It’s time to get comfortable with the Remote Lingo – a look into remote and distributed work

Welcome to the remote club (or if you’re still in the process, hang in there). Being part of this growing community, means you’re pretty comfortable with the everyday remote lingo. Right?

Do you know, let’s say, the key differences between ‘remote” and ‘distributed‘?

…not that easy? Don’t worry you’re not alone 👍

In this blog, we will help explain the key differences between both terms, and share with you which one Oyster chose and why.

Some background

Remote work has become a hot topic ever since the world was thrown into working from home earlier this year. As people continue to discuss potential impacts this change might have on the workplace, many terms are being thrown around. Words such as “remote” and “distributed” are constantly being used. People use them without much thought. But at Oyster, we say it’s worth taking a minute to look at the key differences between these terms. As you will see, adopting one over the other can have a significant impact on a company’s operations and culture.

As a global organization, we at Oyster prefer to describe ourselves ‘distributed’ as opposed to ‘remote’. We feel this term most closely describes our ways of working, or at least the way we define it. Before going any further, we do acknowledge that both terms are not set in stone by any means and in some situations, can be used interchangeably. The intention of this blog is to share our thoughts on the main differences between ‘distributed’ and ‘remote’. As a way of helping you apply them to your own situation.

Let’s look at definitions

Both terms have more similarities than differences.

A key similarity is that both remote ****and distributed ****consist of employees working from different locations and even commonly across multiple time zones. Teams in both scenarios rely heavily on online tools to do their work and communicate with each other. Visibility and accountability are key aspects in both remote and distributed environments – they make it easier to coordinate.

Now let’s look at some differences.

Remember this!

The main distinction between remote and distributed companies lies in the presence of a central office.

Remote companies will have an office, whereas distributed companies do not. The ratio of remote employees vs in-office may vary. There may only be a few regular users of the office or sometimes much more. Regardless, it is still present.

Fine, but what about the feelings behind the definitions?

Say you are playing a game of Word Association and the word ‘remote’ comes up. What is your first thought?

Be honest, probably not something very positive. That’s alright, in fact, if you were to look up the word ‘remote’ in a thesaurus, you get a slew of unpleasant terms such as ‘obscure’, ‘lonely’ and even ‘godforsaken’! Certainly not how most teams want to think of themselves.

If you were to play the same game with the word ‘distributed’, words like ‘share’ and ‘spread’ might come to mind. These words themselves are not particularly illustrative. However, if you expand on them further you may start to develop deeper connotations of equality, balance and fairness – things all companies strive for.

Now, it could be said words are subjective and you can find many meanings in them and you are right, but with the potential for such negative effects from such innocuous word choice, it’s something worth considering.

Time for visualizations!

Who doesn’t enjoy a good diagram?

We found that a good way to visualize these ways of working is through a ‘hub and spoke’ model and a network model. The former is a metaphor for remote companies, where the ‘hub’ is the central office and the spokes surrounding it, the remote employees and regional offices.

The Hub and Spoke model

(Source: CBRE, link)

You might ask yourself: ‘what’s wrong with the hub and spoke model? After all, it is strong, orderly and gave us the wheel!

Well, by nature this arrangement suggests centrality and therefore infers that the spokes are somehow less integral than the hub. Think about it, a wheel can keep turning even if a few spokes are missing but it will buckle without a hub at its center.

This can be observed in real life where, depending on the split of in-office and remote employees, the latter can be perceived as less important or even ‘replaceable’. In turn, remote employees can feel isolated or under-appreciated due to poor visibility and acknowledgement for their accomplishments.

The Distributed Network

In a distributed company, the opposite is true. The design of a distributed company can be thought of more as a ‘network’ where no singular point has more importance than any other. For this reason, a distributed business model is often seen as a more inclusive and equal arrangement. That is certainly the case here at Oyster, where all employees communicate and collaborate in the same way.

Words of wisdom 🤯

We might prefer to call ourselves a distributed company rather than a remote company. But that is only because we have found that this framework best describes the business model we aspire to, one that we believe is more inclusive and resilient.

The choice is yours… it truly is!

We showed that there were some negative connotations behind remote working. However, the potential negative effects of a remote team can be mitigated provided the whole team works remotely at least partially, as opposed to some employees being 100% in-office and others 100% remote. This means everyone has at least some consideration for both modes of working, which can lead to a more harmonious hub and spoke model.

As clearly seen here, choosing one over the other isn’t that simple. And to make matters even more complicated there is a whole spectrum of ways companies can describe themselves we have not touched on from “Remote First” to “Remote Friendly,” “Hybrid” and more!

What is important to remember is that all of these terms have more similarities than differences, focus on what best describes your organization, and make decisions intentionally around the words you choose to use!