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Telecommuting, Telework, Flexible Work, or Consultant? What is the Difference?

written by: Victoria E•edited by: Jean Scheid•updated: 7/6/2011

Learn the difference among common telecommuting terms: Telecommute, Telework, Flex time, Flexible Schedule, consultant, freelance, and contractor, and understand what term fits what you do!

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    Note

    Employers and workers often use terms like telework, telecommute, flex time and similar terms interchangeably. This makes it difficult for companies, employees, contractors, freelancers and others to determine the benefits of each opportunity, and which one would be right for their needs. In the interest of getting everyone on the same page, here are the more formal definitions of each.

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    Flexible Working Schedule

    Let’s start with the most common one: Flexible Working Schedule. Most companies, at one time or another have allowed a worker to perform part or all of their job function at a different location, such as another branch office, while traveling on business, taking work home at night, etc. Often when someone goes home to be with a sick child, they often say, “I’ll be working from home"or “I’ll work on this at home and bring it in tomorrow." This, even if not a regular happening, is a flexible schedule. Many companies will never formalize this option, but merely make it available on an as needed basis. Other companies, due to their size, the industry, or the type of workers they employ, offer some employees remote access or dial in access to the network. This provides more opportunities for other workers to take advantage of a more flexible schedule. As companies grow used to the idea, they may offer this as a non-published benefit to workers as requested. In esscence, flexible schedules are the most common, and allow workers to work from remote sites (home, airport, a closer office) on a part time, or sporadic basis. There are usually no formal programs, no agreements, and no contracts. However, there may be a policy for working off-site, remote access, VPN or network security access.

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    Telecommute or Telework Program

    The next most common option is the Telecommuting or Telework Program. Telecommuting or Telework Programs are formal programs, with contracts, agreements, evaluations, policies and procedures of their very own. These are structured programs where employees apply for or request to be included in the program, and when approved, often must submit proof of remote office, equipment, or safe environment for company-owned equipment. These types of programs often require 100% participation in order to free up office space (desk, office, etc.) thereby, benefiting the company with savings, or the ability to grow without acquiring larger space. Sometimes companies offer partial participation, which might included desk/office sharing, commuter lounge access, or conference rooms for temporary lodging. Some companies might even offer a combination of the flexible schedules for those who need a permanent office space on-site, and a telecommuting program for a more select group of workers.

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    The Term Telework versus Telecommute?

    So what is the difference between Telework and Telecommute? There is much confusion in the terms, and quite frankly, as a writer, I have my preferences, but in the scheme of the real world, it really makes no difference. I have found that when you look up Telework in online dictionaries, Telecommute is often part of, if not the entire definition, and it is no so in reverse. So, pick one, use it, and don’t mix them in the same conversation.

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    Contractor, Consultant or Freelancer?

    Finally, the terms of Contractor, Consultant, and Freelancer. These terms are types of employment. Contractors, as their name infers, are hired by contract to perform a specific task or job to it’s completion, or for a defined term. Contractors usually work for a Contracting Company, who handles the contract negotiations and locates new projects for the contractor. A Consultant is hired, as you might imagine, to provide insight, expertise, advice or a service, again, usually under the terms of a contract for a specified result. Often, a Consultant is an idependent contractor, or may be incorporated or otherwise a business entity for legal protection. Freelancers, often do not work under contract, but are hired to perform a specific task based on their expertise. In most cases, the freelancer is an expert in a field that is outside of the hiring company’s field of expertise. It is possible that any of the three of these employment types could work on-site, or remotely, depending on the needs of the hiring company and the requirements of the worker.

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    Choose your Term

    With these definitions in hand, you can better determine the employment type, program, or policy that meets your needs. For more information on telecommuting, check out these articles: Telecommuting Trends in the 2009 Economy, The Telecommuter Agreement - So it is Written, So Shall It Be Done, or Take the One Ton Challenge! Telecommute and Save the Planet!