The History of Remote Working — Andy Sto

The Ancient Remote Workers

If you really look at when people started to work from home, it was thousands of years ago. Our hunter-gather ancestors are perhaps the earliest at-home workers. And the communities themselves were actually one coworking space where families efficiently pooled resources and worked cooperatively together for the greater good.

The Basic Technology that Laid the Groundwork for Remote Working

While the previous iterations of remote work were technically remote work, it’s not much like what we now consider it. Writing computer code or making marketing plans is very unlike blacksmithing or sewing that once were considered common work-from-home jobs. For this, we have the technology to thank.

Legislation and World Events Pushed Telecommuting to the Forefront

The various factors were beginning to gain momentum leading into the latter portion of the 20 thcentury. Technology was advancing but the big push actually came in the form of international events and US federal policy. In 1970 the Clean Air Act was passed, which “defined the EPA’s responsibilities for protecting and improving the nation’s air quality and the stratospheric ozone layer”. The political and social clean air movement inadvertently laid the significant groundwork in the shift from office work to remote work. This is because it points out that car emissions were a major contributor to poor air quality and lead to emissions standards for moving vehicles. This shows that zero commute time would be beneficial for air quality. Additionally, the term “gridlock” was also coined in the 1970s that identified terrible commuter traffic that occurred into the city in the morning and out of the city in the evening.

The Origins of Remote Working & Digital Nomadism

The events that occurred played a pivotal role in demonstrating to the wider public the potential pitfalls of depending on oil as the main source of energy. This then led to the expansion of the idea of reducing or eliminating the job commute that became an integral part of American life with the post-World War II creation of suburbs and expanded vehicle ownership. The concept of “telecommuting” was introduced into the world and it challenged the notion of commuting that was since ingrained into American Society. Specifically, we have Jack Nilles to thank for that. He is considered to be the father of telecommuting as he coined both terms telecommuting and teleworking. His cardinal work is a book in which he is the lead author is call The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff. The book was published in 1973 and it recommended: “either the jobs of the employees must be redesigned so that they can still be self-contained at each individual location, or sufficiently sophisticated telecommunications and the information-storage system must be developed to allow the information transfer to occur as effectively as if the employees were centrally collocated”.

Arguments Against Telecommuting Emerge

One way to tell that something has entered the mainstream to some extent is when opponents and skeptics begin to emerge. This is definitely the case when it comes to remote working. Just as there were more people and companies exploring the practice, there were articles warning of telecommuting’s downsides, starting around 1980. In some of these articles, they state various arguments against the practice and it usually includes arguments like:

  • “Working from home will cut off employees from the interaction between their coworkers and counterparts”.
  • “Working at home is impractical: there are too many distractions and it’s not an efficient or effective place in which to work”.

The 1980s: The Telecommuting Experiment Expands

In the 1980s it was not only IBM that expanded the practice of remote work but for various other notable companies as well. These companies included JCPenney, The Hartford, General Electric, American Express, and Sears Holdings. Many of these programs are still in place today.

The 1990s: The Federal Government Backs Remote Working

The concept of working remotely eventually gained a foothold in the federal government. There was a large telecommuting experiment by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration. And the experiment aimed to “assess the benefits and challenges of allowing employees to work at locations other than their government office base”. The results of the roughly 550 participants showed benefits like improved productivity, eliminated the need for office space, and reduced costs.

The 2010s: Shift from Perk to Business Strategy

As the practice began to expand, it was obvious that it was here to stay. While the success that each company has implementing it can vary drastically, the possibility of reduced costs, improved employee performance, less commute time, and the improvement in employee morale, lead to increasingly more companies giving it a shot. And as the more data is collected, the more the data supports the practice. It has gotten to the point where providing the option to work remotely as a perk is no longer enough. A more digitally native workforce will not only require it as an aspect of the job, but the organization should include it as its core competencies to be able to compete with other remote-friendly organizations.

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