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
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.
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
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.
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
The various factors were beginning to gain momentum leading into the latter portion of the 20th century. 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.
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
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”.
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
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:
- “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 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.
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 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 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 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.
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.