What is the Difference? Remote Work vs. Distributed Work

What is the Difference? Remote Work vs. Distributed Work

With the way we work changing so quickly, it’s often hard to keep up with the latest terms. Remote work and distributed work are two different but related things that often get confused. Because the future of work includes both, understanding the difference is crucial to successfully navigating the rapidly changing world of remote work.

What is remote work?

Remote work lets people do their job anywhere instead of going onsite. Rather than commuting to an office, a remote worker can log on from any place with a Wi-Fi connection. You can get your work done from your living room, home office, or sitting poolside. You can work remotely whether your company is organized traditionally or if it’s organized for distributed work. Remote work is sometimes called “telecommuting” or “work from home.”

Remote work gives workers more flexibility and helps companies attract and retain their talent. Remote work uses technology and tools to replicate traditional onsite and real-time workflows. For example, a coworker calls you to talk about a project instead of stopping by your desk. You can do remote work 100% of the time or just a couple of days a week.

What is distributed work?

Distributed work is an organizational approach that companies take. It is the default setting for decentralized organizations with workers in different locations. Companies have distributed teams, also known as remote-first teams. The goal is an asynchronous (not real-time) approach that empowers workers.

“You evaluate people’s work on what they produce, not how or when they produce it. Trust emerges as the glue that holds the entire operation together. You begin shifting to better — perhaps slower, but more deliberate — decision-making, and you empower everyone, not just the loudest or most extroverted, to weigh in on major conversations.”                                                              - Matt Mullenweg, founding developer of WordPress and founder of Automattic

Distributed work relies on tools that empower employees to work at their own pace (also known as working asynchronously). Good communication skills are critical because there’s no central office or HQ. With distributed work, the talent pool is wider because there are no location restrictions for hiring.

They sound the same, what's the difference?

You’re right! Sometimes distributed work and remote work get mixed up so we want to clarify both terms. Understanding the intent behind remote work and distributed work is key to differentiating between them.

Distributed work is remote-first, and company processes are built for workers spread out in different places. Because there’s no central location and workers may be in different time zones, asynchronous communication and processes are key.

Traditional companies can offer remote work, but don’t rely on it as the main way of working. Remote work uses the same processes as onsite work. You could do remote work for a day but the organizational default doesn't support 100% remote work so it's not distributed work.

A look into the future: remote work and distributed work

With technology making it possible to work from anywhere, the workplace doesn’t have to be a place at all. Many companies were reconsidering the traditional in-office approach before the pandemic affected workplaces. Now, at least 25% of Americans are working 100% remotely.

“Companies will cut their commercial office space by 50%-70%”                                                              Chris Herd, founder and CEO of FirstBaseHQ

This will enable workers to take advantage of a flexible schedule that works for them. Industry leaders like Facebook, Spotify, and Microsoft plan to invest in remote work as a permanent option.

Remote work and distributed work will be big parts of workplaces in the future, so it’s important to understand the differences between them. Distributed work is an organizational approach. Remote work is a way for people to work. Both remote work and distributed work need tools that emphasize communication and collaboration. That way, workers and companies can avoid siloing projects and work.