Remote work vs work from home vs distributed work: they're not the same

We have preferences in how we like to work. But my experience leads me to pin three practices as non-negotiable for effective distributed work.

Illustration of waves.

I am a distributed worker. Before this, I worked remotely, and had done so for several years. Even before that, I often worked from home.

Isn't working from home just remote work? Yes and no.

Yes-if when you work remotely you are, in fact, at home. That's work-from-home. COVID-19 didn't create the practice of work from home. People have been working from home for decades. The pandemic just forced many more to work from home when they otherwise would have preferred to work in an office.

But also no, working from home is not the only type of remote work. People work from many places. If you're working from a library, cafe, or ferry, you are still working remotely, but you're no longer working from home.

It's understandable that remote work and work-from-home get confused. For many of us, work is typically linked to an office or work site. When you work away from either of these, you are working remotely.

Remote work, including work from home, typically means no significant difference in day-to-day practice compared to working at an office or work site. We mostly use substitutions. Using digital tools, to accommodate remote workers into meetings and collaboration, we workaround but make no significant change to how we work. Often remote workers need to come into the office for certain activities for which workarounds have not been found.

Adjustments to the world culture forced by COVID-19 safety measures were called remote work. But the remote work done by many during the COVID-19 pandemic was, in fact, distributed work.

So what, then, is distributed work?

When people write about how working from home is not remote work, I read that they really mean remote work in the distributed sense. Remote working implies having an office which you work away from. Distributed working means there is no office or work site, and instead your entire team collaborates directly with each other, irrespective of location.

It's true that the workers newly working from home, during COVID-19 protection measures, had an office. But many of those offices were not operational. So they actually had no office, and instead were working only with others who were also working from home.

Many workers were told that this was remote working. So unsurprisingly they used remote work tools and techniques. If a team experienced negative outcomes while working from home, this is the reason. Trying to substitute remote work techniques for an office will fail. Remote work techniques don't substitute for an office. It's a square peg/round hole issue-a mismatch of problem and solution.

To not have an office, you need to change your collaboration technique, and that means adopting the practices of a distributed team.

In fact, I rarely call myself a remote worker anymore because all of the recent work I've done has been for teams who have no physical office. Instead, I say I am a distributed worker.

My work practices as a distributed worker are significantly different from when I was a remote worker. Most of this can be distilled into three groups.

I need to be far more autonomous. Both my managers and direct reports need this from me. We cannot rely on reminding each other of priorities and deadlines. In an office, this can happen from casual chitchat. Such small talk is far less common in distributed work.

I write a lot more. Effective distributed work means becoming far more comfortable at documenting. Hit a roadblock with a product? Write out what the cause was and what the solutions could be. Had a customer get in touch? Write down the context and the outcome. Documentation is the key to distributed work. Documentation also helps with the autonomy imperative. Documented work means it's possible to both be autonomous and know what's going on in your team at any time.

I default to async. Asynchronous collaboration removes the need to have someone else available to interact with you at the same time. I cannot emphasize how flexible your team becomes, how quickly it can respond to changes. Async also encourages the imperative to document. Documentation is the fuel that let async teams soar. I still set up meetings, but I don't do so lightly. Many activities are faster and more effective when done async. Just try it.

I'll stop here for now. I know there's nuance and subjective personal preference in how we like to work. But my experience so far leads me to pin the three practices above as essentially non-negotiable for effective and satisfying distributed work. When my practices change, I'll probably revisit and review. Ta ta for now.