This article was originally published prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that resulted in a massive shift to remote work. Its insights remain helpful for companies and individuals adapting to this way of working.
There’s a problem with the remote workforce conversation—we don't know enough about it. The majority of reports on the remote workforce are “benefits studies.” They seek to quantify the benefits of remote work from either a worker or employer perspective. While this body of work is important, it is more important to understand the overall size, characteristics, and trends in the remote workforce. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a sensible framework proposed to measure the remote workforce as a category in its own right.
I propose a framework for categorizing and measuring the remote workforce. We at Talent Tech Labs intend to use this as the basis for future studies addressing the size and characteristics of this important segment.
Definition and Framework for Measuring Remote Work
We define remote work as work performed from a location of the worker’s choosing. The actual distance between the company and worker does not matter. A worker may be located in the same city as the company or in a different country. Workers themselves control and decide where they want to work.
With that baseline definition in mind, we can begin categorizing the different types of remote workers. Our framework has two overarching categories—remote work among the employed and remote work among the non-employed (e.g., contingent work)—each with three subcategories of remote workers.
Remote Work Among the Employed
Employed workers include all full- and part-time employees. This group does not include any kind of contingent labor such as independent contractors, freelancers, agency workers, or staff engaged through offshoring arrangements or statements of work.
Employed, non-remote: This category includes all employed workers whose employment is tied to a location mandated by the employer. Examples would include office and retail staff, warehouse workers, hospital employees, or delivery personnel.
Employed, partial-remote: This group includes all employed workers that spend some of their working time at a location of their choosing. Examples might include a research analyst or a marketing director who spends some time working from home and some time at the corporate headquarters. This population is primarily individuals who work for companies with a “work from home” option but are still required to be in the office some of the time.
Employed, full-remote: This group includes employees that spend all (or nearly all) of their time working from a location of their choosing. Examples include inside sales representatives or account managers that work from home.
Remote Work Among the Non-employed
The non-employed category includes all manner of contingent workers such as freelancers, agency workers, and workers engaged through statements of work. It also includes internally managed part- and full-time workers that are hired on an intentionally time-limited basis (e.g., seasonal workers). This sector is smaller than employed workers.
Non-employed, non-remote: This group includes all contingent workers whose work is tied to a physical location. Examples include temporary doctors or nurses hired through a staffing company, a makeup specialist hired for a specific movie, or a full-time implementation specialist hired for an eight-month project and is required to be at the client site every day.
Non-employed, partial remote: This group includes all contingent workers that have some flexibility in the location where they work. Examples include the previously mentioned implementation specialist (if that individual had the option to work from home) or a strategy consultant that primarily worked remotely but had to travel to visit clients from time to time.
Non-employed, full-remote: This group includes all contingent workers that are fully remote, that is, no part of their employment is dependent on client location. Examples include remote software engineers hired on contract or call center representatives working from home and managed by an outsourced agency.
Why Does This Matter?
Collecting data on the size and composition of the remote workforce is an important first step to better understanding it. It enables better planning, company management, policy decisions, and even leads to more robust remote work benefit studies. For example, we could start to answer questions such as:
- In which occupations is remote work growing the fastest and why?
- What accounts for the difference in prevalence in remote work between employed and contingent workers?
- Do fully remote teams perform better than hybrid teams?
- Where do remote workers live and what are their preferences?
- How much do remote workers contribute to the economy?
In short, we think the findings from measuring the remote workforce would be as surprising as they would be insightful. Explicitly defining the categories we’ve laid out here gives business leaders and decision-makers a common vocabulary to have a meaningful and productive conversation around remote work.