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What’s the difference between remote, virtual and distributed workforces?

And why the language matters. Check out Technical.ly’s latest Culture Builder newsletter for more.

Remote work. (Photo by Chris Wink)

Written by Technically Media CEO Chris Wink, Technical.ly’s new Culture Builder newsletter features tips on growing powerful teams and dynamic workplaces. Below is the latest edition we published. Sign up here to get the next one this Friday.


At Technical.ly’s NET/WORK jobs fair last week, I hosted live interviews with several hiring companies about their workplace culture and I asked them all the same question: How will your remote offering change post pandemic? More than ever, remote jobs were on display.

When COVID-19 lockdowns are over, most companies will retain offices. In Technical.ly’s own survey of 70 companies across the mid-Atlantic, 70% reported they’d expect to be “remote-flexible,” in which most employees do spend two to four days a week in an office and accommodations are made to retain high-performing employees who work fully remotely. Recent data from Glassdoor shows something similar: Though COVID has accelerated the trend, only a quarter of professionals even want to go entirely remote.

Remote work, then, doesn’t become a permanent universality after the pandemic. Instead, we’re watching a massive shift toward hybrid environments. Every company needs an answer to the remote question. That accelerates the question of the language we use to describe this work.

In Technical.ly’s reporting (and in our 2021 Hiring and Workplace Culture Trends Report), we use three categories:

  • Remote flexible — Employers prioritize hiring near their office but are flexible for high-performers.
  • Remote first — Employers prioritize hiring without geography in mind, while seeing close proximity as a “bonus.”
  • Remote only — Employers would be entirely agnostic to geographic location.

A hiring manager in Baltimore told me that two other words are worth adding to your lexicon for describing how your organization approaches hybrid workforces: distributed and virtual.

“Distributed” teams tend to be ones that are without an office altogether, or at least no one location with primacy over another. For many, “distributed” also implies a heavy reliance on asynchronous work, both because of time zone differences and various schedules. This tends to be best for experienced teams with less need for creative co-development.

Virtual is often used in a temporary sense, like “I am going to work virtually for the day.” I hear this used most often by firms with a strong office culture. How are you using these words for your own workplace?

Back in 2018, an engineering chief at a D.C. tech firm told me he thought companies should pick a single lane: go entirely distributed, or almost exclusively in-office. The middle-ground created too inconsistent an employee experience, he said. If you choose office, you might still be flexible with work from home for experienced teammates, but that becomes secondary. As he put it to me: “Company culture thrives best in one place first, and that’s either your office or some online environment. It’s tough to have both.”

That might have been one reason why in 2019, companies were pulling back on some work from home offerings. Remote work seemed best for those companies that really embraced it. Then 2020 came and changed everything.

We will be returning to our offices. I might more often describe our team as “distributed,” since at least a third of the team won’t work from there, and will indeed be based in multiple cities. Begin with where your team culture starts now, and use the language that describes that best.

P.S. I’m in the midst of programming out Technical.ly’s annual Introduced conference, which will be a day of learning on building better workplaces held May 13. What would you want to learn or experience to make a virtual event worthy of the time?

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Series: How to Work Remotely / Builders

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