What exactly is remote work?


Boris Borisov

05 May 2018


Remote work is growing

People and companies all around the world are realizing that there are significant benefits of working remotely. Different people choose remote work for different reasons, but the common denominator is that removing the geographical boundaries of work empowers you to pursue the things that matter to you. For some, this means being close to their family or being able to travel without restrictions. For others, the reasons are more pragmatic – you can find a better-paid, more rewarding job if you do not limit your job search to the boundaries of your city.

Despite the obvious benefits of working remotely, there are often mixed opinions about remote work. Most people would say that working remotely is amazing, it increases their productivity and happiness (e.g. this infographic). Still, you can find people who say that remote work is awful for them because they feel too isolated without the social interaction of the office environment. Both of those perspectives are equally true – so the key is to find what's the reality for you. This depends on you as a person, on the workplace you're joining, and the way you integrate remote work into your life.

Definition of remote work

When it comes to defining remote work, one could easily get confused. And the most frequent mistake is to put remote work and freelancing together. Although freelancing is also done distantly from the rest of the team, its nature makes it very different from remote work. When you are a freelancer, you have to find small projects at different companies and you're paid on deliverables. On the other hand, when you have a remote job – it is a full-time position with the benefits that you would expect at a traditional job (predictable monthly salary, healthcare insurance, paid holiday, etc.). The only difference between remote jobs and traditional jobs is that you are not required to work from the same place as the rest of the team.

Another frequent mistake when defining remote work is to see it as black and white. You are either fully remote or not. The reality is that you can find a remote job at a company where everyone works remotely (e.g. Zapier, Buffer, Automattic), or at a company where only some people work remotely (e.g. Amazon, Etsy, Product Hunt). Similarly, working remotely does not mean that your teammates will be on the other end of the world – some companies even hire remote employees only from within their country/state, to make it easier to meet. This is because it's normal for remote teams to meet physically once in a while. It's more typical at remote companies to allow extreme flexibility in the working hours, but it's not necessarily the case.

Bonus section: History of remote work

Interestingly, remote work was first introduced decades before the Internet. Remote work was introduced in the '70s by an engineer at NASA, Jack Nilles. He introduced his concept of home-based work, which was the alternative to office-based work. He was so passionate about the benefits of working remotely for both companies and employees that he predicted: in 10 to 20 years everyone will work remotely. This, of course, did not happen. The mass adoption of remote work had to wait for the advancement of technologies (Internet, Slack, Skype, Basecamp, etc.) and advancement of business processes (downloading Skype doesn't make you good at working in a remote team).

The foundation for remote work was first laid by smaller, forward-looking companies that wanted to experiment with the available technologies. It didn't take much time for the big companies (such as AT&T, American Express, and IBM) to largely adopt a remote work approach. For IBM, for example, the benefits were many: the financial gains are estimated to be $1.9 billion, not to mention the improvement in employee satisfaction (e.g. Harvard Business Review article). After those big names gave their stamp of approval, remote work started to grow even faster.

More recently, the financial crisis of 2008 accelerated the switch towards remote work. In the crisis years, remote work was a way for companies to save costs from office space and to hire talent outside of the cities with the highest salaries. Although remote work is still quite a new phenomenon, it's now something that people are familiar with and they know it's out there. This will only continue as the number of remote jobs is growing at 8% per year (as reported by Quartz).

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