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Your Guide to Flexible Working Terminology

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Are you aiming to let your employees WFH or are you hoping for a prompt RTO? 

The pandemic-enforced shift to homeworking has led to some new terminology and acronyms to describe new ways of working – but just what do we mean by each of these terms? 

Confused? You will be!

The big three

Flexible Working: The broadest of all the terms, this refers to any form of work that steps outside the ‘norm’ – usually separated into time flexibility (such as part-time, compressed hours or job shares) or location flexibility. 

Remote Work: A form of location flexibility, this refers to work that takes place outside of a corporate workplace.  It might be the employee’s home, but it could equally be a co-working space or even a coffee shop.

Hybrid Working: Any mix of in-person (often in an office environment) and remote work.  Also sometimes called blended work. Someone is a hybrid worker even if they spend just some of their time working from home. It is a form of location flexibility that might also be undertaken with time flexibility.

Why flexible, remote and hybrid work aren’t the same

Sometimes these are terms are used interchangeably, but this is a common mistake that can cause confusion amongst employees and managers.  As the definitions indicate, flexible, remote and hybrid work mean very different things.  If an organization is offering any or even all these working arrangements, everyone needs to know exactly what they mean. Clarity of definition helps to manage employee expectations, ensure that everyone understands their responsibilities and obligations in respect of each form of flexibility and – important on a practical level – eligibility to undertake them can be properly assessed.

More useful terms

WFH (Work From Home): A form of remote work, where the employee, unsurprisingly, does their work from their own home. Some organizations do insist that employees only work from their own home whilst working remotely, and no other location. 

Agile Working: This isn’t a form of flexible working, but the terms do sometimes get used together or confused. Whilst agile working might include some aspects of flexibility (around where or when work is done) it also includes how work is done. It takes into account systems, processes, technologies and roles and considers how to get work done most effectively. 

Teleworking: A term used mostly in academia and research to mean remote working! When the idea of remote work was first conceived in the 1990s, this was the way it was described. 

Work anywhere: This term is sometimes used to describe an approach by organizations that provide full autonomy to employees about where they work. Organizations might have some rules, but they are often simple and have few restrictions. A great example is the AirBnB approach where employees can work anywhere, including abroad for up to 90 days.

Co-located work: Work undertaken where employees come to a location to work at the same time and in the same place. It may or may not have a purpose. For example, a team away day to work on a specific project is co-located, but so is turning up and simply doing work in an open plan office with team members.

Co-working space: This isn’t the same as co-located working. A co-working space is a flexible office space where employees can work for some of the time. This might include renting a meeting room for a few hours or a desk for a few days a week. Co-working spaces are rising in popularity and are available in many cities.

Synchronous work: This simply means multiple people working together at the same time – whether this is in person or virtually. 

Asynchronous work: The opposite of synchronous work, where employees work on tasks independently at a time of their choosing. Where collaboration is involved, this doesn’t happen in real time. For example, an employee works on a document and uploads it to a shared space for colleagues to review and comment on.

Hot-desking: This isn’t a new term – but some organizations are changing their office space to support hybrid work resulting in more forms of hot desking. This approach simply means employees don’t have a fixed desk but will have access to one when they are in the office.

RTO (Return to Office): A strategy used by organizations who want employees to return to physical workplaces, in full or in part.

As we can see, there is a whole range of new terminology to go along with our new ways of working. It is important that organizations are completely clear about their own definitions of flexible forms of work, reflecting these in policy, training or guidance. This provides clarity to employees and their managers about just what the organization supports and expects. Globally, organizations and their people are undertaking a huge experiment with new ways of working, and as that continues, we may see the language of work evolve even further. Watch this space!