What are fully distributed teams? And how do they differ from remote?

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All-remote, remote-first, virtual-first, distributed, ... In the modern workforce, there are various working models that organizations can choose from to meet their needs. This article will compare and contrast popular models: on-site, remote, and distributed work. Each model has its own advantages and challenges, and understanding them can help companies make informed decisions about how they structure their teams and tasks.

Understanding Different Working Models

Defining On-Site Work (Co-Located)

On-site work refers to employees who work in a physical office location. This model allows for face-to-face interaction and collaboration among team members. It fosters a sense of community and enables immediate access to resources and support. However, it may limit flexibility, access to talent, and can be affected by issues such as commuting time and office politics.

Working on-site provides employees with the opportunity to build strong relationships with their colleagues. They can engage in spontaneous conversations, share ideas, and receive immediate feedback. The physical presence of team members fosters a sense of camaraderie and can lead to the development of long-lasting friendships. Furthermore, being in the same location allows for quick access to shared resources such as printers, meeting rooms, and office supplies.

However, on-site work also comes with its challenges. Commuting to and from the office can be time-consuming and stressful, especially in areas with heavy traffic. Employees may have to wake up earlier and spend a significant portion of their day traveling, which can negatively impact their work-life balance. Additionally, office politics can sometimes create a tense and competitive atmosphere, affecting employee morale and job satisfaction.

Defining Remote Work

Remote work involves employees who primarily work from locations outside of the traditional office environment. This model offers flexibility, eliminates commuting time and costs, and allows employees to achieve a work-life balance. It also enables access to a broader talent pool. However, remote work may bring challenges in terms of communication, teamwork, and the ability to separate work and personal life.

Remote work provides employees with the freedom to choose their work environment. They can work from the comfort of their homes, coffee shops, or any other location that suits their preferences. This flexibility allows individuals to create a personalized work environment that enhances their productivity and creativity. Moreover, remote work eliminates the need for commuting, saving employees time and money.

However, remote work requires strong communication skills and the ability to work independently. Without face-to-face interactions, employees must rely heavily on virtual communication tools such as email, instant messaging, and video conferencing. This can sometimes lead to misinterpretations or delays in receiving information. Additionally, remote work can blur the boundaries between work and personal life, as employees may find it challenging to disconnect from work when their office is just a few steps away.

All-remote is different than remote-first. The similarities are strong: a focus on asynchronous workflows, no hybrid calls, etc -- but in remote-first organizations, the company reserves the right to have or establish a physical company headquarters.

GitLab defines "all-remote" as meaning that "each individual in an organization is empowered to work and live where they are most fulfilled."

Defining Distributed Work

Distributed work takes remote work a step further by creating teams that are spread across different locations. Distributed teams are a part of companies that do not have a central office location. It's possible for distributed companies to either have no physical offices at all, or to have multiple physical offices across the country or the globe. This model leverages technology to enable collaboration and communication among team members. It allows companies to tap into global talent and offers flexibility in scaling teams based on project needs. However, distributed work may pose challenges in terms of time zone differences, cultural nuances, and building a cohesive team spirit.

Distributed work opens up opportunities for companies to access a diverse talent pool from around the world. By assembling a team with members from different locations, organizations can benefit from a wide range of perspectives, skills, and experiences. This diversity can lead to increased innovation and creativity within the team. Additionally, distributed work allows companies to scale their teams based on project demands, without the need for physical office space.

However, working in a distributed team comes with its own set of challenges. Time zone differences can make scheduling meetings and coordinating tasks more complex. Team members may have to adjust their working hours to accommodate collaboration with colleagues in different parts of the world. Cultural nuances and language barriers may also arise, requiring team members to be culturally sensitive and adaptable in their communication styles. Building a cohesive team spirit can be challenging when team members are physically separated, and efforts must be made to foster a sense of unity and camaraderie through virtual team-building activities.

Examples of Distributed Companies: 


Automattic, which was founded in 2005 and owns WordPress, WooCommerce and Tumblr, has been fully distributed since its inception. It's now a team of ~2,000 people across 98 countries.

Communication, Editorialized: Automattic talks about communication as the oxygen of a distributed company. To be clear: they do not mean that more communication is always better. In fact: While they believe poor communication is at the root of every disagreement, they also believe that companies scale past the point where it is most efficient for everyone to keep up with everything. They state that "it's important to invest time from an editorial mindset making sure that the right information isn't just published, but it's heard and understood by those who need to."

Automattic's founder, Matt Mullenweg, has been an early advocate of remote/distributed models. In explaining the benefits, he talks about the three things that really matter in motivating people: mastery, purpose, and autonomy. Autonomy, our desire to be self-directed, to have agency over ourselves and our environment, is really hard to achieve in-person, and much easier to achieve with a distributed org.

It's one of my life missions to have more companies be distributed. It's good for the environment. It's good for opportunity. It's good for the economy.


Zapier is a 100% distributed company with over 800 teammates across 40 countries‚Äö and they've always been remote. Wade Foster, co-founder of Zapier, talks about three obvious but important wins with distributed: 

  1. You can tap into a global talent pool: no need to compete for Bay area talent
  2. It's cheaper: you don't need an office
  3. It's easier to focus: there are fewer at-work distractions -- side conversations, music, general chatter...
It's a better way to work. It allows us to hire smart people no matter where in the world.


GitLab is the largest "all-remote" company‚Äö 100% remote, with no company-owned offices anywhere on the planet. When they first launched, the co-founders were based in Ukraine and in the Netherlands, with their first hire in Serbia. They became a remote organization simply because no one wanted to move. They made more hires in the Netherlands, and tried out co-locating, but quickly realized they didn't need to be in the same physical location to be effective. After a YC boot camp, they opened a physical office in the Bay area on the advice of investors (sales and finance teams would need to be in-person, they were told). Again, they quickly decided co-location wasn't necessary, and made the call to formally make GitLab an all-remote company. Sid Sijbrandij, CEO of GitLab is vocal about the benefits distributed work brings.

If you were once a leader who evaluated candidates against vague, biased criteria such as if you would like to get a beer with them or not, I challenge you to reassess your hiring processes, and consider how remote work can usher in a more diverse array of talent.

"In our view, an in-person workplace operates well until you grow out of a single room. Once you spread to other floors and locations, the work becomes more virtual anyway." FWIW, Sijbrandij describes hybrid as the worst of both words (remote/in-person), citing the divide it creates within teams.


In October 2020, mid-pandemic, Dropbox announced it was shifting to a "Virtual First" company. They explained that "remote work (outside an office) would be the primary experience for all employees and the day-to-day default for individual work."

A couple of things that are core to their approach: 

1. Physical Locations for community-building and collaboration only: Where they previously had offices, and in some other geographies, Dropbox does maintain physical spaces, "Dropbox Studios." These spaces are not to be used for solo work, but instead are reserved exclusively for collaboration and community-building.

2. Non-Linear Workdays + Impact over Hours Worked: Dropbox sets core collaboration hours with overlap between time zones--but beyond that, they encourage employees to design their own schedules.

Dropbox's Founder & CEO, Drew Houston, has been happy with the shift to Virtual First, citing that it's allowed Dropbox to punch way above our weight class. The flexibility they offer enabled them to lure back many employees who had previously left Dropbox.

People will leave companies where they don't have flexibility for companies that do...A company that doesn't offer that flexibility will quickly look as archaic as a company that doesn't have a website.


The Evolution of Working Models

The way we work has undergone significant changes over the years, with different models emerging to adapt to the evolving needs of businesses and employees. Let's take a closer look at the traditional on-site model, the rise of remote work, and the emergence of distributed teams.

The Traditional On-Site Model

The traditional on-site model has been the norm for decades. Employees would commute to a physical office, work together in person, and follow a fixed schedule. This model has its advantages, such as easier supervision and control over employees. It allows managers to directly oversee their team's work, provide immediate feedback, and foster a sense of camaraderie among colleagues who interact face-to-face on a daily basis.

However, the traditional on-site model also comes with its challenges. Companies need to invest in office space, utilities, and other overhead costs. Additionally, the talent pool is limited to the geographical area surrounding the office, potentially restricting access to diverse skill sets and perspectives.

The Rise of Remote Work

In recent years, remote work has gained popularity thanks to advances in technology and changing work dynamics. Companies are realizing the potential benefits of allowing employees to work from anywhere, whether it's from the comfort of their homes, co-working spaces, or even while traveling.

Remote work offers numerous advantages. It can increase productivity as employees have the flexibility to create a work environment that suits them best. With the elimination of commuting, remote workers can save time and reduce stress, leading to higher job satisfaction. Moreover, remote work opens up opportunities for companies to tap into a global talent pool, breaking down geographical barriers and fostering diversity and inclusion.

However, remote work also presents its own set of challenges. Effective communication becomes crucial, as team members may be spread across different locations and time zones. Companies need to establish reliable communication channels and leverage collaboration tools to ensure seamless collaboration and information sharing. Trust between team members becomes paramount, as managers must rely on outcomes rather than physical presence to evaluate performance.

The Emergence of Distributed Teams

In our globalized world, distributed teams have become more prevalent. Companies are leveraging technology to create teams that span different time zones, countries, and even continents. This model allows organizations to tap into specialized skills and talent from around the world, regardless of physical proximity.

Distributed teams offer unique advantages. They bring together diverse perspectives, cultural backgrounds, and expertise, resulting in innovative solutions and improved decision-making. By utilizing collaboration tools and platforms, distributed teams can work seamlessly, breaking down barriers of distance and time zones. This model also provides employees with the flexibility to work in their preferred location, promoting work-life balance.

However, distributed teams require strong project management and communication skills to overcome challenges. Cultural differences, language barriers, and potential misalignments can pose obstacles to effective collaboration. Companies need to invest in building a strong team culture, fostering trust, and implementing robust communication strategies to ensure everyone feels connected and engaged.

In conclusion, the evolution of working models has brought about significant changes in how we approach work. From the traditional on-site model to the rise of remote work and the emergence of distributed teams, each model offers its own set of advantages and challenges. As technology continues to advance and work dynamics evolve, it will be fascinating to see how these models further develop and shape the future of work.

Pros and Cons of Each Working Model

Benefits and Challenges of On-Site Work

On-site work offers face-to-face collaboration and immediate access to resources. This helps build strong relationships among employees and fosters a sense of team spirit. It allows for spontaneous interactions and the ability to read non-verbal cues, which can enhance communication and problem-solving. In addition, being physically present in the office can create a structured work environment that helps individuals stay focused and motivated.

However, on-site work may limit flexibility, as employees are required to be present during specific working hours. This can make it challenging for individuals with personal obligations or those who prefer a more flexible schedule. Furthermore, on-site work creates a dependency on physical office space, which can be costly and may restrict the scalability of the business. Additionally, commuting to and from the office can be time-consuming and contribute to stress and fatigue, affecting work-life balance.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Remote Work

Remote work provides flexibility, allowing employees to work from anywhere, reducing commuting time and costs. It enables team members to create a personalized work environment that suits their preferences and needs. Remote work also eliminates distractions and interruptions commonly found in office settings, which can enhance productivity and focus. Moreover, the ability to work remotely can increase employee satisfaction and improve work-life balance.

However, remote work requires effective communication and collaboration tools to ensure seamless connectivity and coordination among team members. Without proper communication strategies, remote workers may feel isolated and disconnected from their colleagues, leading to reduced team cohesion. Additionally, remote work may pose challenges in terms of managing work hours and setting boundaries between work and personal life, as the physical separation between the two can blur.

Pros and Cons of Distributed Work

Distributed work brings together the benefits of remote work and the ability to access talent globally. It allows businesses to build diverse teams and leverage skills from different regions, leading to a broader range of perspectives and ideas. Distributed work also enables companies to tap into a global talent pool, increasing the chances of finding highly skilled professionals.

However, distributed work requires a high level of coordination and effective communication strategies to ensure seamless collaboration across different locations. Time zone differences can pose challenges in scheduling meetings and coordinating work, requiring careful planning and flexibility. Cultural barriers may also arise, necessitating cultural sensitivity and adaptability to foster effective collaboration and understanding among team members.

In conclusion, each working model has its own set of pros and cons. On-site work offers face-to-face collaboration and a structured work environment, but may limit flexibility and create dependency on physical office space. Remote work provides flexibility and reduces commuting time, but requires effective communication tools and may result in feelings of isolation. Distributed work combines the benefits of remote work and global talent access, but demands a high level of coordination and the ability to address time zone differences and cultural barriers.

Key Factors to Consider When Choosing a Working Model

Company Culture and Structure

The working model chosen should align with the organization's values and culture. Some companies prioritize in-person collaboration, while others value flexibility and autonomy. It is essential to assess how a particular working model will fit within the existing company structure and support its goals.

Nature of Work and Tasks

The nature of the work and tasks performed by employees plays a crucial role in determining the most suitable working model. Certain roles may require frequent interaction and collaboration, while others can be more independent. This factor should be considered when deciding between on-site, remote, or distributed work.

Employee Preferences and Needs

Lastly, employee preferences and needs should be taken into account. Some employees may prefer the structure of an office environment, while others may thrive in a remote or distributed work setup. Surveys and discussions with employees can provide valuable insights into their working style and help make an informed decision.

In conclusion, the decision to adopt an on-site, remote, or distributed working model is not one to be taken lightly. Each model has its own set of advantages and challenges, and organizations must carefully evaluate their needs and goals. Ultimately, the goal should be to create an environment that supports productivity, employee satisfaction, and the overall success of the business. By understanding the characteristics of each working model and considering key factors, organizations can make a well-informed choice that best suits their unique requirements.