Why are they called 'distributed teams'?


What’s the difference between “teleworking” and “distributed”?

(Posted: June 11, 2020, 07:00:00 AM UTC)


Many people use terms like ‘remote work,’ ‘telework,’ or ‘distributed team’ interchangeably – because in all cases they are talking about people who perform their jobs from somewhere besides the office building. But the difference is really in the connotation of the words, and how the words affect our perceptions and actions in a team setting, which we will examine in a moment.

Teleworking: blast from the past

“Teleworking” and “telecommuting” are phrases developed several decades ago when the option of working from home had just emerged. Technologies and processes have changed a lot since then, and so has the language used to describe such arrangements – though many institutions still use ‘teleworking’ as the default term for working-outside-of-the-office.

The main thing to understand is that fully- or partially- distributed teams are much more common now – whereas in the past it was likely to be just one or a handful of employees working from somewhere besides the office. In those cases, the ‘teleworker’ was an anomaly, and was pretty much left to their own devices in terms of figuring out collaboration and communication with their co-located colleagues.

Distributed teams: building a resilient future

Successful, modern ‘distributed teams’ – even those where only some employees are working remotely – adopt the mindset that all team members should be empowered and expected to participate and collaborate equally, regardless of their location. There is a growing abundance of tools and resources (including the Distributed Government Guide) to help teams do this effectively.

John O’Duinn, author of Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart, provides a detailed look into the distinctions between remote-work terms, and how subtle differences in words affect our perceptions and assumptions about distributed teams:

All humans on the team work together, even though they are physically apart from each other. This is not a collection of individuals who each do solo heads-down work from different locations. Instead, this is a group of humans who coordinate their work with others on their physically distributed team. Because everyone on the physically distributed team is “remote” from someone, it is clear that everyone on the team has equal responsibility to communicate and coordinate their work with coworkers – regardless of whether any individual human is working from a building with the company logo on the door, from home, from a coworking space, a hotel or a parked car! Example usage: “I work on a distributed team”, “my team is distributed”.

Government is just one industry that stands to benefit from more flexible and collaborative teams. With small-but-important shifts in the way we think and talk about working in nontraditional arrangements, we can be part of the critical movement toward a more modern and resilient workforce.

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