Five key learnings when managing a globally distributed workforce

More and more organisations are turning to a distributed workforce, but doing so is not without challenges. Spryker’s People & Culture VP Elise Mueller, offers best practice guidance on how to manage a globally distributed workforce.

Illustration of a man with laptop against a background of multiple screens of people

While more progressive organisations have long been open-minded about home and remote working, the pandemic forced other organisations to adopt a similar path. Most companies now at least offer hybrid working environments, and many go further and are fully remote, including the option to work from anywhere.

The benefits of such an approach are clear. You get access to the very best talent (the chances of the best person for a role being located near your HQ are minuscule), remote working provides far greater work/life balance and fits the requirements of modern workers much better.

But managing a globally distributed workforce is not without its challenges. Having been fully remote since 2020, here are our key learnings for how to do this successfully.

  1. Utilise local market expertise

When you employ people in a number of different countries, you can't possibly hope to understand the local market in each one, so it is essential to identify local needs with the help of third-party providers. Local needs refer not only to the individual needs of employees, which can often be assessed via personal conversations or surveys, but also to the legal framework. These vary not only from country to country but also in some cases within a country, such as the US.

The use of Employer of Records (EORs) is also vital when expanding globally. These third-party organisations take care of all the labour challenges in a particular country - from drafting contracts and offering the right and market-driven employee benefits (especially healthcare) to labour and tax issues. EORs can help identify local standards in the respective country and make your job much easier.

  1. Deploy consistent standards in the application process and onboarding

A company's effect on others is already decided in the application process: the more international the company becomes, the more crucial intercultural competence becomes right from the start. This is an absolute must-have, especially for initial contacts in the application process, which is why managers should receive specialised training in this area.

In addition, central elements of the corporate culture can be introduced to each new employee in virtual onboarding. A gamification approach can work well here. Candidates are guided through various knowledge modules on a virtual onboarding. Points are awarded for each completed module, which can be exchanged for company merchandise or additional benefits in the future.

  1. Real-world meetings still have an essential role to play

A global corporate culture must support remote work. Although the benefits of a fully distributed workforce are clear, that’s not to say that organisations should never hold real-world meetings.

Real-world team events and offsites, where everyone can interact and meet in person, are essential for better understanding. Moreover, real-life gatherings foster togetherness, trust, and a unified culture. That's because real conversations and discussions make it possible to better understand employees' personal and cultural backgrounds and get a feel for different team members away from video conferencing.

Scheduling such meetings – whether quarterly, annually or more frequently if feasible – brings people together, literally and figuratively. Managing a fully distributed workforce would be very difficult without this.

  1. A distributed workforce won’t work without freedom and trust

In any fast-paced working environment, it's all about working smarter, not necessarily harder. By operating a flexible company culture, each employee can decide how, when and from where they want to work. This means work can be integrated into private life - not the other way around.

Unlimited vacation days are just as much a part of this as the opportunity to work from other countries at times. It is important to establish a minimum number of vacation days that everyone must take. But beyond that, everyone should be allowed to apply for as much vacation as they need. The vacation must still be coordinated with the employee's manager with sufficient lead time. Approval is based on whether the employee's individual goals can still be achieved.

Typically, this works out for all requests. Because employees are trusted, they don't make unreasonable requests. There should be written guidelines for all employees - including examples to illustrate how the flexible culture can be lived by different employee groups.

  1. Understand and measure your P&C metrics

Understanding People & Culture (P&C) would be necessary even if organisations still operated and recruited on a more geographical basis. With a distributed workforce, it assumes a far greater importance.

Fortunately, many tools enable an organisation to do this, even in real-time. P&C teams use similar channels as salespeople – LinkedIn, Google ads, Facebook ads, etc. – so the same amount of time and innovation in campaigning are now needed. As salespeople do, P&C must use and act on the data swiftly. What channel is the best performing? Where do you have the best retention?

Review metrics on everything P&C and improve them on an ongoing basis, ensuring that your distributed workforce is happy, focused and motivated.

A distributed workforce can only be managed, maintained and optimised with a lot of effort, and the larger a company becomes, the more the culture changes. Beyond the points above, an important step toward a unified culture is recognising that each employee is different - as long as everyone works together toward a common goal.

About the author

Elise Müller is VP People & Culture at Spryker, the headless cloud platform-as-a-service for digital commerce. Spryker employs more than 650 people in more than 30 countries around the world.