Remote, Distributed, or Virtual? What is the difference

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I just asked my girlfriend if she works in a remote team or a distributed team. The whole organization is currently working from home because of COVID-19. She said in a remote team because they also have colleagues in India. Well, we get along pretty well, but in this, I have to disagree. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast of Sam Harris, where he speaks with Matt Mullenweg, founder, and CEO of Automattic, the company behind WordPress. An excellent podcast and I had two takeaways that I would like to share with you. One is about definitions, and the other one is about maturity levels. I would like to talk about definitions today. In my next blog post, I will talk about maturity levels.

COVID-19 forced many organizations to switch to a new operation mode. A mode where everyone works from home. Some organizations already work like this for years, for example, Buffer, ICAgile, Management 3.0, or Automattic.

The definition of remote is: “(of a place) situated far from the main centers of population; distant.” For example: “the valley is remote from the usual tourist routes”. Remote is assuming you are (far) away from the office. You work remotely when you work from home (or from your friend’s home, or from your beach hut, or… you got it). However: Working remotely means you are not in the office where your colleagues work. When there is an office where the majority of people work but you don’t, you work remotely.

However, what about when there is no one in the office because of a lockdown? It could be because of COVID-19 or maybe because of demonstrations like in Chile in 2019. Or, what if the company does not even have an office like Management 3.0 or Automattic.

What better way to learn how to work remotely than… remotely! Many of our workshops can be done online or are even designed for online. Check out the schedule.

The other word I mentioned was distributed. The definition of distributed is: “occur throughout an area or spread (a load) over an area.” For example: “the birds are mainly distributed in marshes and river valleys” or “the seat is designed to ensure the weight of the passenger is evenly distributed”. Let’s again look at how organizations are organized during lockdowns: All people work from home, they are all equally distributed. One person per house. No one in the office because of the lockdown. The same for companies like Management 3.0 and Buffer. There is no office, and everyone is always working from their own (home)office, no matter where it is. This setup is called distributed, not remotely.

The other word you often hear is virtual. We work with virtual teams. The definition of virtual is:” almost or nearly as described, but not wholly or according to strict definition.” Looking at that definition, what is a virtual team? A team that is almost a team? Or a team that is not completely working from one location? According to Wikipedia, a virtual team is a distributed team or remote team. The term virtual team seems to be more a collection of different options. Virtual teams are teams where some people work in different locations, and sometimes there is no office.

You can, of course, also have distributed teams, who work in a remote organization. The other way around, a remote team in a distributed organization sounds weird. What is the main office in a distributed organization? A distributed organization can’t have remote teams.

Back to my girlfriend. I explained to her that they usually work remotely. Most people work in the main office, and some people work in, for example, India. However, currently, they all work distributed because of COVID-19. If we all have the same understanding of the words, communication often gets a lot easier.

Learn more about Working Together in Virtual Teams by attending the official Work Together Anywhere Workshop. Click here for more information.


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