U.S Distributed Workforce

The Small Business Owner’s Guide to Managing a Distributed Workforce

Long before the pandemic hit, Matt Mullenweg, cofounder of WordPress and CEO of Automattic, predicted that a distributed workforce would eventually become the norm for many companies. Little did he know how soon his prediction would start to play out.

Since the company’s inception, Automattic has been 100% distributed. But not all companies are in a business that can operate in a fully distributed mode. The reality for many organizations will be a hybrid workforce. Some people will continue to work at home. Others will return to the office.

In this video, Matt provides a number of tips for building what he calls “a distributed capability.” We’ve incorporated some of his thoughts along with those of other CEOs and CISOs (chief information security officers) into a broader list of ideas for managing a distributed workforce.

The home workspace

The good news about working from home is that an employee can tailor their workspace however they want. They can even give themselves a “corner office.” If they have a laptop, they can move around their house or apartment.

On the other hand, members of a distributed workforce may end up with an ergonomically inferior setup to what they had at the business office. They should be made aware of the healthiest ways to configure their workspace.

Home office hardware

Each employee should have a scaled-down version of the office technology stack.

This includes a secure router, a large monitor, a printer and even a business VoIP phone. With cloud telephony, employees can have a fully featured desk phone at home that lets them “answer and transfer.”

Other important hardware includes the right type of headset and/or other audio gear for video conferencing. Apple AirPods are very popular and they work with many devices. The Pro version has active noise cancellation, which makes a barking dog less disruptive.

Home cyber security

Keith Alexander is the CEO of IronNet Cybersecurity and the former National Security Agency director. During this panel discussion, he said,

“We’ve just opened up all these points of presence into our network. Now we have to secure employees’ networks at home.”


In the same discussion, Kim Green, CISO at Rodan + Fields, explains that her company trained employees on how to secure their home network. Rodan + Fields also provided employees with a stipend for security measures, such as subscription to a VPN service for all online activity (in addition to the VPN that gets them onto office servers).

Home Office Security

There should be a similar umbrella over a home office that there is over an office building.

Employee access to legacy applications

A quick shift to a distributed workforce left some companies with the challenge of connecting employees to in-house, client/server applications. An example of this type of application is Intuit LaCerte, which CPAs rely on for tax return preparation.

CPA firms that only had access to LaCerte from within the office were not able to provide multi-user, remote access. Those who had already moved their servers into a data center and had implemented virtual Windows desktops were able to give all staff access from home.

It’s never too late to move a legacy, client/server application into a data center.

An emphasis on centralized documentation

Keep in mind that your employees are generating intellectual property for your company from home. They may be developing IP on their own computer and hard drive. It’s important to shift that IP and other information to a centralized cloud drive such as Dropbox or Google Drive.

If your business is using G Suite, you can take advantage of document collaboration and cloud storage.

Help desk support for a distributed workforce

With some of the technical and personal frustrations that come from working at home, reliable and friendly help desk support is more important for members of a distributed workforce than it is to an office-based workforce.

In a small business’s office, the designated IT person is able help people out right at their desks. Without that convenience, distance support needs to be done right. That may mean outsourcing the help desk function to a local IT company.

Employee accountability

A fair ask from a manager is a daily email from an employee with the answers to these two questions:

  • What did you do yesterday?
  • What are you going to do today?

For company issued computers, web filtering software can monitor for excessive personal browsing on company time.

Employees can clock in and out using software from a vendor like clockodo. Workers who don’t need to be on the clock each day for defined start and end hours can time shift their working hours to their most productive times. The early bird can clock in early and the night owl can clock out late.

The number and size of video meetings

Zoom fatigue is a real phenomena. The Harvard Business Review lists a number of contributing factors.

To limit this fatigue, keep meetings small. Avoid having too many online meetings. Sometimes, an old fashioned telephone conference call can be a more effective way to communicate and exchange ideas.

Provide other online communication tools

Slack is an online tool that saw most of its early growth in tech firms. But it can work well for any type of business.

It has proven to be a tool that many people naturally embrace and do not need to be coerced into using.

Encourage intra-company socialization

Part of an office culture are the bonds that are formed among employees. Many peoples’ closest friends are some of those they work with.

Some companies are encouraging employees to periodically socialize online using company tools. Trivia games and discussions about a non-work topic are two examples of social meetings.

Schedule one-to-one check-ins

Small business owners and managers can schedule 1:1 check-ins with employees to personally address any questions or concerns. These meetings are also an opportunity to explain directly to an employee why specific actions have been taken or will be taken.

Expand your hiring reach

If your business moves to hybrid model for the long term, this can expand your geographic possibilities. To paraphrase Matt Mullenweg, instead of fishing from a small pond or bay, you can fish from the entire ocean.

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