Across the world, but par­tic­u­lar­ly with­in the web design indus­try, the dis­trib­uted agency model has gained wide­spread pop­u­lar­i­ty. Cen­tered on the idea of work­ing remote­ly, more busi­ness­es are adopt­ing the dis­trib­uted agency model as a prac­ti­cal and ben­e­fi­cial alter­na­tive to keep­ing an in-house staff.

The dis­trib­uted agency model, or “vir­tu­al agency,” as it’s some­times called, is sim­ply an agency that hires and col­lab­o­rates with work­ers remote­ly. The team might be made up of full or part-time employ­ees, free­lancers, con­trac­tors, part­ners, etc. These employ­ees might be spread across a par­tic­u­lar city or over the entire world. In short, a dis­trib­uted team is location-agnostic.

nGen Works recent­ly closed its main office when it became appar­ent that the major­i­ty of its team lived and worked miles away. Founder Carl Smith wrote in the com­pa­ny’s blog:

“When we first start­ed nGen Works we knew we ‘had’ to have an office for peo­ple to take us seri­ous­ly … Because of our flex­i­ble nature and the require­ment for nGe­neers to live their lives on their terms, that old red beau­ty is only home to two of the 14 peo­ple cur­rent­ly work­ing with nGen. We’ve held on to it for sen­ti­men­tal rea­sons, but now it just doesn’t seem to make sense.”

Then there’s Shane and Peter, an agency team of inde­pen­dent free­lancers. Its web­site explains:

“Our team is com­prised of free­lancers all over North Amer­i­ca (with a cou­ple Euro­peans and Aus­tralians thrown in for good mea­sure). They’re all inde­pen­dent busi­ness own­ers, and they’re all bril­liant at what they do. They decide when and how they work. Our teams come togeth­er to tack­le projects that are far larg­er than they could tack­le on their own.”

Moti­va­tions Behind Going Dis­tribe­uted
Both large firms and small shops are embrac­ing agency dis­tri­b­u­tion for dif­fer­ent rea­sons.

Large firms see hir­ing remote work­ers as a way to save on over­head costs and main­tain a healthy bot­tom line. Also, the dis­trib­uted model helps them stay com­pet­i­tive by recruit­ing spe­cial­ized tal­ent that is not nec­es­sar­i­ly local.

On the other hand, small shops and free­lancers see the dis­trib­uted agency model as a viable path to scale up and grow their busi­ness with­out invest­ing too much or incur­ring debt. For a solo stu­dio owner look­ing to grow, it’s more prac­ti­cal to part­ner with or hire remote work­ers than to invest in an in-house staff.

Ben­e­fits of Being Dis­trib­ruted
While every shop oper­ates dif­fer­ent­ly, there are a few key ben­e­fits shared by dis­trib­uted agen­cies.

Low Over­head: Your busi­ness will save loads of over­head costs when it doesn’t need to pay for a large office stocked with equip­ment, util­i­ties, com­mut­ing costs and more.
Unlim­it­ed Tal­ent Pool: When you’re able to look for tal­ent beyond your local area, you have access to vir­tu­al­ly unlim­it­ed resources.
Hap­pi­er, More Pro­duc­tive Team: When work­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly inde­pen­dent free­lancers, are able to work their own hours, using their own equip­ment, with­out hav­ing to con­form to an office envi­ron­ment and sched­ule, it can lead to a more pro­duc­tive oper­a­tion.

Based on my own expe­ri­ence run­ning a small dis­trib­uted agency, I believe one very impor­tant ben­e­fit of this model is the peo­ple.

A dis­trib­uted agency will have suc­cess with a cer­tain type of work­er — one who thrives in a remote col­lab­o­ra­tion set­ting. Remote work­ers are inher­ent­ly self-motivated by their pas­sion for cre­at­ing out­stand­ing work. Plus, they’re incred­i­bly effec­tive at com­mu­ni­ca­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion over long dis­tances. Of course, not every­one is cut out for this, but you can cer­tain­ly find enough remote work rock­stars when you can choose from a world­wide tal­ent pool.

How To Make it Work
The first step is to re-think meet­ings.

As many of us know, meet­ings are a com­mon com­plaint of work­ing in a large office envi­ron­ment. Often, they can be more of a sap on time than a ben­e­fit. The con­ver­sa­tions had in these meet­ings can actu­al­ly (and more effec­tive­ly) be han­dled over a series of emails or chats. Jason Fried describes this con­cept as “Slow Time:”

“Slow time is ‘Maybe it takes two or three days to have this con­ver­sa­tion. And we do it over peri­ods of 15 min­utes here, two min­utes there, four min­utes there.’ And that’s fine. It doesn’t need to hap­pen all at once.“

Focus on team rela­tion­ship man­age­ment.

When your team is dis­trib­uted across sev­er­al time zones and, there­fore, is not in direct con­tact at all times, it’s impor­tant to devel­op sys­tems that tie every­thing togeth­er. Every­thing from net­work­ing with new tal­ent across the globe, to devel­op­ing work­ing and friend­ly rela­tion­ships all require extra effort in the dis­trib­uted agency set­ting.

It might mean you plan in-person team get-togethers once or twice a year to build friend­ships and expe­ri­ences that strength­en cama­raderie.

Think about stay­ing tuned into and engaged with the social media activ­i­ty of your team­mates, both in and out­side of work.

Remain account­able at all times.

This goes for both man­agers and work­ers with­in a dis­trib­uted agency. Every­one must go the extra mile to ensure that he’s stay­ing avail­able, pro­vid­ing updates and meet­ing dead­lines. That means check­ing in with team­mates to ensure they have every­thing they need from you. It means pro­vid­ing peri­od­ic updates on your progress — even if you haven’t com­plet­ed a task.

Orga­ni­za­tion, account­abil­i­ty and per­son­al inter­ac­tion pro­vide the pil­lars of a suc­cess­ful­ly run dis­trib­uted agency model. Does your busi­ness qual­i­fy?