Telework, telecommuting, Remote work; Again What’s the difference?

Judging from the comments I get, there is still a fair amount of confusion as to what, exactly, are the definitions of teleworking, telecommuting and remote working? My answers go into some detail but, first, here are my general definitions:

  • Teleworking: ANY form of substitution of information technologies (such as telecommunications and/or computers) for normal work-related travel; moving the work to the workers instead of moving the workers to work.
  • Telecommuting: Periodic work out of the principal office, one or more days per week, either at home, a client’s site, or in a telework center; the partial or total substitution of information technologies for the commute to work. The emphasis here is on reduction or elimination of the daily commute to and from the workplace. Telecommuting is a form of teleworking. Telemedicine is another form of telework except the emphasis is on the type of work performed rather than the trip savings.
  • Remote working: Another popular name for teleworking. I personally dislike the term because of the the possible inference that the workers are somehow disengaged from their work rather than simply working at a distance from the principal workplace.
  • Hybrid working: The split between teleworking and traditional office working in which X days per week, on average, are spent teleworking and the rest in the traditional office. Our previous research shows that X tends to hover between 2 and 3. This form has implications on the design of the formerly traditional office. But that’s the subject of a future blog post.

Those are the quick definitions. Now here are some details.


  • Frequency In order to be classified as a teleworker, an individual has to spend some minimum amount of time teleworking. Before Covid we somewhat arbitrarily set this as 10% of annual working hours. That is, an average of at least one full day every two work weeks (assuming a five-day work week) or the equivalent. This can be made up of a series of full days or a collection of hours distributed over the year, or some combination of the two. The pandemic has pretty much altered that definition to at least one full day per week.
  • Time Distribution There are two issues here. One is the ability of a teleworker to work non-standard hours while working with a conventional employer. The second is the ability of some telecommuters to have hybrid days, e.g., with some hours worked at home, others in their traditional offices, thus avoiding rush-hour traffic. Whether teleworkers spend entire or partial days at home may affect their automobile use and resultant energy and air pollution consequences.
  • Periodicity Although this factor does not help distinguish between teleworkers and other workers, it is an aid in determining the impact of teleworking on the teleworkers’ communities. For example, regular teleworking enables establishment of regular schedules for other things, such as dropping the kids off at school. Also, if large numbers of teleworkers are regular telecommuters, then there can be a significant impact on traffic congestion.
  • Location Parameters These are simply indicators of the travel implications of telework. We have, again rather arbitrarily, set a distance between teleworker and employer of a 20 minute travel time as the minimum before we’ll call the person a teleworker. The total travel distance between teleworker and employer is important in denoting telecommuters. If the technology were not available, telecommuters would travel the distance on a daily basis; other teleworkers would find it too far to go. In the U.S., this is somewhere around 100 miles (160 km) each way. Furthermore, teleworking must involve a change in “business as usual”. If you would ordinarily get on the phone to call some one, then you do not become a teleworker overnight just because you continue this practice. Finally, there is the designation of mobile worker, corresponding to workers in the field or at various client sites. These can be “normal” workers on travel status, traveling salespeople or field representatives who might be located from occasionally to full time at other points than the central office.
  • Enabling Technology These are descriptors of the technology or technologies that make teleworking possible. In the simplest case, the telephone may be the sole technology that allows a teleworkers to spend some days per month at home catching up on paperwork, but keeping in voice touch with the office. At the other end of the scale we might have a self-employed consultant using wide-band telecommunications, satellites, and multiple computers to work for clients scattered all over the world. In the middle is the personal computer-equipped, Zoom-[or other group conferencing technnology]-enabled teleworker. Our criterion is that at least one of these information technologies must be critical to making telework possible.
  • Technology Use Frequency This is a further constraint on the technology combination. It must be so important that it is used at least 10% of working hours, averaged over a year.
  • Technology Importance This factor is simply to identify what is vital, as contrasted with what is just nice to have. For example, many teleworkers consider email and Internet access to be vital, while video teleconferencing may be cool but not absolutely necessary. For other teleworkers video conferencing is the key to success.
  • Employment Status There are only two primary categories here: one is either self-employed, such as a home-based entrepreneur, or an employee of some organization with headquarters elsewhere than one’s home, although there is a middle ground here for contract workers (those whose work is in accordance with a contract for specific services). Further, to be a teleworker one must get paid or otherwise have an economic benefit from the telework performed.
  • Nature of Work This helps demographers, and others interested in forecasting, divine what sort of work is being performed by teleworkers. We are often asked what sorts of jobs are teleworkable. If you want a short answer, a better question is what sorts of jobs, are not at least partially teleworkable (brain surgery falls into the teleworkable category).
  • Nature of Communications This factor helps define the extent to which certain tasks in individual jobs are susceptible to teleworking. For example, routing data processing is a no-brainer with fairly standard computer and telephone technology, while negotiating a major and complicated contract with individuals in another country may not be a good candidate for teleworking. Or is it?

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