What do people really mean by location independence?


A few years ago, I performed a feat of employee jiu jitsu: I was able to convince my boss to let me start working from across the country.

Like many people, I first heard about the idea of “location independence” from Tim Ferriss and his book “The Four Hour Work Week,” which at this point is kind of like the bible of personal transformation for many people I know.

The idea of location independence is especially exciting for those who work in an office during normal business hours and dream of more. Some may see an end goal of being able to have a (mostly) automated job or business. But regardless of whether you’re interested in working for yourself or not, it’s hard to find someone who isn’t attracted to the idea of not being stuck working at a particular place and at a particular time.

This is not a primer on how to achieve location independence. There are plenty of other resources for that. But it’s worth noting that when people talk about location independence, they often are talking about two different ideas simultaneously. And this matters to you, because it means that you have more options for employee independence than you may have thought.

But first, we must think in more than one dimension.

No, not that kind of multidimensionality.
No, not like that.

The space-time continuum

When people use the phrase “location independence,” when talking about employment, they often are talking about two different things at the same time:

  • Spatial independence: Being free from a fixed location.
  • Temporal independence: Being free from a fixed schedule.

They are not the same thing, and it can be misleading when they are confused.

I believe that spatial independence is much easier to transition to than temporal independence. It’s not hard to see why. If you work at a normal desk job, one of the primary expectations is that you will be available for others when necessary. Your boss and coworkers want to be able to call on you in the moment, be it for meetings or impromptu discussions. They want to know you’re there.

That things can happen in real-time is very important for productivity. And this isn’t a bad thing; who wants to have to wait hours for a decision about something that may be blocking you from your work?

But with technology being what it is, Skype, GotoMeeting, Google Hangouts, IRC, Slack, etc., there’s very little barrier to being able to collaborate even when you’re not physically present. And lots of companies are starting to recognize this. Remote work agreements are even starting to be common in government, though in this case it is often touted as a cost-saving measure.

The disembodied head

Some companies, desiring the feel of having a remote worker in the office, get creative with solutions where spatial independence is concerned.

I worked in an office once where there were two remote workers. To get around the feeling of them not being physically present, they bought two laptops, put them on two desks, and had Skype video on all day, pointed at their faces. To talk to these people, you needed only walk over to “their desk” and say hello to the screen.

Okay, a little awkward, but it still meant that these two employees could be a part of the team and yet not be in the office. (Though they abandoned this idea after a short period of time.)

The problem with temporal independence

Temporal independence is much harder as a transition, especially to a skeptical boss. First of all, to say that you can work whenever, while still being fixed to a location, feels kind of weird to me. But I imagine that there are certainly advantages to being free to come in and work in the office at 2AM. Having the option is certainly preferred to being forced to work 9-5 Monday to Friday.

A slightly flexible schedule does make sense for a lot of people (to eliminate issues due to rush-hour commuting, if nothing else), but typically the desire is that there is a certain amount of overlap with others. Getting totally temporally independent is a tough sell.

So if you’re looking to make a transition to a non-traditional working arrangement, going for spatial independence is probably the easier sell. To tell your boss and co-workers that you will be in the office at normal time, available through all real-time channels, just not physically in the same room, is a more compelling story.

At least, that’s how it worked for me. But that’s a different post.

But enough about me. Would you rather be spatially independent or temporally independent? (Assuming you couldn’t be both.)

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