The Future of Work

The History of Remote Work: How It Became What We Know Today

by Hazel Butler
The History of Remote Work: How It Became What We Know Today

In a post-pandemic age, remote working is the future. But where did it begin? Probably a bit further back than you think. Here's the history of remote work.

While the rise of the digital age and the popularity of the #workfromwherever and #digitalnomad trends, remote working has seen a tremendous amount of exposure in recent years. Yet, working from home is far from a new concept. 

In fact, long before the dawning of the internet, people were plying their trade in their homes. The notion of collectives of workers gathering en masse to complete work together, for any reason other than waging war and treating illness and injury (usually caused by the waging of wars), didn’t truly occur until the industrial revolution. 

Society underwent a huge paradigm shift that saw the "norm" transition from a world of isolated workers, each peddling their skills and wares from their individual residences, to something more akin to the rat race we’re familiar with. Designated office spaces and daily commutes were born.

Then the digital age happened, and another paradigm shift occurred. When the internet was invented in the early 1980s, workers had already been making use of UNIX and DOS for years. Creating a system linking networks that already existed opened up a whole new world in connectivity, and with it, alternative ways of working.

So when did remote working really start, and how did it become what we know today, as we move into a post-pandemic age?

Where It Started: A History of Telework

Before the days of Skype and Zoom calls, a NASA engineer by the name of Jack Nilles laid the foundation for modern remote working when he coined the term "telecommuting" in 1973. Long before modern remote working came into play at the turn of the millennium, limited numbers of workers at IBM were working from home to test the effectiveness of telecommuting.

What started as a team of five remote workers rose to 2,000 by 1983, and call center staff—who conducted all their work via the phone anyway—had the option of doing so from home.

What may have seemed a fad when it first came about is now the norm. According to a Gartner survey, 74% of businesses are planning on shifting their employees to remote positions as part of their post-COVID plans. Telecommuting has seen a boom of 115% in the last decade and will continue to rise as we all adjust to the new reality of a post-pandemic world. It's the future of remote work.

The Shift From Factories and Cubicles to Wi-Fi and Zoom

With the development of the first website in 1999 and the emergence of garage startups, a new age of business was born, and it belonged to the entrepreneur. Initially typified by struggling college students and those who had left the corporate world in search of more freedom, success, and personal fulfillment, startups pioneered a new way of working.

Fueled by shoestring budgets and a lot of determination, entrepreneurs worked from box rooms, sheds, and garages until they found investors willing to back them. Even then, many chose to create businesses that were flexible, allowing themselves and their workers to continue as they began: working from wherever.

Remote work meant less travel, which translated to fewer vehicles on the road, less pollution in the air, and a lot of support from the green movement. By 2000, guidelines were necessary, and the Department of Transportation and Related Agencies Appropriations Act legitimized remote workers and made it mandatory for companies to have telecommuting policies. In 2010, the Telework Enhancement Act furthered this by allowing the government greater flexibility when it came to managing remote workforces through telework. 

The industrial revolution gave us factory workers and eventually the much-maligned cubicle swamps that typified work for most of the 20th century. The technological revolution with its Wi-Fi, Zoom calls, and superior methods for asynchronous communication, will give us so much more.

The Future of Work Will See Adaptable, Remote Workforces

Advances in computers gave people the ability to use portable computers (laptops), and they have increasingly done so, with the eventual evolution of the tablet and smartphone. Machines that once took up entire rooms now fit in your backpack, purse, or pocket.

Thanks to Wi-Fi, these devices can connect anywhere else in the world that also has internet access. 

And then came "the cloud," that great metaphorical storage hub for all your data, allowing you to access and share documents, files, and software through cloud-based computing.

Team collaboration tools like Slack and Sococo, along with project management tools like Asana have given managers and business owners easy systems that allow them to run their teams efficiently regardless of where they are. And with the advent of video conferencing, all the technology needed to allow people to work from anywhere is in place.

Virtual employees are now capable of working whatever hours they please, from wherever they choose. Increasingly, flexible working options are becoming toutable benefits as companies seek to poach talent from competitors with old-fashioned and rigid policies.

What’s the Difference Between Remote-First and Remote-Friendly Businesses?

Software giant GetApp reports that since 2010, the number of remote workers has increased by 400%, with 78% of those surveyed indicating they work remotely at least some of the time. Companies, such as Zapier and GitLab, are now remote-first businesses, while other companies like Google and Microsoft have remote-friendly reputations. 

While all companies are going to need to adapt to remote working at an unprecedented level, following the pandemic, there’s a difference between a remote-first company and one that's simply remote-friendly.

Those that are remote-first promote a company culture that holds employee wellness at its core, intentionally created to be as flexible as possible. Teams are able to work from anywhere and everywhere and still deliver the high standards required by customers, managers, and colleagues. From concept to launch to success, the remote-first company is built around remote workers.

Remote-friendly companies, on the other hand, are more traditional businesses with offices in fixed locations and teams that commute. What they've done is shifted to accommodate their staff to work remotely, either on a full-time or part-time basis. This type of company strikes a delicate balance between expecting workers to be in the office at their desks and trusting them to deliver from anywhere they choose.

Many companies began with remote-friendly policies and have since shifted (or are now shifting) to structures that allow teams to work remotely on a permanent basis.

Why Is Remote Work the Future?

Most of the history of work has been remote; office cubicles are the outlier. The growing popularity of remote work is not a fad. Its long history is evidence that there's a certain inevitability to it. This has accelerated with the pandemic, and most career paths will now contain some degree of remote work in the future.

Worker retention hinges more and more on allowing flexible hours and the ability to work remotely—at least some of the time. Remote workers are far more engaged than those stuck in an office five days a week. In fact, those who spend 60-80% of their hours working remotely over three or four days in the week are far more engaged than those who spend all their time on-site. 

One case study even indicated that the increased productivity of remote workers equated to another full day’s worth of work.

Statistics show that most people switching to remote work never look back. In fact, 90% of remote workers intend to continue to work remotely for the remainder of their careers. They’re also more than happy to recommend the lifestyle to others, with 94% of remote workers encouraging others to do the same.

The upshot is that allowing teams to work remotely lets companies boost their employee retention rates. They no longer have to worry so much about the inconvenience, expense, and disruption caused when team members leave for greener fields.

With benefits far outweighing disadvantages, it’s time to prepare for the future of work and the extent to which remote working will be a part of it.