7 minute read 27 Jul. 2020
Woman on laptop in video conference

Leveraging a distributed workforce model to accelerate your business transformation

By EY Canada

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

7 minute read 27 Jul. 2020
Related topics COVID-19 Tax

As the world starts to reopen, companies will need to consider what new realities to accommodate for as they formulate back-to-office plans during a new normal.

Authored by Darryl Wright, Associate Partner, EY Canada People Advisory Services

How a distributed workforce model can accelerate your business transformation

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed the way we work. Millions of non-essential workers are now doing their jobs from home, many of them juggling child care and home-schooling obligations as they do so. Business meetings have been replaced by video calls, while office messaging tools have become a substitution for in-person interactions and coffee chats.

As the world slowly starts to reopen, companies will have to consider what new realities and behaviours they need to accommodate for as they formulate back-to-office plans during a new normal that will require workplace safety, sanitation and social distancing protocols for months to come. Office workplaces certainly won’t be the same as they were prior to the pandemic, and possibly never will be again. Some companies are even considering whether remote work is how they’ll primarily operate from now on. In fact, 74% of organizations have said they intend to increase remote work following the pandemic.

But rather than a black-and-white, remote-vs.-office situation, the COVID-19 crisis has presented society with an opportunity to usher in new, hybrid ways of working. Our framework offers a holistic approach that optimizes a distributed workforce model that can help businesses transform their strategy for the future.

At its core, a distributed workforce involves companies that have one or more employees working in different physical locations — maybe some are in the office, some are at home and others are in coworking or public spaces.

While remote work focuses on the individual, distributed work is organization wide, recognizing each employee’s functional and geographical uniqueness in terms of a company’s broader business objectives. We believe distributed work is a smart solution and can be a practical transition model for any company.


Why distributed work?

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of the Canadian workforce physically went into work every day, with only 1 in 10 working remotely, according to the Conference Board of Canada. This changed drastically in mid-March once the pandemic hit our borders.

While there was some initial skepticism, many remained productive through the switch — arguably even more so than before. A recent study found that 65% of employers reported that their workers were more productive working from home. This uptick in productivity has led some major companies to opt towards more permanent remote work arrangements for large portions of their workforces.

This concept is nothing new in certain sectors. Some companies, mainly those in tech, have long proven that it’s possible to effectively manage a company and its employees via a distributed workforce.

These companies have recognized that work isn’t just about showing up physically — it’s about fully engaging, no matter where their leaders and team members are located.

In the distributed work model, employees feel valued, appreciated and part of the team. Leaders include them and rely on them for their expertise, regardless of whether they’re hundreds of kilometres away or around the corner at a public workspace. This model also empowers employees to practice better work-life balance – in many cases helping to address child care and housing affordability concerns – which helps to build a stronger organizational culture.

Our employees have been quick to embrace remote work. Ninety percent of our Canadian workforce told us that they can effectively do their job from home. And close to 60% of them have said the majority of their daily interactions can be done remotely as opposed to in person. Key drivers for remote working include reduced commute time, financial savings and better work-life balance.

Employers, for their part, are rewarded with productive and loyal team members who appreciate that their team leaders respect the way they prefer to work. Flight risk or attrition concerns are largely mitigated due to the respect between employer and employee.

Remote working is now the new norm, but the word “remote” doesn’t mean much if there’s no central location to be remote from. In a distributed workforce framework, everyone works together, regardless of physical location.

However, most companies – particularly those with large workforces – will still choose to have a central office or headquarters. While this may be necessary, those workplaces need to be redesigned. In a distributed work framework, an organization becomes much more than the office — it becomes a collection of resources and talent working towards a common goal: success.

Distributed work is therefore a win-win for employers and employees alike if implemented intelligently and thoughtfully. Creating and enabling this new working environment requires a deliberate and coordinated approach.


Showing leadership using a distributed workforce model

First and foremost, business leaders need to ensure their employees feel engaged, connected and focused — but not monitored. There are seven ways that employers can balance monitoring their employees’ job performance, work ethic and commitment, while making sure workers don’t feel like they’re under constant surveillance.

  1. Choose the right employees for the right work. Ask how they prefer to work and where they’re most productive — at the office, or at home? Give them some say, but also ensure they can thrive in a distributed work environment, and that they have a proven record of being responsive and accountable for their work output. 
  2. Give every employee the tools, training and infrastructure to succeed, including up-to-date technology. If they prefer to work at the office, leaders must ensure that office spaces adhere to social distancing and safety guidelines in the COVID-19 era. That might require entirely redesigning collaborative workspaces and being mindful of people’s psychological fears in the aftermath of the pandemic. All of this will require the involvement of both IT and HR teams to establish tools and policies that increase worker autonomy, alignment and engagement. 
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Managers and supervisors must keep all lines of communication open with team members, and that could include sending notes or minutes after long virtual meetings to ensure everyone’s clear on their tasks. It’s easy to forget what was discussed during lengthy online chats. When people work remotely, there’s no chance to pop into someone’s office to ask for help or guidance if they’re struggling, or to bounce impromptu ideas off a co-worker. Leaders must ensure workers know they can reach out any time, whenever they need clearer directions, more information or a brainstorming session.
  4. Goal-setting can help employees remember their objectives while working on daily tasks, and allows managers to have a clear road map about the business’s broader aims and desired results.
  5. Trust is critical. Managers must trust employees to complete their work and employees must trust managers to help and support them, even if they’re a province away. A Harvard Business Review study has found that a good way to build trust is to ensure that all team members have defined job goals and are equally recognized for their work. Also, managers should encourage workers to stick to set schedules and so they’re not routinely working long hours or overtime — something that can be easy to do when working remotely. An employer who’s mindful of the long hours an employee is putting in will foster trust, goodwill and loyalty.
  6. Don’t forget about the importance of face-to-face contact. Video and conference calls are great, but they shouldn’t entirely replace in-person meetings. Holding at least some face-to-face meetings with staff, with the proper safety protocols in place amid the COVID-19 pandemic, can help build relationships between team members and leaders.
  7. Structure is key. Regular check-in meetings, a semi-structured workday and work schedules are helpful to effectively distribute work among employees. Again, communication, questions, input and feedback should be encouraged from all team members.


Common pitfalls

Making the switch to a distributed workforce model requires a change in traditional thinking and leadership about work that can sometimes be difficult to shake.

Companies accustomed to employees being physically present must be willing to grant them more autonomy and trust, and guard against pervasive monitoring of activity and performance.

Companies should also fight the instinct to replace physical proximity with increased usage of remote technology. Even before COVID-19, workers were feeling overwhelmed by too much chat and too many meetings. They need more time to focus on their work, and less time on email or messaging apps.

Businesses should reduce distractions for their employees in a distributed work environment, not add to them. Leadership styles need to adjust to be more effective in a distributed workforce model. To get the best out of their people, managers must be mindful and aware of these new work styles and preferences. Facilitating team meetings across multiple locations using technology should be done in a manner to allow for maximum inclusion and participation to avoid an “us vs. them” culture of those physically present in the office and those working remotely.

In conclusion

COVID-19 has prompted businesses, governments and workers around the globe to rethink the future of work. It has accelerated the growing trend to remote work, but it has also underscored that remote work isn’t viable for every employee or every organization.

Moving to a distributed workforce model allows a mix of work styles and setups, lets employees feel they are heard and helps employers get the best work out of the most suitable people on their teams, to meet their business objectives and propel the organization to success.

Is your company ready to embrace a distributed workforce model?


The COVID-19 crisis has presented society with an opportunity to usher in new, hybrid ways of working. Our framework offers a holistic approach that optimizes a distributed workforce model that can help businesses transform their strategy for the future.

About this article

By EY Canada

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

Related topics COVID-19 Tax