The confines of the traditional 9-5 office job have gradually, and then suddenly, been eroded by employees wanting more flexible schedules and having technology that allows them to work wherever and whenever they please.

Distributed and remote work isn’t just on the rise. It’s here and here to stay. A 2017 Gallup poll indicated that 43% of employed Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely in 2017, a substantial increase over the 9% who said they worked remotely in 1995.

The benefits, however, are clear: research has shown that remote workers get 13% more work done than their traditional office counterparts. And with a highly distributed workforce spread across the globe, companies can essentially create teams that are always working around the clock.

It’s not uncommon for companies these days to have some mix of office locations in multiple time zones or countries, full-time remote workers outside those office locations, and even embedded consultants or contractors that aren’t full-time employees but act as if they are.

Diverse and distributed workforces like this, though, are also enormously difficult for business systems teams to support.

The challenges of supporting distributed teams

“Time zones are a big challenge for us,” says Sen Rong Poh, head of business systems at Workato. Poh works in Workato’s Singapore office, but provides support for the headquarters in Cupertino and another office in New York City. Most days in Singapore start at 9 a.m. local time, which ends up being 8 p.m. the previous day on the east coast and 5 p.m. on the west coast.

“Sometimes we start work early or late to account for this,” says Poh, but there are times when employees in the U.S. are trying to contact him or his team for help and “we’re asleep because it’s 2 a.m. my time.”

Aside from time zones, other challenges for business system teams to navigate include language barriers — especially in the EMEA region — and the incredible proliferation of multiple tools adopted to perform the same task. Worse, business system teams need to prepare for this tool proliferation everytime the global parent company might acquire another company.

“We use email, Skype, Slack, and Microsoft Teams just for communication alone,” said the director of technology at a global media company headquartered in New York, NY. “We’re trying to get global adoption for Slack but we have to work really hard with all of our markets and adoption will never be 100 percent.”

His team has embedded business systems members locally in each market to alleviate some of the issues around time zones and language barriers, but stressed that better communication channels has been the best antidote.

There will never be a silver bullet to overcoming these challenges, but it’s why modern communication platforms and better tools and processes are essential for business systems teams to support a highly distributed workforce.

Communicate and document via Chat Platforms

Because communication is so key for distributed workforces — especially in building trust — it’s no surprise that many distributed companies rely on a chat platform like Slack as the main hub for staying in touch.

“Phone calls and emails used to be fine,” says Poh. “But they aren’t great. There are certain things you just can’t do with video conferencing and spontaneous meetings are almost impossible.”

But Slack (or other chat apps like Microsoft Teams) is perfect for asynchronous communication across time zones, Poh adds, because all the conversations are recorded and anyone can follow along, catch-up when needed, and jump in when possible regardless of what time of day it is. Dedicated channels also allows employees to follow conversations amongst different teams within a company, such as sales, marketing, HR, product, leadership, and also re-create the proverbial water cooler in a digital space anyone can participate in.

“Slack channels are geographically agnostic,” Poh says. “And I find that’s a very good thing. You know what’s happening in all the offices no matter where you are.”

Chat platforms also have the added advantage of leveraging chatbots, which allow employees to automate a range of tasks, self-service and surface specific information they need for their job, and ultimately not bog down other employees within the company. It’s a huge advantage over email and the phone, Poh says.

Even language barrier challenges can be better addressed through the integration of  translation bots on chat platforms, such as Google Translate.

Slack channels are geographically agnostic. And I find that’s a very good thing. You know what’s happening in all the offices no matter where you are.

— Sen Rong Poh

At Workato, IT and other app requests that fall to the business systems team can be initiated through a Slack bot command. Those requests are then automatically routed to the team’s Trello boards, which helps them manage and prioritize these requests.

“Our Trello boards can be overwhelming,” Poh says. “The bot never sleeps. But it’s a much better system than spending a bunch of my time compiling disparate issues from email, direct Slack messages, and a ticketing system.” Instead, Poh and his team spend their time on weekly scrum meetings to round out this approach to managing teams across time zones.

Another company taking advantage of this modern approach to communication and information sharing is Tenable, a cybersecurity vendor with 24,000 worldwide customers.

“When we analyzed all of [our employees’ requests for help], 90% of them had an answer already written down,” says Bill Olson, a member of Tenable’s Product Management team. “So rather than having humans point people to the right answer, like Google, [we needed a system where] you could go in and ask a question, and it would give you the answer.”

Tenable was willing to experiment with bots due to the amount of time it takes for individual subject matter experts to answer everyone’s questions over and over. Additionally, when you ask a person (especially if they’re in a different timezone) you’re not always going to get an immediate answer. Using Workbot, Olson and his team created a bot that employees can ask questions to in Slack. The bot serves articles from Tenable’s two knowledge bases, and if these don’t answer the question, it routes the query directly to a subject matter experts channel in Slack for help from a real human.

The result? A huge increase in self-service. Chat platforms allow distributed companies to communicate more effectively, and also delight employees with intelligent automations that make them work more efficiently right from within those communication platforms.

Gen Z is coming: provide better tools with automated workflows

By 2020, Gen Z will comprise 36% of the global workforce. They grew up never knowing a world without the iPhone; texting, emojis, cloud apps, and videos are the norm for them. To say members of this generation are comfortable with technology is an understatement.

Give these employees an internet connection, superb tools, streamlined processes, and better workflows via intelligent automation, and they will move mountains. Slack is one communication tool that will enable the future of work, but there are many ways business systems teams should be innovating to make distributed work easier as it continues to become the rule, not the exception..

Grab, Southeast Asia’s leading online-to-offline (O2O) platform serving 1 in 6 people in the region for everything from ride sharing to food delivery, is a hypergrowth company with an enormously fluid employee base. When an employee goes to a different office and wants to print something out, something as little as installing the necessary print driver used to be a huge headache for IT. The employee who needs the driver might be in their Seattle office, while the IT team is asleep in Singapore.

Now, however, employees are automatically prompted to download the necessary print drivers when they work from a different office through a workbot in Slack.

“We can reduce or minimize the manual work needed for these core processes as much as possible,” says Shawn Song, senior manager of IT systems at Grab.  “Workbot responds immediately to an employee’s request versus waiting for the IT team to get back to you. Employees are much more satisfied with the response time! We also anticipate that pre-emptive workflows, like prompting the user to install a printer driver for a new office before they even ask, will create an even better employee experience.”

Intelligent automations, even ones as small as automated printer driver installations for first-time office visitors make employees more efficient and have the ability to delight them.

Measuring success

So, how does a business systems team know if they are successfully supporting a distributed team? It’s easy, jokes Workato’s Poh: “If nobody comes to me then that means there’s no problems. Although, I suppose, if no one comes to me it could also mean everything is terribly wrong.”

For others success more seriously means efficient execution and giving the business the apps and support to do their jobs. “We have a quarterly roadmap for our pipeline and plan what we can execute for our users and if we complete all our projects that’s success,” says the director of technology.

With the right systems, processes, and intentions in place business systems teams can help companies turns themselves into a powerful and agile distributed workforce. It’s not just beneficial for a few remote employees anymore, but rather, it could be the future of how companies get things done.

Prioritize these five business systems goals in 2019 >

James Furbush
About James Furbush

James Furbush is a journalist who has worked for publications like TechTarget, Hyper Vocal, and Patriot Ledger.