Are remote working, teleworking & home working the same

Actually, not always. What teleworking, remote working, and home working are depends on where and how we do them. At least, in some jurisdictions.

by Jimena Murillo Chávarro

Whether it’s remote working, teleworking, or working from home – the concept of flexible working isn’t new. There have been regulations about it in various countries or states for at least 20 years. But now due to more people than ever working away from facilities, businesses must manage a wide range of flexible work types – and the obscurity that comes with them. Today, without a clear, common understanding for these terms companies can face misunderstandings across their workforce – or worse – the often-unseen risks that come with it.

The rise of remote working as part of the pandemic

However, until the COVID-19 pandemic, it was also not very common. For example, figures from Eurostat suggest that only around 5.4% of employees regularly worked from home in the 10 years before the pandemic. 

The pandemic therefore caused significant changes in attitudes to remote working. It has also given rise to new regulations and guidelines about the expectations and obligations of both employers and employees. One interesting aspect that has emerged is the different terms that are used for what we might rather grandly describe as ‘flexible working modalities’. These include working from home (or home working), remote working, and teleworking. The real question is whether these are all the same, or if there are nuances and differences.

They’re all ‘flexible working modalities’

There are many different ‘flexible working modalities’. In particular, there are clear variations by location, duration and time. For example, people can work from their homes, or from another location such as a co-working space or another office. The term can also be used to describe situations like consultants working from clients’ premises. Similarly, the arrangement can also be full-time or part-time, and occasional, temporary or permanent.

But they don’t (always) mean the same thing

All of these arrangements might be called remote working, or, in some locations, home working. They might also be called teleworking. In all cases, it comes down to in which operating jurisdiction the flexible type of work takes place. 

Home working, teleworking, and remote working have quite different meanings in different locations. Depending on where you are in the world, their precise meaning may be set out in law —but it might also not be defined.

The take-home lesson is that these terms are definitely not interchangeable – and may have legal implications that vary

What it is according to where you are – flexible work around the world

Some countries and jurisdictions have adopted distinct definitions for all these terms, and do not necessarily use each term in the same way. For example: 

  • In Spain, remote working is defined as when a work activity is regularly performed either at the worker’s home, or at another place of their choice. ‘Regularly’ means for at least 30% of the time over a period of 3 months. Teleworking is a sub-category of this, requiring the job to be carried out mostly through telecommunication systems.  
  • In Germany, the law distinguishes between working from home and teleworking. Working from home is very similar to the Spanish definition of remote working: it involves someone working in a workplace of their own choice, which might be at home, or another place, but without the time limit. Teleworking is either completely from home, or partly from home and partly at the company’s premises, and work is exchanged via email and telephone. 
  • In Italy, like Spain, telework involves the use of technology, and working from outside the company’s premises. Italy also defines a concept called ‘smart working’, which is most closely related to what most countries call working from home, and usually involves some work at home, and some work on company premises.  
  • In the US, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration defines two concepts: a home office, and a home-based worksite. A home-based worksite is any site at an employee’s home where the employee carries out the work of their employer. A home office is the part of a home-based worksite where office work happens. A home-based worksite could therefore be used for manufacturing or other work, as well as office work. 
  • Mexico’s law distinguishes between working from home and telework. Working from home is work that is habitually carried out away from the employer’s premises, at a site chosen by the worker, and without direct supervision from the employer. Telework requires the use of information and communication technologies, and for more than 40% of the work to be carried out away from the employer’s premises.  
  • In Colombia, the law distinguishes between working from home, teleworking, and remote work. Like in Spain, teleworking involves the use of technology. Teleworking is either performed completely from home, or partly from home and partly at the company’s premises. Remote work refers to an employment relationship that from start to end, is performed outside the company’s premises through the use of information technologies and telecommunications, where the employer and the employee do not physically interact during the contractual relationship. And working from home is the modality that allows employees to temporarily work outside of the company’s premises due to occasional, exceptional, or special circumstances that prevent the worker from attending the workplace for a period of around 3 months.    

In all these countries, there are also different rules governing teleworking, remote working and working from home. These cover aspects like the importance of a written agreement between those involved, the right to disconnect, and the responsibilities of each of those involved. 

The take-home lesson is that these terms are definitely not interchangeable – and may have legal implications that will vary across jurisdictions. 

How to manage teleworking, remote working, vs home working

So how can you keep these terms straight in your business management? Companies that operate across different countries or geographies must first be aware of the legal implications of terms in each country. You must also understand your legal obligations in each country. However, there are some steps you can take even if these terms or their regulations aren’t clearly defined in your region:

  • Develop your own clear definitions of terms for use internally 

These may not be quite the same as the legal terms in particular jurisdictions, but they will enable employees to communicate sensibly about their own obligations and privileges. It also helps to develop a shared understanding across the company. 

  • Come to an agreement on terms between employers and employees. 

In some jurisdictions, employers and employees are required to come to an agreement about these flexible working modalities, including specific details. But it’s also reasonable for businesses to create this type of accord even if it’s not mandated. For any voluntary agreement, consider including the location of the work, the duration of the arrangement, and the hours and/or days to be available and/or working. It’s also helpful to specify aspects such as whether people should be in the office on particular days. These are all important issues if anyone has an accident. 

You should also include the arrangements for stopping (usually when either party wants to stop), and who is responsible for supplying equipment and paying for infrastructure such as broadband.  

  • Provide additional support to safeguard employees’ health and safety at home. 

This may mean providing additional support to employees working from “elsewhere” to ensure that their home-office set-up is ergonomically sound, and that they have space to work effectively. There may also be more need to check up on people’s mental health, especially when working outside the company’s premises is required for reasons like a pandemic, or simply because employer and employee agreed so. 

  • Provide training on remote working, teleworking, vs home working. 

Get everyone on the same page by ensuring that everyone shares the same understanding. This training might include how to set up a home office so that it is comfortable and safe for working, and the right to disconnect. Crucially, this training should be provided to everyone, not just those participating in flexible working modalities, so that managers and other staff can avoid confusion and work more effectively together. 

  • Ensure employees’ right to disconnect. 

The pressure to be ‘always available’ can be insidious with all forms of flexible work. In fact, regulators in the EU are seeking official parameters around the timing of work-related electronic communications. But even outside of this region, employers need to ensure that they enshrine a ‘right to disconnect’ in flexible working agreements—and also that this right is respected by those ‘in the office’. Doing so will keep work expectations clear and manageable for all involved, while protecting workers from pushing themselves beyond their limits of healthy and safe work. 

Keeping employees safe and healthy wherever they work. 

The bottom line about remote working, home working, or teleworking is that employers still have health and safety obligations towards employees – any- and everywhere they work. The precise legal definitions of these terms may vary. However, the onus remains on employers to safeguard their employees. This is very much not a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, and employers need to ensure that they remember this. First, be sure that you’re fully aware and in line with what’s already clear about your legal obligations. Then consider the suggestions above to put any fuzzy areas into focus for your employees’ and overall business’s well-being.

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