Now that many countries have stay-at-home orders due to the pandemic, including the U.K. and many states in the U.S., companies have a decision to make. While they can’t quite dictate everything about a remote work arrangement, it’s important to know the difference between working at home and working remotely. They are not quite the same thing and depending on local orders, there may be more flexibility for employees than you would guess.

So what can an employer dictate? For starters, they can close the office and let all employees know that they must work somewhere else. In some states in the U.S., for example, that is not optional. Only essential businesses can stay open, including grocery stores and medical facilities. If your company makes widgets, it likely has to close up shop for now.

However, the distinction to make here is important. Employees might do better work and stay more productive if they find a suitable location to work other than their home. Some might have too many distractions. They may not have an adequate home office. The two options available are quite different and present a few advantages, but remote working might be a better option. This can depend on your business and your employees, but the main point is the remote work can be more flexible, lead to improved productivity, and better suit your employees.

Remote work advantages

Not to split hairs with government agencies and local officials, but your definition of remote work for employees is important here. It does not need to imply staying at home and never leaving the house. Many states and countries have issued stay-at-home orders, which means employees can still go for walks and hikes, they can still go to the grocery store, and they can even work in isolation at an office they rent or in a second home. (Check with local authorities to find out how the law works in your area.) This is different from shelter-in-place orders where employees should not leave the house. In general, the spirit of the law is this: To discourage people from congregating, doing social activities, and spreading the virus.

Remote work can take on many forms. Let’s say an employee happens to own a townhouse close to where they live. There’s a separate entrance, a good wireless connection, and a comfortable desk and office chair. It’s far better to use that location for remote work.

And, some employees might have access to a private location such as another office, a cabin in their state, or even a recreational vehicle or a camper. Companies can dictate that the employee should not go into work, but they can encourage flexibility in where they work.

A remote work situation has a few benefits. One is that the employee is likely self-isolated. (If that’s not the case and there are other people in a remote office, it may violate local orders and could even come with a fine or jail time, depending on the location.) By self-isolating, it is better for reducing the spread of COVID-19 and it is better for the employee. 

In a remote location, the employee can focus on the work at hand; at home, that is not always the case. In some cases, a remote worker might find faster wireless access, be able to customize the workspace, use a desktop computer that’s faster and helps them do more work, and even decorate the remote location with extra plants, pictures, and other fixtures that encourage a healthy work environment. It could be more “office-like” than a home office.

More than anything, working remotely means the employee has a clear separation from their home life (the kids, their spouse, and a high-def television) and their job. It’s beneficial to the employee who can focus on work but also to the employer who trusts the remote worker is more diligent and is managing their time more effectively. The work is, ultimately, much better.

Working from home challenges

If there is a debate between remote work and working from home (and remote work is even an option for a business that has to close the home office) it comes down to one factor: distractions can impede our work. It’s safe to say most employees have probably never worked at home before, at least on a continual basis. Last year, only 4.7 million people in the U.S. telecommuted on a full-time basis. That’s a big increase over the last decade, but still a small number.

It’s now part of daily life for almost everyone due to the pandemic. We wake up, we go to work. The challenge is that employees might not be able to separate home life from work life, and they might not know how to deal with distractions. If this becomes a long-term scenario, they will likely adjust and learn how to make a work-at-home situation easier to manage. For now, remote work might be better even if it means finding a location to self-isolate with a laptop.

At home, distractions take on many forms. The neighbor might be out in his or her yard running a weed whacker. A delivery driver might pound on the door. The dog might make a mess in the living room while the employee is trying to enter data in their office software. There are best practices that can help — such as communicating with other family members about when you need to focus on work — but eliminating all distractions is quite difficult. For many homebound workers, the reality is that the typical 9-5 job is not possible. They won’t be able to cram all of their work into that time period. Some will need to start earlier or work later.

With remote work, regular hours are much easier. Distractions are not as common. In the end, remote work — if it’s even possible — could be a much better work scenario. Employees will be more productive, happier, and focused than they would be at home.

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