Remote vs Distributed

Remote Friendly vs Distributed Teams

It has been shown that companies that support employees to work when and where they want to, can support more diverse workforces. Diverse workforces lead to more productive and higher quality teams which ultimately make more profit. When talking about when and where people can work, I often hear the phrases “Remote Friendly” and “Distributed Teams” used interchangeably. These concepts have different implications and it is important for companies to be clear on what they support in order to have a psychologically safe environment.

Remote Friendly

Remote Friendly is about the ability to work from anywhere, like working from home or a coffee shop. The expectations are often focused on the availability of a person, like being online for quick response communication, such as IM, video chat, or fast email responses. When meetings are scheduled, it’s expected that members will participate in that meeting when it is held.

There are many benefits for being Remote Friendly, here are a few. The biggest benefit is the ability to work when traditionally you’d have to take off time. If people are sick but otherwise able to work, they can avoid spreading colds to other coworkers. If people have an appointment close to home, they can make it for when it works in their work schedule, instead of taking a half day and booking the morning or late afternoon, which are prime appointment times. When there are production issues, communication is critical and having them tested regularly in normal workflows will improve the effectiveness in crisis.

The challenges with Remote Friendly are both people focused and technology. With tools like Google Meet and Slack, team members can stay connected all day as long as they have Internet. Besides tools for communication, you should also be conscious of security of your team members networks, you should research tools like VPNs. Remote Friendly is great to keep work flowing, however when a team member is remote, their only sense of the world is through their computer. Working remotely for a day is easy, but it takes significant effort on everyone to make Remote Friendly successful long term.

Support for remote work is not binary and the range of support is pretty wide, you can’t just purchase a Chromebox and Owl and say you’re done. In the Remote Spectrum, companies can range from not supporting any remote access to being Remote First, where everyone use remote technologies even from the same physical locations. The spectrum includes the ability to working after hours as well as working from anywhere with a internet connection.

Distributed Teams

Distributed Teams is about the ability to work anytime, like working in multiple timezones or just working on your own defined schedule. The expectations are often focused on getting work done. Communication is still very important and there may be an overlap of time zones for real-time communication, but there should be a reliance on asynchronous communication.

The biggest benefit of a Distributed Team is the ability to hire the best people, not just the best people in your area. If your product requires support coverage, having team members spread out across timezones can fill that need possibly without pager-duty schedules. Additionally, high priority and time sensitive work can be executed continuously by asynchronous pairing of timezones, such that someone could pick up where someone stopped.

Distributed Team challenges focus mostly on people taking extra steps to make sure everyone is included in information sharing and decision making. This is why when you foster a practices that support Distributed Teams, you will also increase the inclusion of team members. Additionally there may be challenges with taxes and laws around employing from different countries or states.

“Distributed Teams” are generally “Remote Friendly”, since if you can work anytime, where you work should not be an issue. However there may be work that for security reasons or physical limitations that require working at specific locations.

Remote x Distributed Graph

Detroit Labs

Detroit Labs is Remote Friendly and some of our practices align with Distributed Teams, but we have much to improve in order to better support team members that don’t regularly appear in the office in person. We currently have one full-time remote hire, who moved from Michigan as an employee. We use technology like Slack and Google Meet to keep connected with one another. We use Chromeboxes to integrate Google Meet into our meeting spaces and our meetings default with a remote option. Team members regularly work from home when they need to or when Snowpocalypse strikes Southeast Michigan.

While we strive to create an environment where you can work when you want, our meetings are often “you miss it, you miss the information.” We’ve been good at taking and sharing notes when we intentionally don’t include everyone, but we’re not yet in the habit of documenting information for missing and future team members. We also try to make sure remote team members have the ability for input, but the in-the-room talking can dominate the conversation from time to time.


It is important for companies to be clear about what kind of culture they have and how they are going to supported. Instead of using phrases like “Remote Friendly” and “Distributed Teams”, describe how you will support current and prospective employees be included in their work.

Written by Mark Schall on 05 November 2018