Working From Home Is Not Remote Work

The different types of remote work

Let’s get one thing straight: Technology has changed. The ability for employees to work outside of an office is more feasible now than ever. So why are some people raving about remote work while others are ridiculing it?

The truth is, remote work has a lot of stigma attached to it, and part of this is due to some confusion about what being a remote worker really means (and, no, it is not someone that sits around watching Netflix all day). For example, when talking about remote work, a lot of people don’t make the distinction between an employee who has an office but is allowed to work from their home for a day here or there, and a fully functional remote team.

Here are the facts: There is an enormous, Grand Canyon-sized difference between letting an employee work from home once in a while and calling yourself a “remote team.”

Let’s break down what makes up that difference and how these factors might blur the lines of effective remote work.

An In-Office Team With Flexible Working Policies

It’s becoming increasingly common for companies to maintain a physical office space but also allow employees to occasionally work from home. According to the New York Times, 60% of Americans who work remotely reported they do so for less than half of their working hours, implying the other half is done in a traditional office setting.

It’s common for people to elect to work from home due to a schedule concern: A midday doctor’s appointment, a parent-teacher conference, or accidentally promising you’ll pet-sit your roommate’s hedgehog, again. Or for folks with long commutes, the days when they have early calls might be better spent at home. Others just simply enjoy the occasional quiet of their own home, where they can focus without the usual office distractions. Regardless of the reason, the ability to occasionally work from home allows employees to be more flexible.

Because these people normally commute to an office, however, their home setup might not be especially optimized: They may lack a dedicated workspace, high speed, reliable internet, or even childcare. The point is that for people who are only occasionally working from home, this is more of a deviation from their normal routine, which doesn’t always set them up for productivity success.

There is an enormous, Grand Canyon-sized difference between letting an employee work from home once in a while and calling yourself a “remote team.”

In addition to their own personal productivity, flexible work schedules can affect the rest of the office, too. If there is no company-wide structure in place for when an employee decides to work from home, then that means the person not in the office is missing out on decisions that are happening on the fly as people are talking out loud. It also means if there is a meeting, there is no technology set up to easily include the remote person via video.

A Teammate Moves Away And Now The Team Is ‘Remote’

Here’s another common scenario: Everyone on the team is all working together in one office when suddenly a key, longtime employee needs to move due to life circumstances (partner’s job, sick parent, etc). Not wanting to lose a high-performing employee, the company decides to allow that person to be remote.

Thinking they’re now a ‘remote’ team, the company carries on as usual except sometimes it needs to pipe in their lone remote employee on a video screen in conference rooms. Because this isn’t a common practice, the first 5 minutes of every meeting is now spent troubleshooting the video conferencing software and having a near-existential crisis because none of the wires work. When the remote employee wants to contribute something to the meeting, they try to read the room of a large group of people sitting around a table. They’re spending half the meeting trying to figure out a good time to interject that isn’t interrupting the other people, who can see each other’s facial cues. Sometimes, due to the bad Wifi, there’s a delay on what people are saying and the remote person’s reaction.

When there are far fewer remote employees and no policies in place to accommodate them, these employees become lesser contributors, no matter how senior.

When it comes to day-to-day communication, if the remote person needs to be involved, an email chain is created. A lot of messages they receive are of them being “filled in” on decisions that happened when people were standing around talking at the office.

The point is, when there are far fewer remote employees and no policies in place to accommodate them, these employees become lesser contributors, no matter how senior.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

A Fully Formed Remote Team

On the other hand, there are many companies that have adopted a fully fleshed out remote infrastructure. These support structures come in the form of companies that have a large percentage of employees working remotely, as well as companies that are entirely remote with no central office.

The policies at these companies are much different than those where remote work is only occasionally permitted. When a majority of the workforce is working outside of a central office, there are a wealth of strategies and best practices that are adopted company-wide in order to facilitate successful remote work.

In other words, fully remote teams are thoughtful, strategic, and adaptable to new and better practices to make remote work more seamless. There is not an attitude of, “Just turn your laptop on in your home office and get to it!” Just like a co-located office requires considerations to make the environment more pleasing for employees, a remote company must also make specific adaptations:

  • Communication occurs digitally in open chat channels where anyone can chime in on the decision making process asynchronously.
  • When some members of the meeting are remote, all participants hop on individual video screens, regardless of location (ie. No piping in one or two people as giant chat heads on a screen or worse, as voices on a call in the middle of a table).
  • People who are not present in the office are not left out of decision making, only to be “filled in” later.
  • Employees are having regular check-ins with their managers to ensure they are aware of their expectations and deadlines.
  • Remote employees are required to work in a quiet room with a door, and are not permitted to be a primary caregiver for a child or infirmed person, or doing side work, during the workday.

Just like a co-located office requires considerations to make the environment more pleasing for employees, a remote company must also make specific adaptations.

Talking The Talk Without Walking The Walk

Here’s a familiar scenario: A company decides to allow its employees to work from home one day a week. They then find that their employees are least productive on those days, or that employees are difficult to reach, or perhaps they’re constantly cutting in and out on conference calls, so they scrap the program entirely. Not only that, when the topic of remote work comes up in conversation, they repeatedly assert something along the lines of, “Yeah, we tried that. But it just didn’t work.”

But did they really “try” remote work in earnest? Truly adopting remote policies would mean that there were regular check-ins and expectations in place for employees, deadlines for them to meet and work to turn in regardless of their location. It would mean that there was a digital communication channel in place, like a chat app, that ensures all decisions are on record, transparent, and asynchronous (meaning: decisions are not made as a result of a “stop and chat” conversation at someone’s desk). Truly adopting remote policies means that employees would be given a stipend to upgrade their home internet.

So when someone makes disparaging remarks about remote work, consider the source. Everyone’s opinions are valid, but it’s important to remember that not all remote experiences are the same. Some companies pull it off seamlessly, whereas others struggle with adapting to structures to support teams that are not located in the same place.

Good or bad, we'd love to hear your thoughts. Find us on Twitter (@trello) or write in to support@trello.com.

Next: 5 Future Lessons To Learn From Today's Remote Workers

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