Remote working has a rich and varied history, with its growth being influenced by many factors including changes in technology and in our societies. Recently, corona virus has resulted in a large, accelerated shift towards people working at home.

Summary by The World of Work Project


A History of Remote Working

Remote Working and the relationships we’ve had between our homes and our work, has a rich and varied history going back to the dawn of time. For example, in the middle ages, pretty much everyone worked at home or in a field. In our view, remote working is part of a broader way of working that we describe as Agile Working.

For this post though, we’ll focus on the history of remote working and start our story at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Rise of the Office

Modern offices of the type that we tend to think about didn’t really exist before this point in time. They came into being as organizations become larger and more complex and needed more administration. Their growth was made possible by two sets of technological changes. Firstly, developments to communication like the telephone made offices more effective and secondly, improvements to transport made commuting feasible and cost effective.

The history of remote working sees offices grow in popularity throughout the middle of the 20th century as organizations continued to become more complex. The labor market also changed as many women joined the workforce during WWII and remained in it afterwards. Throughout the middle of the 20th century there were few challenges to standard approaches to office working.

A diesel train: The history of remote working has partly been driven by environment issues
Mass transit made commuting easier, but also increased pollution.

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More Modern History of Remote Working

However towards the end of the 20th century this changed. As populations grew in urban areas, cities became more congested and expensive to live in, commuting become more difficult and expensive, and societies started to care about the environmental impacts of transport.

In response to these changes some companies introduced telecommuting.

Though telecommuting in the 70s and 80s was of limited success, the momentum changed and a pivotal moment occurred in the 90s when the US government started to adopt flexible and Agile working practices for some of its federal agencies. While other countries had already been pursuing Agile practices, the adoption by the federal government was a real turning point for acceptability.

The trends of the history of remote working continued into the 21st centure. Momentum has continued to push remote and flexible working into the mainstream. Again, improvements to technology such as modern web services have made remote working much easier, more effective and cheaper, making it more attractive. In addition, new entrants to the labor market appear to value flexible working more than those from earlier generations.

A woman in a shared workspace: The history of remote working has seen the rise of people working in different locations
Remote working can provide flexibility as to where and when you work.

The overall impact of these changes is that remote, agile and flexible working has ceased to be a “nice to have” and is now a strategic imperative for many organizations. Achieving cost savings is one of the ways that organizations benefit from agile and remote working, another is through attraction and retention of talent. It’s a fairly new way of doing things, and it appears to be here to stay.

2020 and beyond – the Corona Virus

At the start of 2020 a new strain of corona virus resulted in a global pandemic. In response to the threats of the Covid-19 disease, many parts of the world introduced significant social lock-downs. These lock-downs resulted in many people (those that could) working from home for a protracted period of time.

This forced change meant that many individuals and organizations embraced remote and agile working for the first time. Through necessity they overcame the teething problems associated with the move to remote working and many came to appreciate it. As a result of this prolonged period, the popularity of remote working among employees and organizations increased significantly.

Whether people work at home or in offices in the future is yet to be decided. However, it’s a safe bet that remote working is here to stay in one form or another.

Learning More

Remote working can be part of a responsible business strategy, and materially impact employee experience and employee engagement.

While the history of remote working is fun, sometimes it’s fun to look forward as well as backwards. This podcast on the future of work might be interesting:

The World of Work Project View

We think the social history of our relationship with work is fascinating. We could have started this post much further back in time looking at things like subsistence life-styles with no differentiation between work and home, or looking at medieval trades such as bakers and blacksmiths who had their shops in their houses. Given that we’re probably in the minority though, we decided not to!

The key message in relation to the history of remote working is that change is a constant. Technology and society are always changing and always have been. And let’s not forget, we are not the only interested stakeholders on earth. As we’ve seen with the rise of Covid-19, we sometimes need to respond to changes to our context and planet as well.

Most of the content for the post came from general history and not from any specific sources.

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