The History of Remote Working — Andy Sto

Many believe that we are in the beginning of paradigm shift of sorts, moving away from the traditional office workplace to a remote working oriented one. If this is the case, then the concept of the office as we know it, which is a relatively modern one, would have had a relatively short existence in the grand scheme of things.

There is a bit of contention as to which office was in fact the first purpose-built office space to be built. Some say that it was the Ripley Building, which was built in 1726 in London, that was the first. However, some say that the first building of this kind was actually the Uffizi Gallery, which predates the Ripley Building by around 150 years as it was built in Florence, Italy in 1581. It served as the central point for the administration and archiving of the Medici family’s mercantile empire operations. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1800’s to early-1900’s that the first iterations began to appear in the UK and in the United States.

However, perhaps the first ever version of the office, which is derived from the Latin officium, was the bureaucratic and administrative work of the Roman empire. The term office as we are familiar with today, seems to be first used in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer in his famous work The Canterbury Tales. Where he referred to a position involving specific duties. From there, as mercantilism became the dominant economic theory of the Renaissance, it was only natural that the concept of the modern office would eventually arrive. But in only 150 years we are now starting to shift away from work solely performed in a central location. And we are returning to a remote or home-based work environment — which we will see when taking a look at the history of remote working.

The Ancient Remote Workers

Later on, however, as primitive technologies advanced and these nomadic people began to settle their communities in a single location, the first open-plan home offices took shape in the Medieval era. This is because, in these times, most working-class English people did trade work from their homes. So, the one-room houses held aspects of both work and home life. So the home often included the kitchen, bedroom, dining room plus any area related to the trades the family worked like a butchery, tannery, workshop, etc.

The Basic Technology that Laid the Groundwork for Remote Working

In the hundred of years since there has been usually incremental but also rapid changes in technology that have gotten us to where we are. One of the most notable periods of rapid technological advancement was the Industrial Revolution. And this actually pulled workers from the home and brought them into factories. However, industrialization has allowed the economies and modern infrastructure to form that allows for remote working nowadays.

The two pieces of technology that were instrumental in laying the foundation for future remote working/telecommuting are the telephone and computer. While the idea of the computer goes back to ancient times, the first modern iteration that is closest to what we use now, which is an electronic digital programmable computer, was the Colossus. It was finished in 1943 and was developed by British codebreakers to decrypt German messages in World War II.

While the importance of the computer wouldn’t become realized for today’s purposes until much later, the telephone was an earlier technology that allowed for the first versions of remote workers that worked from home as “telecommuters”. The telephone, which was first invented in 1849 by Antonio Meucci, became nearly ubiquitous by the 1960s. The telephone allowed for quick communication between parties that weren’t in the same place. Meaning that unless an individual needed the tools that were solely located in the office, they were able to do some aspects of work and still communicate with others from the office or business organization, no matter where they were assuming there was a phone connection.

However, there were some remote jobs that were created, as well as the continuation of jobs that were historically remote-oriented like creative jobs (painting, writing). In the 1950s, many women wanted to continue working after the war, despite being pushed out of the workforce. Multi-Level Marketing allowed for such an opportunity for women. Tupperware sales were perhaps the most famous instance of this.

Legislation and World Events Pushed Telecommuting to the Forefront

Then, in 1973, the oil embargo against the United States by OPEC due to its support of Israel in the Arab-Israeli War began. And it lasted until March 1974. The Oil Crisis of 1973 forced the United States to confront its significant dependence on foreign oil and the negative impact it can have on the economy. The idea of working from home was even floated as a way to save gasoline in a Washington Post article in 1979.

The Origins of Remote Working & Digital Nomadism

So, you can argue that it was with the publishing of this book that telecommuting was born. And in 1979, the iconic company — IBM — decided to take up the telecommuting experiment itself. They allowed five employees to work from home via terminals that were installed in the employee’s homes. And it seemed to achieve its goal of easing the logjam at the office mainframe. So, while the idea of telecommuting was still a novelty elsewhere, IBM began to expand the practice. And by 1983 there were about 2,000 IBM employees that were working remotely.

As for digital nomadism — a spinoff of remote working or telecommuting in which its main tenet is not only working remotely but traveling to often exotic locations while doing so — also came into infancy not too long after telecommuting. And while nomads and traveling business people existed, the first digital nomad is said to be Steve Roberts. This is because in 1984 he set off to travel across the United States using a computerized recumbent bicycle while working as a full-time writer. He heavily utilized his computer and cellular phone to do his work, very much like the modern-day digital nomad!

While one can definitely argue whether or not this was the genesis of the digital nomad movement, it was certainly the initial point in the exploration of the lifestyle.

Arguments Against Telecommuting Emerge

  • “How can one make sure that employee is doing what they are supposed to and working effectively?”
  • “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”.

Of course, it’s very simple to debunk all these claims, but now we have years of data and various poles and pieces of research that prove otherwise.

The 1980s: The Telecommuting Experiment Expands

In June 1987, the Christian Science Monitor wrote an article called “ Telecommuting: Reality Sets In “ where they say that about 1.5 million Americans were telecommuters and roughly 300 companies had telecommuting programs.

The 1990s: The Federal Government Backs Remote Working

The practice of more flexible and family-friendly work arrangements in executive branch agencies was put into place in 1994 and 1996 during President Clinton’s presidency.

The 2010s: Shift from Perk to Business Strategy

As technology continues to advance, the ability to seamlessly work cooperatively with those around the world will make remote working easier than ever. However, as Jack Nilles said in 2015 about the history of remote working that technology wasn’t the biggest barrier to the rapid expansion of remote. It wasn’t a lack of access to high-speed internet, better technology, or more affordable devices, but rather it’s changing organizational and managerial norms.

Originally published at on July 18, 2021.

Digital Nomad focused in #remotework and #digitalnomadism