in some cases technology has done most of the heavy lifting for us. This is true for the issue of transparency within the organisation’s communication philosophy. This refers to the accessibility of information and personnel within company operations, both in practice and in corporate cultural values. The online tools at our disposal handle the practical side, with live document editing, file sharing services and cloud storage of working materials, making it easy to have multiple people working on the same task simultaneously. The culture of transparency is more elusive, and distributed leaders must actively participate in this principle to encourage its adoption. Displays of openness to incoming queries and willingness to share information goes a long way to positively influencing the working experience. Of course, there are still limits to what should be readily available, such as private or sensitive information, but the general rule is if it has the potential to inform or affect an employee’s work, they should be allowed access.


From the steady day to day consistency of a home office, repetition and stagnation can become issues for any employee within a distributed team. Without the bustling comings and goings of an office space, it is very easy for distributed employees to experience dissatisfaction with their career and the work that they do for their organisation. To counter this, team leaders must communicate the goals of the company, and the subsequent achievements as they happen. Likewise, leaders must also discuss professional goals with employees and facilitate achieving them where possible. Without a sense of direction and the experience of moving toward achievable goals, a distributed employee loses purpose. Willingness to collaborate within teams also becomes affected, as studies have shown the biggest predictor of success within team environments is an earnest belief that all parties involved are there with the intention to work together towards a goal.

For a business, choosing to move to a distributed workplace involves much more than a simple cost/benefit analysis on the basis of personnel and budget. To avoid the trappings of this new era of work, any business’ implementation of it must be accompanied by a willingness to regularly assess the organisation’s structure, processes and hiring practices. The pillars listed here establish an interpersonal foundation for an effective and satisfied workforce. These principles also provide a framework to review aspects of a team that may otherwise go unchecked. Conducting a review of your team or business’ performance in these areas is incredibly useful, and should help you navigate this exciting new terrain.

Constellation Distributed Team Services can conduct an assessment of your organisation in these areas and more. Contact us to arrange a review today.

Written by Scott Allan

Photo by Eriksson Luo on Unsplash