Remote working vs flexible working: How to know the difference

Remote working vs flexible working: How to know the difference
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Employers are facing many challenges right now. One of them is how to manage employees working from home who have not really worked remotely before. As companies have moved to an all-remote framework for employees, there are lingering questions about how much they should work and how much flexibility to give them during these trying times.

The short answer is: Remote work should be regimented and clearly defined because too much flexibility leads to employee frustration and serious productivity problems. At the same time, employers will have to carefully balance some additional guidelines to help employees break free from a rigid, draconian schedule -- a ball and chain that locks them to their desks.

One thing is clear: Homebound workers might not understand why there are work boundaries at all -- both physical (making a home office) and virtual (keeping regular hours). Those two factors will be the most important to them as employers set guidelines and form a clear understanding about how much an employee is required to work and when the day ends.

Physical boundaries for the office

One of the most important factors with remote working and how much flexibility to provide employees has to do with the physical workspace. Some employees might not know that the basic rule of all teleworking is to create a space for your home office. When the employee is in that space, he or she is working -- case closed. You can discuss flexibility until you are blue in the face, but the truth is, a physical space for work creates a clear understanding.

It’s important to encourage employees to not only create this space but to maintain a work ethic. When they are “at work,” it means they are in the home office. That’s the only place they keep their business laptop or business smartphone, that’s the only place they have paperwork and a printer. It might sound ridiculous to them, but that boundary will give them the sense that their job now takes place in a physical location and will end up making them feel better about their jobs.

It might seem like a dramatic gesture, but the physical space can also be the only one where the employee accesses their work email or does a video conference meeting. We all know mobile computing has made it possible to work from anywhere, but a physical boundary helps the employees understand that they do not need to work all of the time. Ironically, by imposing this on themselves, they will actually see work as more flexible. If they leave the home office to go tend to the dog or fix a meal, then that’s not considered work -- they have left the office.

Having that physical separation also helps with their work hours. It is not entirely flexible in terms of taking 30 minutes to chill on the couch -- that is not considered work. It might be tempting for employees to think of remote work as having the same flexibility of being at the corporate office, where it might be fine to hang out in the breakroom and consider that “work” because it means building a relationship with a coworker or discussing a project in a casual way. That doesn’t count at home, where there’s an HDTV in the next room.

Employers can say this: “Since you are working remotely, here is the new definition of flexibility. You are welcome to work flexible hours and spend time in the office in the early morning hours, then take a long lunch or even quit early for the day. However, you don’t have the flexibility to mix home life and work life, so when you work it should be in an office when possible.”

Virtual guidelines

Other than physically creating a space where the employee is always working, and then leaving that space means the employee is not working, there should also be virtual guidelines.

This is partly a way to admit that having a physical location for work isn’t a perfect solution. (It is one of the most important steps, however.) We all know it’s too easy to grab a laptop in the living room, to work on a phone from the sofa, or even to answer business phone calls when you are out for a walk while you are social distancing from neighbors.

Here’s how to make that viable for employees. First, start with the guideline that all work should be done in the physical home office -- that’s the goal. However, if an employee also imposes some virtual guidelines, that’s also fine. Say a software developer needs a break from the home office. He or she might let everyone know -- preferably on a collaborative chat app like Slack -- about needing to work from a back porch for a while. He or she might decide: “Yes, my home office is where I work most days and that’s the hard and fast rule. For the next two hours, I’m going to work from the porch to get a break from that location.”

This also helps with the mental health of your staff. Employees know they have guardrails on their time and don’t need to work all day long, and yet they also know they are free to work at their own pace and in their own time frame. This is also where flexibility can trump remote work rules. There are always options for them, and the ultimate goal is to complete their projects.

Virtual guidelines won’t help as much as physical boundaries for the home office, however. Employers should press the point that all work should generally take place at a desk. That should be the cultural shift, and countless stay-at-home workers will attest to this. Having a place to work is extremely helpful as a way to separate work from real life. It can mean the difference between an employee who is happy and productive and one who is mostly irritated at having to work at all hours of the day. In the end, flexibility becomes a liability.

John Brandon

John Brandon has covered gadgets and cars for the past 12 years having published over 12,000 articles and tested nearly 8,000 products. He's nothing if not prolific. Before starting his writing career, he led an Information Design practice at a large consumer electronics retailer in the US. His hobbies include deep sea exploration, complaining about the weather, and engineering a vast multiverse conspiracy.