A History of Telecommuting Remote Works Evolution Explained featured image

A History of Telecommuting: Remote Work’s Evolution Explained

Updated February 2024

Though telecommuting has grown 216% since 2005, according to Global Workplace Analytics, working remotely didn’t begin as a modern-day convenience. The history of telecommuting is tightly woven with the story of information transfer and technology development. Though both stories unfolded separately at first, they greatly influenced each other’s maturity. It wasn’t until the 1970s when remote work and tech locked arms and transformed the workplace side-by-side.

Before the Disco Era, telecommuting wasn’t a viable workplace model, and techies were trying to solve complex scientific and infrastructure problems. However, when remote work and technology intersected, they proved inseparable.

Though it’s difficult to capture the countless milestones that influenced the remote workspace, there are a few notable data points that irrefutably altered the course of telecommuting forever.

The Early Days: Up to the 1800s

Though remote work is currently seen as a modern-day convenience, working at home was the normal way of life for tradespeople and farmers. Blacksmiths, carpenters, weavers, gunsmiths, saddlers, and barbers would partition their living space or build a separate structure on their land to perform their craft. Many farmers who raised cattle, sheep, and chickens added lofts above their animals or blocked off a part of the barn for living quarters.

In the early days, working from home was a necessity, as many individuals didn’t have the time or money to travel to a separate location on a daily basis.

Workplace Revolutions: 1800s Through 1950s

The Industrial Revolution era dramatically changed workplace models and arrangements. Manufacturers drew people from their homes to work in factories and construction sites. Just after the turn of the 20th century, local governments began enacting zoning laws to separate residential areas from commercial and industrial sectors, geographically separating work and home activities.

Wars also altered the nature of the workplace, as women filled positions to maintain production while men went off to serve as soldiers. As women persisted in the workforce, influenced legislation to expand their rights, and achieved more education, gender roles began shifting noticeably throughout the U.S., and more women spent time away from home to earn income.

During the early 1800s, Englishman Charles Babbage developed the first programmable, mechanical computer. His design served as the foundation for future analog computer designs. As scientific knowledge of electricity matured, the U.S. Navy invented an electromagnetic computer in 1938, which used both mechanical and electric components. Soon after, computers were digitized with completely electronic circuits.

The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was the first electronic programmable computer developed in the U.S. Then, in the early 1950s, integrated circuits were invented, which gave way to the microprocessors that make up the bones of modern-day computers.

Flex Time Is Born: 1960s

In 1967, an aerospace manufacturing company in Germany spearheaded a flexible schedule option for their workforce to alleviate commuting and employee performance issues. This flex-time program inspired Hewlett-Packard to introduce a similar option in their German and U.S. locations. From then on, companies around the world began experimenting with different workplace models for the sake of efficiency and productivity.

In the same period, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) created the first working prototype of the Internet. DOD found a way to connect different computers on one network, which was dubbed the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET. Without this spark of ingenuity, cloud-computing, remote desktop capability, and virtual meetings would not be possible.

The Father of Telecommuting: 1970s

In 1973, a man named Jack Nilles significantly influenced the telecommuting workplace model with his book, The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff. Nilles researched and developed a case that showed how remote work could offset traffic congestion and resource conservation.

His model caught on quickly and, in 1978, the U.S. government passed a flexible work arrangement (FWA) policy, which granted flexible and compressed schedules to federal employees.

Since the federal government was willing to experiment with alternative work environments, more businesses sought similar solutions to solve escalating human resources issues. Thus, due to his contributions and expertise in telework program development and management, Nilles is appropriately named “The Father of Telecommuting.”

On the tech side of history, more developments were being made to increase the connectivity of computing devices. One huge milestone was the creation of Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol, or simply called TCP/IP. These protocols provided a standard for how data could transfer between computers. Plus, though mobile phone development started in the early 1900s, Motorola made the first handheld mobile phone during this period, which shattered communication norms and allowed people to converse more freely.

Advancements in Telecommunications: 1980s

Telecommunication advancements made working from various locations possible. Giants like J.C. Penney started hiring home-based call center agents as a way to cut costs and offer employment incentives. Plus, businesses began to see the value of computers and incorporated computers into daily employee tasks. In 1985, Bill Gates launched the legendary Windows operating system, which revolutionized personal and business computing forever.

Remember ARPANET and TCIP/IP from the 60s and 70s? When ARPANET adopted the TCIP/IP in 1983, more networks and computers were connected by a single, more extensive network, which spawned the creation of our modern-day Internet. In the same year, the Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS) was introduced in North America, which made first generation (1G) analog mobile phones available on the commercial market.

Environmental Influences: 1990s

The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 increased awareness of air quality issues and the need for alternative energy resources. Thus, telecommuting really had a moment in the 90s, since working from home reduced daily transportation-related emissions. The U.S. government also began its Interagency Telecommuting Pilot Project in the early 90s to make use of decentralized locations to conduct agency business.

The government, along with powerful corporations like AT&T, began instituting an Employee Telecommuting Day to draw attention to the benefits of remote work options.

In 1996, the U.S. government promoted the National Telecommuting Initiative (NTI) so that government agencies and employees could reap the benefits of flexible, telecommute work options. (Note that NTI is now an acronym for the National Telecommuting Institute, which is a nonprofit organization that helps individuals with disabilities find remote jobs.)

While more organizations were understanding and adopting work-from-home options, mobile phones went digital in the 90s and gave birth to the second generation (2G). Texting was introduced, personal digital assistants (PDAs) became popular, and Blackberry established itself as a leader of business communications technology. IBM even created a mobile device with smartphone-like abilities and multiple features.

Also, Tim Berners-Lee gave the World Wide Web a face in 1990 with his first official web browser. The browser was released to the public in 1991, offering individuals access to networks of data and information sharing capabilities. Later in 1998, two Stanford University students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founded Google, which rapidly grew into the Internet’s leading search engine.

Entering the New Millennium: 2000s

By the 2000s, remote work models ramped up and became mainstream. Social media, third generation (3G) mobile devices, and streaming technology made communication easier and faster. Broadband service for mobile phones was introduced in 2001 and evolved quickly to enhance data transfer and connect more devices to the Internet.

Other handheld devices, such as e-readers, started to emerge and change the way individuals accessed and used information. Apple also released its first iPhone in 2007, which paved the way for handheld devices and user experiences.

As Internet acceptance and usage increased, websites like Upwork and Virtual Vocations emerged to help match employers and employees, further promoting telecommute work environments.

Plus, more software applications like Slack, Hootsuite, Skype, and Asana were started to enable dispersed teams to collaborate and work from remote locations. Advancements in cloud-computing also made remote teamwork more effective and accessible. Plus, coworking spaces began popping up left and right to offer individuals and startups alternative work environments.

Rethinking Remote Work: 2010s

In the 2010s, telecommuting changed the way individuals and businesses think about work and employment. More professionals switched from traditional W-2 employment options to independent contractor positions to gain even more freedoms and take advantage of self-employment tax deductions.

Worldly professionals found that they can travel the globe, live outside the country, and build their dream lives while earning substantial U.S. dollars.

However, some companies, such as Yahoo, Best Buy, and IBM, started analyzing the tradeoffs of remote work options, especially for teams and occupations that rely on creative collaboration. For example, companies began arguing that marketing and design teams need face-to-face contact to share creative energy and facilitate information sharing that uniquely happens in-person. Not all companies bought into this trend, though, as many businesses still recognize the employer and employee benefits of telecommuting.

Embracing the New Normal: 2020s

The 2020s heralded an unprecedented shift in the landscape of work due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, catapulting telecommuting from a flexible perk to an essential mode of operation overnight. Businesses and employees alike were thrust into the world of remote work, navigating the challenges and opportunities it presented.

As the pandemic took hold, companies large and small discovered that many jobs could be done entirely remotely without sacrificing productivity. The rapid adaptation to remote work technologies, from video conferencing to collaborative online tools, bridged the gap between physical distance and operational efficiency. Organizations invested in digital infrastructure and cybersecurity to support their dispersed workforces, setting a new standard for what is technologically possible in remote work environments.

Despite the initial success and acceptance of remote work, a growing discourse around returning to the office began. Many companies, citing the need for team cohesion, innovation through spontaneous interactions, and corporate culture reinforcement, began to advocate for hybrid models. These models sought to blend the flexibility of remote work with the benefits of in-person collaboration, aiming to capture the best of both worlds.

However, the legacy of the pandemic-era shift to telecommuting is likely to endure, with many employees expressing a preference for remote or hybrid arrangements. The conversation has shifted from whether remote work is feasible to how it can be optimized to support both business objectives and employee well-being.

What’s Next in Telecommuting?

Telecommuting and technology are tightly intertwined. Advancements in communication and networking capabilities give way for more remote work opportunities and better collaboration among dispersed teams.

As businesses move in the direction of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies, we can expect continuous transformation of typical workplace models throughout the next decade.

As we navigate the remainder of the 2020s, it’s clear that remote work will continue to influence how we define workspaces, job satisfaction, and work-life integration. Companies that embrace this change, offering flexibility and recognizing the individual needs of their employees, are poised to lead in attracting and retaining top talent.

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