Distributed Team vs Remote Work, Virtual Work, Telework and Work From Home

The terms “distributed teams”, “virtual teams”, “virtual employee”, “remote work”, “remote employee”, “work from home”, “work from anywhere” and “telework” are often used interchangeably, even though they mean very different things. Used incorrectly, these terms can (mis)communicate important human, social context in ways that are damaging and unintended. Hopefully, this summary helps people be more intentional and crisp when describing work arrangements:

  • Distributed Team: This clearly and correctly describes that all humans on the team work together, even though they are physically apart from each other. This is not a collection of individuals who each do solo heads-down work from different locations. Instead, this is a group of humans who coordinate their work with others on their physically distributed team. Because everyone on the physically distributed team is “remote” from someone, it is clear that everyone on the team has equal responsibility to communicate and coordinate their work with coworkers – regardless of whether any individual human is working from a building with the company logo on the door, from home, from a coworking space, a hotel or a parked car! Example usage: “I work on a distributed team”, “my team is distributed”.
  • Remote worker / Remote employee: This term correctly denotes that one human is physically separate from other coworkers. However, I usually hear this term used from the perspective of the speaker who believe they are not remote – only the other person is remote. (This is physically impossibility and tells me a lot about the mindset of the human speaking. I’ve found this usage happens most often when one human is sitting in an office with a company logo on the door, describing another human coworker who is not in the same office.) This usually implies that the person in the office considers themself to be a first-class citizen in the center-of-their-universe, while they consider the “remote” person to be somehow a less-important, second class citizen physically located somewhere else. This mindset usually assumes that the “remote” human carries all the responsibility for communicating with the rest of the team – a mindset that is incorrect and operationally harmful to the team. To be explicit, if any member of the team is not able to reach out and tap the shoulder of each and every other human on the team, then everyone is remote from someone – and all share equal responsibility to make sure communications are clear across the entire team. Example usage: “I work remotely”, “We have a remote person on our team”.
  • Virtual employee / Virtual team: A variation of the “remote” term above, this implies that the “virtual” human is somehow not as valued as a real human and is somehow more disposable. No matter how politely someone says this, it feels to me like virtual humans are treated as second class employees in terms of career progression, new projects and even just basic human empathy – while humans “in the office” are somehow “real (non-virtual) employees” who should be cared for more intentionally because they are real humans. Like the term “remote”, this has the same first-class / second-class flaw where the speaker thinks of themself as a real, first-class human, while the other human is somehow a virtual, second-class human. Examples include: “I am a virtual worker”, “We have a virtual employee on our team”.
  • Work From Home: This term made sense when describing someone working from a fixed location outside of a physical office – back in the time when people working outside of the office used a desktop computer and a physical landline telephone connection, limiting them to working from a fixed location. However, now that portable laptops, smartphones and wifi are the norm, this term makes less sense. Confusingly, I’ve heard the phrase “Working from Home” used to describe someone working from a coworking space or a hotel conference venue. I’ve also heard it used by humans in an office describing co-workers who travel the majority of the time, when they actually mean “not working in the office”. I’ve also heard “on the road” used to describe coworkers flying in planes. The terms “Work From Anywhere”, “Digital Nomad” and “Gray Nomad” are gaining popularity, and at least feel more accurate when describing someone’s non-permanent physical work location. The lack of focus on who/how is responsible for coordinating the work makes me feel this term applies to humans who temporarily use a different location to do solo heads-down work without interruption and will then eventually return to their usual desk in the office when they need to coordinate their work with co-workers. Example usage: “I can work from home sometimes”, “Some people on our team can work from home”, “There’s too many interrupts in the office, so I work from home when I need to do heads-down work”.
  • Teleworker / Telecommuter: This term originated in the 1970s, when people working outside the office had to literally used a telephone landline to “phone in” their work. Computer baud rate connections were so slow and technology so expensive that video calls were usually impossible, so communications were audio-only phone calls / conference calls and emails with small attachments. Because of the physical size of computers and the need for a physical landline telephone, this was usually only done from a fixed home location with plenty of advance time needed to setup and configure everything. The declining use of landline telephones and desktop computers make this term increasingly obsolete. Like “work from home”, the lack of focus on who/how is responsible for coordinating the work makes me feel this term applies to humans who temporarily use a different location to do solo heads-down work without interruption and will then return to their usual desk in the office when they need to coordinate their work with co-workers. Example usage: “Our company has a telework policy for decades, but almost no-one uses it.”

That summarizes the most common terms I’ve heard recently, but if you know of other terms that I should add here, let me know and I’ll update this post. Hopefully, this explains why I think it is important to intentionally use the term “distributed team” and avoid other confusingly incorrect terms like “virtual worker”, “remote worker”, “work from home” and “telework”.

John.

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