Remote working is no longer just a trend – it’s here to stay. Organisations around the world are keeping their offices closed, and it seems there will not be an en masse return to the old ‘normal’ way of working. But what is remote working exactly? What kind of jobs are suited to remote working, and can anybody do it? What are the benefits to individuals and employers? Exploring these questions and more, this guide takes a deep dive into remote working meaning, benefits, common myths, and tips for first-timers.
In this article:
What is remote working? A quick introduction
Let’s begin with a simple definition of remote working: at the most basic level, it means to work in a place other than your employer’s office. That could be your home, a co-working space, a company office in a different location, a library, a coffee shop down the road, a hotel, or even on a beach thousands of miles away.
But there is a lot more nuance to remote working than this simple definition, as it comes in many different forms and guises. The number of companies that offer remote working flexibility has grown steadily for several years, and spiked during 2020, but the types of arrangement vary in nature.
Remote working meaning: a spectrum of definitions
You may have heard phrases like ‘fully remote’, ‘working from home’, ‘workation / workcation’, ‘telecommuting’, ‘digital nomads’, and a maelstrom of others under the remote working umbrella. Some of these are interchangeable and some of them overlap, but they all fit somewhere on a spectrum of remote working terminology.
So, let’s take some of the most common remote working definitions and break them down.
Many companies that offer remote working still have at least one physical office. A few, however, have no fixed headquarters at all, and operate 100% remotely. These are known as ‘fully remote’ companies, sometimes also described as ‘virtual companies’ or ‘distributed teams’.
Free from the confines of geography, fully remote companies can operate across borders, and their employees are completely location independent. Zapier, for example, has always been fully remote and employs talent spread all over the world.
Fully remote companies are often in the tech space, which is unsurprising given the sector’s forward-thinking nature and the fact that coding and web development can be done from anywhere. In addition to Zapier, other examples include Automattic, GitLab and InVision.
A more common arrangement, and increasingly so, is for companies to combine a mixture of remote work and office work. This approach is known as ‘partially remote’, used interchangeably with terms like ‘flexible company’ and ‘hybrid remote working’.
I have worked for a company that has offered this kind of arrangement in the past. While its central office was in London, one of the senior managers worked in New Zealand most of the time, and travelled to the regional offices for board meetings.
However, partially remote work is not typically a long-distance arrangement. A more common setup is for a company to allow employees a certain number of home-working days, while requiring office attendance for meetings on a regular basis. This can provide a balance between the freedom of remote-working and the human contact provided by a office. It also means that employers can downsize their office space without needing to accommodate the full workforce at any given time.
The sharp rise of home-working in 2020 has been welcomed by many people, but it is also clear that it isn’t for everybody. While plenty of people have thrived working in their own environment, others have struggled with the challenges of isolation and balancing work with the responsibilities of life at home. So, as companies try to walk this tightrope and create an environment that caters for everyone, partially remote work is likely to be a popular compromise.
Working from home
This is a term that needs very little explanation, as it means exactly what it says. It is also the arrangement that is most common for remote workers. In Buffer’s State of Remote Work 2020 report, 80% of the remote workers surveyed said that their home was their primary workplace.
The phrase ‘telecommuting’ has been around since the 1970s, originally referring to a new phenomenon of people working from home and communicating with the office via telephone. Its meaning has evolved over the decades as technology has developed. These days you might still hear it used to refer to working from home and communicating via the internet, but its use is fading.
Many remote workers who live in fixed locations are not employed by a company. Freelancers are self-employed and do contracted work for companies and organisations. In the State of Remote Work 2020 report, 23% of the remote workers surveyed described themselves as freelancers or self-employed.
While freelancing is generally a less secure form of work, it does have the benefit of the freedom to manage your own working environment.
To be a digital nomad means to have the freedom to live and work from anywhere. Digital nomads are not typically employed by companies, but earn a living by building their own online businesses while travelling from place to place. The digital nomad trend was sweeping the world before the events of 2020 complicated things a little.
As the phenomenon has grown in recent years, some locations have become hubs for the digital nomad community due to their suitable infrastructure and favourable living costs. For example, Chiang Mai in Thailand, Canggu in Bali and Buenos Aires in Argentina are popular digital nomad destinations.
The growth of remote working has brought about a popular new way to experience destinations: working while you are on a vacation or holiday. Unlike digital nomads, workationers live in a fixed location, but can utilise remote-working arrangements to take frequent trips to alternative locations and combine working with exploring.
We explore this in more detail in our ultimate guide to workations, which gives a background to the concept, and explains how to plan a workation (also sometimes spelled ‘workcation’) and get the most out of it.
Remote working trends: it’s on the rise
Remote working has surged in 2020 as organisations adapt to operate without offices, but it had already been growing steadily for many years. With the case for wellness and a positive work–life balance coming increasingly under the spotlight, and the technology infrastructure for remote work only getting stronger, many companies have embraced more flexible arrangements. According to FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics, remote work grew by 91% in the decade before 2020.
Typical remote working jobs
Some jobs naturally lend themselves to remote working, while others are obviously not suited to it at all. Any work of a practical nature, such as construction, healthcare or mechanics, is not conducive to remote work.
However, technological advances have made some traditionally in-person jobs possible to do remotely, at least in part. For example, virtual learning has enabled teachers to take their work online. Medical practices have also adapted quickly in 2020 to provide some of their services remotely.
These are some of the most common remote working job sectors:
- Information technology
- Software engineering
- Web development and design
- Marketing and communications
- Accountancy and financial services
- Customer services
- Data input and analysis
Remote working benefits
What is remote working bringing to the world that changes things for the better? Evidence suggests that it is not only individuals that can benefit from remote working; for the businesses who offer it, there are also many rewards to be gained.
Benefits of remote working for individuals
- Flexibility. Depending on the precise arrangements, remote workers often have the power to set their own schedule and fit work around other responsibilities and activities. While office hours tend to be rigid, remote workers can set their own pace, whether that’s rising early and getting everything done by midday, or spacing work around the clock between walking the dogs, playing the guitar or taking the kids to school.
- Work–life balance. Working remotely means no commuting, which means less stress and more hours in the day to devote to other things. Whether this abundance of free time is used to pursue recreational passions or spending more time with loved ones, it promotes better well-being. Freedom from the office also brings the opportunity to get outdoors more during the working day.
- Control over your working environment. Without the need to conform to office etiquette, working remotely means you can tailor your working environment to your own tastes. If working from home, you can decorate your workspace however you like, and play heavy metal on volume 11 while catching up on your to-do list if that’s what floats your boat.
- Savings on commute costs. Remote working often brings savings on the costs of transport. Without the need to travel daily into a busy city centre, you can ditch that expensive rail season ticket or enjoy greatly reduced car running costs.
Benefits of remote working for employers
- Reduced operational costs. Office spaces are one of the biggest costs of running a business. By embracing remote working, companies can drastically reduced these costs, or even eradicate them entirely.
- Productivity. Research has shown that people are more productive when working outside of a traditional office environment. This study by Stanford University suggests that people working from home perform 13% better than office workers.
- Bigger talent pool. Remote companies are not limited by geography and can recruit talent from anywhere. The talent pool benefits go beyond location, too. Remote working flexibility gives access to those who might not be able to take on office work, for example new parents or disabled people.
- Retention. The flexibility of remote working is a highly sought-after benefit. A study by Owl Labs suggests that remote workers are happier than on-site staff and stay in jobs longer. With strong retention rates, employers can save on the costs and resource drain of hiring and training new staff.
- Preparedness. Before 2020, perhaps few bosses would have prioritised “coping with a global health emergency” as an important consideration for their business model. But everything is different now. A remote-working setup gives businesses greater flexibility to cope with crises and adapt to change. It also means there is less impact on business when travel is disrupted by adverse weather or strikes.
- Lower carbon footprint. Fewer people commuting means a reduction in transport, which in turn reduces carbon emissions. As the world continues to address the challenges of climate change, businesses that can reduce their carbon footprint will be rewarded, and remote working helps to achieve this.
Debunking the myths about remote working
Like everything in life, remote working does have its disadvantages. But it’s important to differentiate between genuine challenges and misconceptions. There is rarely smoke without at least a little fire, but many of the negative assumptions that are commonly made about remote working are either inaccurate, or can be easily mitigated.
These are three of the most common myths about remote working, and why they may be misleading:
Remote workers don’t get as much done.
We’ve already covered this one in the section above. Old-fashioned bosses and micro-managers might get paranoid if they can’t keep a direct eye on what everybody is doing, but empirical evidence suggests that people are more productive when working remotely than on-site.
Remote working makes people lonely.
For sure, loneliness and isolation can be problematic for people who work from home alone. But the office is far from being the only place where people have human contact. As we have seen, remote working unlocks more free time to spend with friends and family, and can facilitate a far more enriching social life.
There are many alternative ways to find community as a remote worker, for example through co-working spaces or local common interest groups. For some people, offices can be lonely places too – and remote working is an opportunity to find a community on your own terms.
It is difficult to communicate with a staff team remotely.
Newsflash: office meetings and corridor chit-chats are not the only way to communicate effectively with colleagues. In fact, excessive office meetings cause a lot of waste, and many workers say they would be more productive if there were fewer of them.
A shift towards more remote working is an opportunity to find a better balance when it comes to workplace communications, and in today’s world there is no shortage of digital technology to keep everybody connected. Hybrid remote working companies can hold on-site meetings when needed and set up frequent virtual check-ins, while affording staff more time and space to deliver on their work objectives.
How to find remote work
The big shift away from fixed office spaces in 2020 has made it easier than ever to find remote work. With many businesses keeping offices closed indefinitely, remote jobs are being advertised much more widely than on the specialist job boards where you would previously need to look.
Specialist remote and freelancing positions are listed within these communities, but it’s now also pretty easy to find remote jobs on most general job sites. Simply type ‘remote’ into a job keyword search, and then you can narrow down the results using filters.
In the example below, I searched for ‘remote’ in the jobs section of LinkedIn from my location in the United Kingdom. It returned over 20,000 positions, which I can then narrow down by date, experience level, job type and more. Filtering down to ‘mid-senior level’, ‘marketing’, ‘full-time’ and ‘posted in the last week’ still returned 100 job vacancies.
Another method is to sign up with a local recruitment agency. They can take the hard work out of the job search for you, and can help connect you with companies that have recently switched to remote working.
If your current role could be done remotely but you don’t have flexible arrangements, there is always the option to try negotiating your terms. Employers are increasingly open to remote working options, and you may be able to agree something that works well for everyone.
Tips for remote working
Working remotely for the first time can be jarring. It’s a major lifestyle change, and while there are many positives to enjoy, there are also challenges, and it can be difficult to adjust. Without a fixed office setting and specified hours, it’s easy to develop overworking habits, and working alone can feel isolating.
We recently compiled some productivity tips for home working, which are also useful for other forms of remote working. Here are some quick highlights to help you get started:
- Set a work schedule and stick to it. If you have fixed working hours, it will prevent you from staying switched on and blurring the lines between work and downtime. I like to organise my working day into 90-minute shifts, with ample breaks in between.
- Go outdoors frequently. Energising yourself with a few walks throughout the day will help you stay fresh and focused. A frequent breath of fresh air is good for your mind and body, and will help you to avoid feeling rooted to the spot.
- Find community outside of work. Whether it is spending time with family and friends, joining a sport team or interest group, volunteering locally or getting to know your neighbours, using your new-found free time to connect with people will help replace the camaraderie of the office.
- Accept that there will be bad days. Productivity isn’t a constant, regardless of whether you are working in an office, your home or on a beach. Sometimes you won’t hit your targets, and that’s ok. Don’t punish yourself for it. Have a break and come back stronger the next day.
- Set boundaries between work and play. Beyond having a working schedule, it’s also important to have some separation between your work life and leisure time. Make sure you have days off, don’t work in the evenings if you can help it, and devote some spaces to being completely work-free. Especially your bedroom – working and sleeping in the same place can be toxic.
- Invest in a good lightweight laptop. Equipping yourself for remote working will help you to get the most out of it. Our guide to the best laptops for remote working gives some tips on the features to look out for, and our picks for 2021.
For more ideas on creating your perfect remote work environment, read our list of 35 remote working essentials you need in 2021.
Have you recently switched to a remote-working lifestyle? Let us know about your experiences in the comments below.
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