Understanding the range of remote work, and particularly the extremes, is important when designing a remote organizations. Today work trends include increasing the flexibility of location. One manifestation of this is large companies heavily investing in communal spaces for employees such as coffee lounges and creative areas. Yet, for many organizations instead of putting resources into company spaces, they address the desire for flexibility by adopting work from home (WFH) policies. These policies vary widely between organizations and are often implemented on a person-by-person model. Yet, this trend continues to grow with 43% of all employees reporting some amount of remote work in 2016. A demonstration of this growth is the success of multiple remote only job websites (such as remoteok.io and remote.co). A review of these sites will quickly produce a list of over 500 companies with claims of being fully remote and many hundreds of others – including large well-known organizations such as JP Morgan Chase – posting multiple positions which are fully remote. In addition, to more job opportunities, increasing awareness, and community support (i.e. coworking), event based organizational information sharing (i.e. remote focused conferences), is accelerating pushing the remote trend forward. As more and more organizations embrace remote work within organizations it become essential to understand the phenomenon, a great way to do this is by attending remote focused events such as the Running Remote conference.
Remote work is a broad term used in practice to describe a variety of different work configurations. The most prevalent use of the term is for individuals who work from home every day while the majority of their team (and organization) works from an office. However, it is also used as a synonym for virtual or distributed work, meaning work done by team members in different locations. This includes individuals working from home or a team which is dividual over multiple offices of an organization. The remote work term is also sometimes used for small satellite offices (including the use of a dedicated room in coworking spaces) that are established by the organization and support multiple employees. While this is an exaggerated case, I consider this to be part of the multi-office category. Furthermore, the term remote work is also often used when individuals have an office but work from home on occasion (i.e. two days a week). For clarity I will refer to working from home part of the time as flexible work. Therefore, an individual worker can be considered remote or have some flexibility and on any given team none, some, or all members can be considered remote or have flexibility. Since most large organizations today have multiple offices along with some individuals who are remote, as well as those who are permitted limited flexibility, and this varies by division, department, and team it is easy to see why “remote work” is such an unclear phrase.
When exploring this phenomenon two dimensions of remote work are important, namely the number of individuals and percent of working hours spent outside the office. Organizations generally have a dynamic relationship with remote work, as such the evolution within a specific organization can be examined by monitoring how many individuals (as a proportion) are able to use discretion in where they work and how much of their work time they are permitted to consider flexible. These two metrics are interesting to consider and help in thinking across various remote organizations. However, as this trend continues, and both metrics continue to increase the role of the office itself becomes less and less central. At the extreme end of this remote spectrum all individuals would be remote all of the time, and at this point the term remote becomes inaccurate since there is no longer a core office. As Matt Mullenweg the CEO and Founder of Automattic (an organization on this extreme edge of remote) explains: “I don’t use the word remote because it sets up the expectation that there are some people who are essential and some aren’t. I use the word distributed to describe what we do, where everyone is on an equal playing field.” While he prefers the term distributed this is also a word with numerous uses; therefore, I refer to companies at the extreme end of the remote spectrum with no office and everyone working all the time from their location of choice as: location independent organizations.
Location independent organizations are an extreme version of remote work, due to the organization having no physical location and each individual working from where ever they choose. For clarity, this construct is narrow and there are many configurations that would not be considered location independent organizations. First, a location independent organization is conceptualized at the organizational level, it can also be seen at the department or division level, such as, the case of Shopify who has corporate offices for most functions but a location independent 1500+ person customer happiness team. Yet, Shopify as a whole is not considered a location independent organization. Similarly, an organization can emphasize the idea of “remote first” while still having many employees in offices. Exemplified by at Atlassian, they strive to not create any advantage for working in an Atlassian building, specifying “home office” as one of their nine locations. This could be seen as a geographic unit which is location independent, but Atlassian as an organization would not be considered location independent. Alternatively, companies can be fully remote with no corporate office and yet not be location independent. This is the case when a company requires individuals to be at their computer for a fully specified 8+ hours a day and expect immediate replies. Often this setup includes monitoring software of some kind. In these organizations’ individuals can work from home but they are held to a strict schedule and location (their desk) so that there is very little independence. This is not to say that to be a location independent organization schedules are banned, or meetings at specified times is not conducted, but the independence of employees to have a say in their schedule and see it as flexible (distinct from permitting spontaneity) is necessary. Finally, location independent organizations are distinct from companies made up of individual freelancers; location independent organization consist of individual who are full time and internal employees. While the specificity of this construct may limit the organizations who qualify, these bounds assist in bringing clarity to a discussion with many overlapping and ambiguous labels. Each style of remote work has benefits and challenges, and it is about finding the right fit for your company.
The concept of location independent organizations is specific yet there are still hundreds of organizations that fall into this category. For instance, Zapier, a software services company that automates work between applications, was founded in 2011, and currently has over 150 employees in 17 countries and 15 time zones – but no physical offices. InVision founded in 2011, is a platform that supports digital product design, is well-funded ($200+ million in venture capital raised) and has over 800 employees in more than 20 countries but also lacks any physical offices. Tortuga Backpacks is a bootstrapped business founded in 2009 providing bags for travelers; they have 9 employees dispersed globally in different, and often changing, locations. Location independent organizations seem especially prevalent in online dominated industries, but surveys of the remote work landscape show an increase in the industries participating (including finance, transportation, and healthcare). This move towards flexibility and increasingly remote forms of organizing is not new and is unlikely to fade away any time soon.
The importance of location independent organizations is there place at the extreme end of the remote work spectrum. The discussion about the remote phenomenon is broad and full of contradiction, this is not surprising given the range of configurations captured by this term. However, to date much of the conversation has been anchored by the idea of a traditional single office organization. By exploring location independent organizations through conversations across organizations it is possible to reveal assumptions, highlight new questions, and resolve current contradictions. So, while not currently the most prevalent remote configuration, location independent organizations are possibly the more important to understand in the search for insights about remote work overall. A great venue to do this is through events, such as Running Remote, with other individuals, teams, and companies!
 Gallup Report, 2017. State of the American Workplace.
 Why working from home is good for business. The Way We Work: A TED Series. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6fIseKzzH0
 Gallup Report, 2017. State of the American Workplace
Author: Jen Rhymer
Posted with permission
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