Team Management

Remote, Distributed, and Hybrid: What’s the Difference and Why It Matters

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 

A friend (we’ll call him Dan) owns a business with twenty employees and he posted a job for a programmer who would work “remotely in a hybrid work environment.” He was looking for a talented coder who would never need to visit his offices and could therefore, live anywhere he or she wished. Time zone was irrelevant. 

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Dan wanted the best programmer he could find. 

What he got was a bunch of applicants who assumed the job meant working a couple of days in the office each week, and a few from home. The applicants wanted a hybrid work schedule because they appreciated the flexibility of working from home, yet also enjoyed the collaboration and communication that results from working in close proximity with other people.

“I don’t get it,” Dan said. “I wanted someone to work remotely. And we do have a hybrid workforce. How could so many people misunderstand?”

What’s the difference between remote distributed and hybrid teams?

Actually, misunderstandings like that are common, because “remote,” “hybrid,” and “distributed” mean different things to different people.

To Dan, “remote” meant truly remote: Never coming to the office. Living anywhere. Working from any time zone. 

But to many, “remote” means working from home yet also local. That way, every employee would be in the same time zone and, if necessary, employees would be able to come to the workplace. To many, “remote” implies that there is a physical location (think office, headquarters, or storefront). Remote workers just don’t have to go there.

Or take “distributed,” meaning there is no physical location. Like Buffer, the social media scheduling company that ditched their office in 2015 and whose employees—including the leadership team—all work from wherever in the world they choose. By definition, a distributed workforce must work remotely; there is no other option.

Then there’s “hybrid,” as in a hybrid work schedule, or a blend of working remotely and in-office. Just keep in mind that a hybrid work schedule is different from a hybrid workforce (or, as my friend calls it, a “hybrid work environment”). Hybrid workforce is a term often used to describe a company where some people work in-office, some work from home, and some follow (yep, here it is) a hybrid work schedule.

I know: all the definitions sound precious at best, overkill at worst.

Except for the fact that knowing the differences and then using those differences to manage your business effectively is extremely important.

Let’s define each type of team, keeping in mind that a team may be a combination of these:

Type of teamDescription 
RemoteThere is a physical office, but employees do not go in daily—or at all. 
Employees may work in the same time zone as the office or in different time zones 
DistributedThere is no physical office. 
Employees work from wherever they choose (they may in the same time zone or different time zones) 
Hybrid workforce or hybrid environmentA company in which some people work from the office and some work from home—and some use a hybrid schedule
Hybrid scheduleA work schedule that is blend of in-office days and work from home days

What is synchronous work and asynchronous work?

The average remote workforce works relatively synchronously, or on the company’s timetable. Everyone, regardless of the location from which they work, may start their day at 8am, take lunch around noon, and end the day around 5 or 6pm. 

A truly distributed workforce, one where employees live in different time zones, tends to work somewhat asynchronously, within the hours of their own workdays. Those workday hours can be surprisingly different. A recent survey by Buffer shows that only 2 percent of the 2,000+ respondents work for companies whose employees live in the same time zone. Nearly 60 percent live in between two and five different time zones, and a further 20 percent live in up to ten different time zones.

Asynchronous schedules result in asynchronous communication. I may not read that email you sent until (your) tomorrow. I may watch a recording of a Zoom meeting hours after the event. We may never all be on the same page at the same moment.

But there’s an advantage to asynchronous workflow: individuals and teams can work without sacrificing speed. I can finish tonight what you started today. And while I’m asleep, you can gather data and map out a plan that helps me hit the ground running when my workday starts. 

That’s what Dan really wanted: a coder who could be given a set of tasks and then trusted to complete those tasks within a mutually agreed-upon timeline. That’s what he should have asked for in his job posting: a skilled coder who would work remotely, from anywhere in the world, willing to work through the complexity of asynchronous communication while taking advantage of the flexibility and speed (and relative autonomy) of asynchronous workflow.

Remote, yes. Also distributed. But not, at least from the employee’s point of view, hybrid.

Building the type of team that works for your business

Which brings us to a larger point. Understanding the difference in different work and workflows will help you understand the systems and processes you need to put in place to effectively manage your employees. Communicating with remote employees in the same time zone is relatively simple; communicating with remote employees eight time zones away can be more complicated. But it can be done. Maybe you’ll schedule a ten-minute end of workday/start of workday video chat with a remote employee to update progress, agree on priorities, and set deliverables. Maybe you’ll set a regular all-hands conference call that is at least relatively convenient for everyone.

More certainly, you’ll focus on establishing clear documentation and records. If you and I work on opposite sides of the world, sending me a note to find out where a project stands means waiting a day to see my response. Set clear expectations. Daily progress reports. Daily updates on activities started, tasks completed, and task assignment and responsibility. If I don’t know what others have done, I can’t pick up where they left off and keep things moving forward.

Most importantly, you’ll manage by results. You’ll set goals. You’ll put metrics in place that objectively measure goal achievement. You’ll create an environment where all your employees —whether remote, hybrid, or distributed—know the results you expect, and feel empowered to achieve those results.

Updated: December 14, 2021

Jeff Haden
Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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