Physical Proximity vs Employment Status

Your physical proximity to coworkers is orthogonal to your employment status.

I’m frequently surprised when people discussing “remote work” or “working from home” or “distributed teams” somehow start talking about gig-work, contract work or freelance work. Without realizing it, they have shifted from talking about the proximity of coworkers to the very different topic of contractual terms of employment. The hidden assumption is that if you are “working remotely”, “working from home” or part of a distributed team, you must not be a full-time employee.

Usually, but not always, I’ve seen this happen in conference discussions about “Future of Work” or changes to the employment economy. Occasionally, I have had founders and/or c-level executives tell me they don’t want to hire “remote workers”, because they prefer to hire “permanent” employees not short term contractors or gig workers. Each time, I’d be confused hearing these smart, experienced, people talk about “gig work” and “remote work” interchangeably!?! The first few times this happened, I hesitated to say anything, thinking that I had somehow misunderstood some important subtle detail in the complex discussion, so would ask them later to explain what I had missed. Only to discover they already knew the terms were very different and they themselves had not realized they were mixing these very different topics. Confusing these topics frequently misdirects the rest of the discussion down a very different path. Left uncorrected, this mixup also added to the confusion of others listening, trying to learn. Worst case, organizations make bad business decisions because of this miscommunication.

Now, whenever I hear this mixup happening, I’m faster to interject. Correcting the mixup (politely) when it first happens helps everyone in the discussion stay focused on the right topic and make better decisions. I found myself doing this again recently, causing me to write this post.

Over the decades of my career so far, I’ve worked in many large company offices, with a fancy logo on the door, or outside the building. Inside these buildings, there was usually an arrangement of cube farm or open plan desks surrounded by private offices and meeting rooms. In every single one of those buildings, some of the people sitting at desks were full-time employees. Some were part-time employees. Some were full-time contractors – not employees. Some were part-time contractors – again, not employees. Occasionally, there were even humans who were not employed by the company, but instead were hired by an intermediary sub-contracting company, either as employees or contractors. Dress code, seating arrangements, projects being worked on, even who reported where in positions in org. charts, were indistinguishable between employees and contractors. A collection of humans with a mix of employment status, all sitting shoulder to shoulder. Usually, the only way to tell someone’s employment status was to look for different colors or logos on their ID badge.

I’ve also worked in organizations where the same mix of full-time employees, part-time employees, full-time contractors and part-time contractors were physically distributed. Instead of sitting shoulder to shoulder, they all sat at desks in different locations.

The physical distance between you and your coworkers does not determine your employment status.

Summarizing another way, all of the following are true:

Of course, this is not new. It has been normal in business for so long that I think many people now simply take it for granted. However, it is important to point out because this miscommunication causes misunderstandings and complications for organizations that are transitioning from all-in-one-location to distributed team.

One possible origin for this confusion is that over the last 40 years or so, society has gone through seismic changes, complicating discussions for everyone. The idea of a job for life is no more. Per-project jobs, freelance work, and gig work are prevalent in the free-agent economy. Whether this is good or bad is a separate discussion; the point is that the social contract has fundamentally changed.

Across all industries in the US, this trend continues to accelerate. Baby boomers now average a new job every 2.5 years. The computer software industry has even faster turnover, with people averaging one and a half to two years per job. In some hyper-competitive locations like Silicon Valley, the turnover is even faster, with average tenure at major tech companies ranging from 1.2 to 2.0 years! Most of the software engineers I know already work on a per-project basis, even though they are administratively called full-time employees. They are hired to work on a particular project—and after one or two release cycles, they’ll leave to work on a new project at a new company before moving on yet again. These 18- to 24-month transitions lined up with the waterfall delivery cadence that was used by a lot of software companies. Soon after each major release shipped, there would be a predictable flood of “goodbye” emails, internal promotions, and new-hire announcements as people celebrated their successful project release and left while others were promoted internally or hired to fill the gaps before the next project started. As more software companies transition to an agile methodology, releasing smaller deliverables more frequently, I suspect that the average tenure will shrink further. This will be interesting to watch.

In many ways, this transition feels similar to the movie industry’s transition from the all-in-our-studio model of the 1920s to today’s model of hiring independent specialists for each part of each different movie. How do you categorize a special-effects engineer or stunt driver working on a movie for a few months? Or a software engineer who switches jobs every 18 to 24 months? Or a four year tour of duty in the military? Or engineers hired for a few months because they specialize in complex skills that are only needed for a short project? Or an Uber driver? Or a sound technician at a concert venue? The line between per-project employee, contractor, freelancer, free agent, and gig worker feels very blurry.

All interesting stuff to talk about – and unrelated to the physical proximity to other humans working on the team.

Your legal employment status is one topic. Your physical proximity to other humans you work with is a different topic.

Language helps humans communicate complex topics. Rapid shifts in business trends are changing how we think and talk about work, and the language we use is still catching up. Errors in use of language confuse the situation, cause invalid assumptions to spread, needless conflict from miscommunications and confusion for others listening for advice from the experts. Speaking clearly and accurately helps everyone by reducing confusion. So, when I hear people incorrectly jump to the assumption that someone “working remote” must be not-an-employee-for-life, I think it’s important to help them avoid confusing the two topics.

Hopefully, this blog post helps clear up some confusion already out there, and helps others feel comfortable speaking up when they hear these very different terms being mixed-up. In turn, I hope reducing this confusion helps reduce the barriers to having more people start working in physically distributed teams!

Leave a Reply