These days it seems like nearly everyone is a remote worker. News anchors are broadcasting from their living rooms. Peloton instructors are pedaling through live classes from their dens. Real estate agents are learning how to stage and show houses virtually, without having to leave their homes. Even health care professionals are caring for some of their patients via email and videochat.
All of these types of professionals have adapted to working outside of traditional settings. But the ways in which they do their jobs remotely are as varied as the jobs themselves. To help you keep it all straight, we’ve put together a glossary of the different ways that people work remotely.
What Does “Remote” Mean These Days?
Let’s start with a definition of remote work. The concept is hardly new: Writers, musicians, salespeople, and fundraisers—to name just a few—have been working from their homes, studios, and cars for decades. At its simplest, “remote working just means you’re not working on site,” says Cristina Banks, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces at the University of California, Berkeley. In today’s economy, that description can apply to almost anyone: office administrators, delivery drivers, even freelance and gig workers.
Within the definition of remote work, however, are several specific types of arrangements.
WFH (Work From Home)
The most obvious (and self-explanatory) type of remote work is working from home. A study by the consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics found that about 75 million—or 56 percent of America’s non-self-employed workforce—could work from home, at least partially. But prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, only about 7 percent of private sector employees (and just 4 percent of state and local government workers) had the option to do so regularly, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
WFA (Work From Anywhere)
If a company allows its employees to work remotely, it usually doesn’t matter where the workplace is. Your office could be your basement, your boat, or even a hammock in your backyard. It doesn’t have to be in the same area code or even the same country as the people you work with. These days, as long as you’ve got a laptop, cell phone service, and a reliable internet connection, you can truly work from anywhere on the planet.
A big difference between working from home and working from anywhere is control, says Banks. Going to a location outside the home gives workers the ability to carve out their own workspaces and puts them in control of their environments. “When you work from home and you don’t live alone, you have everyone there to deal with,” she says. But at a coworking space like WeWork (or even an Airstream trailer), workers have more control over their environments. “It’s a remote location, but you don’t bring everyone with you. It’s much easier for you to carve out workspace or work time,” Banks adds.
An August 2019 study by researchers at Harvard Business School and Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business echoed Banks’s analysis. Their preliminary data showed that workers who switched from working at home to working from anywhere saw their output increase by 4.4 percent.
MBO Partners, a management consulting firm, defines digital nomads as “people who choose to embrace a location-independent, technology-enabled lifestyle that allows them to travel and work remotely, anywhere in the world.” Some 7.3 million Americans described themselves as digital nomads in 2019, a massive increase from 2018 when just 2.5 million American workers self-identified in that category. The main difference between a digital nomad and a person working from anywhere is the nomadism. That is, one can work from any number of locations—a library, an Airbnb on the French Riviera, or a parent’s couch, for example—but there is a home base.
Sometimes spelled co-location, or even collocation, this practice involves putting two or more workers in the same physical place so that they can collaborate in person. The location doesn’t have to be a traditional office; it can be one of the employee’s houses, a coffee shop, or a coworking space. Companies and freelancers alike use colocation to strategically and intentionally put workers near other companies or creators to spark innovation.
Distributed Workforce or Distributed Company
This is the opposite of colocation: a team or an entire workforce in which nobody shares space. A distributed team can be intentional, to benefit from having boots on the ground in multiple locations. It can also be an adaptation to a traditional workplace that allows companies to retain the best talent. A company with offices in New York and Los Angeles, for example, can hire workers from Tallahassee, Florida, to Tacoma, Washington, if it allows a distributed workforce.
But distributing a company’s workforce doesn’t have to mean everyone is working alone, Banks explains. “They could have clusters of people working in different locales.” A company that has a headquarters of 50 to 100 employees in San Francisco could have satellite offices of 10 to 20 workers in Nashville, Tennessee, Austin, Texas, and San Diego, California, for example, with individual remote workers spread across the country or globe. That would constitute an extremely distributed workforce.
Remote Workforce and Remote-First Company
A remote workforce, especially at a remote-first company, is generally more isolated. “When you have a remote workforce, you really have to fight hard as an organization to keep the cohesion and sense of community, because of the physical distancing of people and all of the barriers between a worker’s location and where other people are,” Banks says.
With a remote-first company, working remotely is the norm for all employees. A remote-first company may not even have a headquarters in any one physical location.
A virtual business is simply an enterprise that conducts all of its transactions electronically, rather than from a brick-and-mortar location. Amazon was one of the first virtual businesses, although it now owns nearly two dozen physical stores (not including the recently acquired Whole Foods chain), and the company sells a lot more than just books. Barnes & Noble, by contrast, started out with physical locations and did not establish its own website for online purchases until 1997.
Many remote workers find that the traditional 9-to-5, five-day workweek isn't practical for them. They may have obligations to care for children or parents during the day, or they may not be in the same time zone as colleagues with whom they need to collaborate. The Society for Human Resource Management recently outlined a number of ways for companies to be flexible about when and where their employees work. These include compressed workweeks, part-time work, flextime, and shifting schedules that allow employees to take turns working from home.
Most employees appreciate workplace flexibility, Banks says. Giving them control over where, when, and how they work can greatly improve their well-being.
Regardless of which version of remote work a company may choose, the most essential strategy for success is trusting its employees and communicating that trust to everyone involved.