Meaning of Remote Work and Relevant Terms

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As the work landscape continues to evolve, so does the terminology used to talk about it. In remote work, as in any other sort, professionals feel passionately about the words used to describe them and their working styles. Nuances in meaning have an impact on understanding, focus, and culture. For example, experts in the field continue to debate the use and meaning of “remote-first” vs. “remote-friendly” or “remote-equal.” “Remote work” can feel polarizing to teams of hybrid employees. And terms such as “hybrid team” and “hybrid work” have multiple uses and interpretations.

At Workplaceless, we intentionally select and use words depending on the given situation. Here’s how we define and use some key terms involved in remote work.

Remote work

is a phrase with the fundamental definition of “work that is done outside a central office.” The term is expansive, covering situations in which individuals work from home or in coworking spaces, or while traveling for business or part of a digital nomad lifestyle. Remote work is in high demand since it affords flexibility in location—and often schedule—in a way that co-located work currently does not. Remote work is at the root of a placeless mindset because it prioritizes location-independent, flexible, and autonomous work and its appropriate use applies to both fully distributed and hybrid teams.

Synonyms: telework, work from anywhere, virtual work 

Antonyms: co-located work, in-office work

Remote-only

is specifically used to reference a company where all employees work remotely. In these organizations, remote-first must be the default, because there is no central office location. These organizations are 100% distributed. However, this doesn’t mean remote-only companies never see each other in-person. Rather, they unite at retreats to build connectivity and a sense of belonging and community.

Synonyms: fully remote, fully distributed 

Remote-first

is an increasingly popular adjective used to address a company and cultural mindset about where and how work is completed. It is an intentional mode of working, communicating, collaborating. The term originally began to appear when remote workers were isolated and not fairly included in business conversations or decisions simply because of their geographic location. Shifting to remote-first language and practices was intended to ensure that professionals and teams were first thinking about how a work goal could be accomplished in a remote way that included remote coworkers, rather than defaulting to common in-office practices. However, more recently, some hybrid teams have felt that the term remote-first favors remote professionals, even if the practices themselves are intended to be inclusive of all. The origin of the term was intended with inclusion in mind, not exclusion, so it’s particularly interesting to see how its use and interpretation has evolved. 

Synonyms: virtual-first, digital-first

Remote-equal

is an emerging term that is used to describe the status of professionals. The term is most commonly used among hybrid teams in an attempt to demonstrate that employees working within a centralized office and employees working remotely are equally valued and supported. However, the phrase lacks a cultural mindset or focus on how or where work is accomplished.

Remote-friendly

is a term most frequently used to describe a team or company dynamic that is open to allowing remote work. Companies use the term to varying degrees, but are not necessarily prioritizing work from a remote-first or digital-first mindset; often employees are working remotely only for a portion of the time or for a subset of their roles. Here’s Doist’s take on remote-first vs remote-friendly.

Flexible work

has a broad definition that focuses jointly on the location of where and timing or when work occurs. Professionals are increasingly seeking flexible work as a way to achieve work-life balance. The term flexible work is most frequently used in relation to work arrangements where an individual chooses their work schedule and location, but can also include additional situations like job sharing, part-time work, etc. Remote work is a critical component of flexible work, since true flexibility is challenging, if not impossible, to achieve when constrained by location.

Hybrid work

is another wide-ranging term that has different meanings depending on the user. Hybrid work can be used to define a team structure where a portion of the team is in the office and another portion works remotely. Or, hybrid work can also be used to define an individual working part of the time in the office and part of the time remotely. Some companies, like Cisco and Google, are defining hybrid work in different ways to match their own organizational structures and preferences. 

Hybrid-remote

describes a situation in which part of the team is full-time remote and part of the team is full-time co-located.

Async work

is work that is completed on one’s own time; collaboration and communication do not occur in real time. To understand async work, it’s helpful to first understand synchronous and asynchronous communication. Beginning in 2020, interest in async work grew exponentially as professionals began to realize how important async work is to working remotely without burning out. Experienced and effective remote or hybrid teams often use remote work and async work interchangeably due to this critical linkage.

Async-first

is an approach that focuses less on the location of work and more on how work can get done independently, without requiring team members to always be working at the same time. Shifting to async-first refutes the idea that all work gets done in meetings, and gives workers more autonomy to accomplish work goals during the times most effective for them. Async-first is about balancing and organizing work to allow for deeper focus and giving employees more flexibility over their own schedules. Learn more about the benefits of asynchronous communication. Async-first does not mean async-only—it can be used by both remote and hybrid teams. Async-first is truly the key to flexibility and autonomy for the future of work.

Digital-first

is an emerging work adjective that was previously more associated with marketing, technology, and business strategy. It is being adopted to address the same mindset as remote-first without the backlash from in-office employees since it focuses on the technology rather than the location. Here the approach is focused on how work can be accomplished in a digital way, independent of location. The term digital-first isn’t as common as remote-first, but as companies like Slack adopt its use, its growth will continue. 

We often see teams struggle with the use of remote-first, digital-first, and async-first:

As you can see, all of these terms are related and their definitions are intertwined. The language of work is unstable, especially as organizations continue to invent their own words to describe what they envision to be the most successful future of work. Workplaceless is committed to continually learning and sharing our knowledge about the language of remote work in our remote work dictionary and within our programs.

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Workplaceless Team

Workplaceless Team

Workplaceless envisions a workforce that thrives in a flexible and digital-first future—where performance and growth are not constrained by location. Our team goal is to share insights and practices that will help professionals and companies achieve this aspiration.
Workplaceless envisions a workforce that thrives in a flexible and digital-first future—where performance and growth are not constrained by location. Our team goal is to share insights and practices that will help professionals and companies achieve this aspiration.
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