How to Effectively Structure Distributed Work

This article was written in collaboration with José Santos, Affiliated Professor of Practice in Global Management at INSEAD, and draws from his research on virtual teamwork (see, for example,

Organizations around the world have announced definitive work-from-home policies, for some or all of their employees. Many more will follow suit. The extensive experience of remote work during the Covid-19 pandemic was instrumental for such a trend. Still, shifting to distributed work will require more than setting up a VPN or a shared drive for employees and teams to operate effectively from home. The physical distance will impact workflow and communication, and managers will need to reconsider how to distribute work and structure teams to maintain the speed and quality of operations.

This article explores the different types of work (individual work, group work, teamwork) and tasks (siloed, interdependent) and the appropriate coordination and integration processes for productive remote work in each scenario. [1]

Individual Work vs. Group Work vs. Teamwork

Though the difference between individual and teamwork is obvious to us, that between teamwork and group work is a little more nuanced.

Individual work is simply any task that requires a single individual to complete on their own. This was the first type of work to be completed remotely, in the first wave of remote work. This type of work resembles that of a 50m sprinter, where the race is run entirely by one person.

Group work involves multiple individuals working separately towards a common goal. Group performance is a function of what each individual completes and is measured as a whole or collective. Think of an Olympic gymnastics team, each athlete is scored for their distinct competitions (e.g. beam, uneven bars, floor work etc.) but ultimately, their individual scores are collated producing one final score.

Through a quirk of the English language, Group Work is a two-word expression whereas Teamwork is written as a single word. In many ways this is the perfect metaphor to explain the difference between the two. The first is a collation of the work of two or more individuals, while the latter is a melded output, the work of each individual indissociable from that of the team. A football team is a simple example of teamwork where athletes each perform individually, while playing in sync to achieve a common goal.

A team is a structure, but teamwork is a process. Teamwork is not simply the output of a group of people that we call a team, it’s the process by which this output is created and merged. Teamwork is made up of both individual work and a ‘collective work product’. A collective work product is the shared output of two or more members working together.

Fig 1: Visual aid depicting the difference in work models

Selecting a Model

To determine which model is the optimal approach for a specific task or job, we should start by figuring out the task components, their interdependence, and the process and tools to carry out the task. When a task is to be performed at the office or the shopfloor, as is normal and natural, we often consider such planning work to be granted or do it implicitly. However, if a task or job is to be accomplished with remote or hybrid work, we must be more deliberate and explicit when making those judgments and choices – and make everyone involved in performing the task aware of why we made such choices.

1. Figure out the task

First, we evaluate how intricate the task or job is, namely the the range and depth of specialized skills needed to perform all the separate components of the work involved as well as the specific resources that may have to be accessed to perform the task.

If the task requires one specific skill set and access to resources that an individual possesses, then such individual may perform that task on their own.

Group work is best suited for jobs that require more than one skill set and access to resources that no single individual possesses, but no interaction among the individuals performing the task is required. Individuals working on the task do not need each other to complete their respective work.

Finally, teamwork is best suited for tasks that require multiple people working together interactively. Such complex tasks typically require interactive work because of the kind of interdependencies involved to accomplish the various components of the work.

2. Determine task interdependencies

Next, we assess the extent to which the components of the work involved in a task or job depended on each other. Let’s consider the three classic types of interdependence: pooled, sequential, and reciprocal.

  • Pooled interdependence means that each individual works autonomously on their own component of the work and that such components are then combined to accomplish the task.

  • Sequential interdependence, much like in an assembly line, requires each individual to perform their component of the work before the next individual performs their own.

  • Reciprocal interdependence requires the various individuals involved to work simultaneously, providing inputs for one another while performing the task.

Fig. 2. A visual aid to depict the different types of interdependence

3. Select a Coordination Process

Once the task has been structured, managers and their teams should outline the coordination mechanisms to be used. We suggest that to be used. We suggest that each type of interdependence be addressed with a particular kind of coordination.

  • Pooled interdependence is solved by centralization and standardization. This means that one individual, typically the one chosen to combine the outputs of the other individuals involved in the task, will act as a hub and coordinate with each one how their work is and should proceed, addressing contingencies as the performance of the task unfolds. This works best for jobs that can be standardized (customer service) or easily combined (writing different sections of a report).

  • Sequential interdependence calls for formalization and planning. This type of coordination is reliant on codifying the workflow, writing down the specifications and schedules for each individual’s component of the work, as well as identifying scenarios of when and how the process might need to change. In sequential interdependence one person’s output becomes the other person’s input. This works best for jobs that require multiple individuals to contribute in a specific order (marketing to sales funnel).

  • Reciprocal interdependence is addressed with mutual adjustment – the coordination mechanism characteristic of teamwork. Mutual adjustment means that, at any point in time during the execution of the task, each team member will adapt their choices and behavior to any instant feedback or new sign coming from any other team member. The continuous self-adjustment of each team member to what is going on with the other team members can handle the most uncertain conditions, but it also exhibits the least predictable outcome. This works best in situations where the work process cannot be anticipated and where individuals are constantly rethinking their contribution based on what others have contributed (going to market with a new product)

4. Tools to Facilitate Coordination

There are several tools to facilitate communication, particularly for remote work teams. Below are a few suggestions for each process.

Depending on the outcomes of the task at hand, tools that set a clear, predetermined output are best suited for pooled interdependence (centralization and standardization). These tools should allow individuals to submit their contributions. Standards & conventions, shared drives, Google Slides and/or designed templates foster efficiency, making standardized coordination for pooled tasks easy to implement. Ticket management platforms (zendesk, freshworks, zoho, hubspot service hub) as well scheduling tools such as Deputy or Jolt are also relevant here.

Sequential workflows require tools that allow for formalization and planning. Many of these are already popular among remote and co-located teams. Examples of these project management tools include, Trello, or Jira for development and resource planning tools such as Harvest Forecast, or Maven Link . These platforms enable users to plan, allocate and manage resources, set deadlines, track progress, highlight dependencies, and distribute tasks in order of completion.

The direct, ongoing communication for reciprocal interdependence calls for a mix of synchronous and asynchronous collaboration tools in order to facilitate mutual adjustment. This includes a range of tools that allow for the sharing and updating of information in real time (Slack, Google Drive)and co-creating (Mural, Miro). We need to provide both tools for the team to come together, and others for each team member to contribute using their own skill set. Conferencing and communication tools such as Zoom or Microsoft teams as well as virtual office spaces such as Gather and Branch.

There are also a number of industry-specific tools available (Github for developers, Autocad for architects), with some large corporations building shared intranets or bespoke tools that are unique to the company.

Identifying the relevant structure and processes to best perform work is a critical part of maximizing output and realizing the potential of all staff members working remotely.

Prior to the emergence of the global pandemic and sudden surge of remote work, these team structures and models enabled managers and teams to improve outputs from a speed and quality perspective. In today's emerging post-pandemic world, they may additionally allow leaders to identify who can remain at home, and who needs to be in the office. An organization may choose to downsize office space allowing employees who conduct individual work to operate remotely, keeping physical office space for teamwork that demands mutual adjustment.