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The Rise of Remote Work

Zoom. Microsoft Teams. Google Meet. Webex.

You’ve likely used at least one video conferencing system this month. 

But can you remember how often you used them prior to the coronavirus pandemic? 

Remote work is nothing new; the terms “telework” and “telecommuting” were coined in the 1970s and there’s a case to be made that a form of “remote” working has existed for centuries. 

But in the context of our post-pandemic workforce, remote working has increased exponentially. Whether by technological incapability or company preference, roles that were once deemed impossible to hold outside of the office are suddenly being filled by professionals far from the office. 

Sometimes from across the world. 

Let’s look at a brief history of remote work in the 20th century, examine how remote work has changed during the 21st century, and speculate how remote work may continue to rise. 

The Beginning of Remote Work in the 20th Century 

One might think that remote working got its start thanks to the development of personal computers, but the idea of modern day telecommuting got its start before computers turned our homes into office spaces. In the 1970s, physicist Jack Niles theorized that there are benefits to completing work outside of the office. As he watched traffic flow in and out of Los Angeles, he noticed that many people commuting to the office were unhappy, overworked, and stressed out. 

Niles didn’t envision the work-from-home model that we have today. Rather, he theorized that being able to work from satellite offices closer to home could improve employee morale and productivity, as well as cut down on the negative environmental impact of roadway congestion.

According to Lawrence University, his alma mater, Niles conducted a telecommuting experience at an insurance company that resulted in increased employee productivity, decreased healthcare costs, and lower infrastructure costs. 

And yet, with proof that telecommuting benefitted all parties involved, he still found that most employers sought to conduct operation with a business-as-usual approach. 

Even 50 years ago, working out of the office was a hard sell.

The Rise of Remote Working in the 20th Century

While teleworkers were present in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, there was a substantial increase in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to the rise of the information age. The increased application of the internet suddenly opened up a world of possibility for remote working. 

In the 1990s, remote working was considered a hot trend, with many industry experts suggesting that employees were actually disadvantaged when working from home compared to their in-office peers. As the millennium arrived, the telecommuting trend decreased when more companies scaled back remote employees. 

Just as quickly as the trend declined, it increased once again between 2000 and 2010, then from 2010 to 2020. 

With nearly 50 years of remote work history to examine, it’s clear that telecommuting continued to rise in popularity – and even necessity – as emerging technologies and internet-based industries facilitated a non-traditional work environment. Still, employers often took a strong stance against remote working, whether that be for all roles or for some deemed essential in-office personnel. 

Coronavirus Necessitates Remote Working

Until AI and robots completely revolutionize the workplace, there will always be jobs that must be completed in person by hand. Take a look at telemedicine: having virtual checkups with your doctor is becoming more and more common, but you’ll still need a live surgeon to perform an operation in the hospital. 

However, the coronavirus exposed the truth that many jobs, specifically those which were completed primarily over the phone or on a computer, could be easily accomplished outside of the formal office space. One study published by the University of Toronto Press Journals found that “41 per cent of jobs in Canada can be performed remotely.”

In March of 2020, millions of people were suddenly forced to work from home. In Canada alone, Made In Canada found that 30 percent of Canada’s workforce worked from their homes between April of 2020 and June of 2021. 

And although many companies are now focusing on a return-to-office strategy, millions of employees have yet to return to the office.

Remote Working Beyond the 2020s

Digital nomads are the latest breed of teleworkers gaining popularity. Though the term is older this millennium, digital nomads are still reaping the increased remote working opportunities that the pandemic created; this pairs with their desire to travel and pursue a lifestyle that cannot be facilitated with a traditional, in-office career. 

Will today’s return-to-work mandates impact the long-term future of remote working? Unlikely.

Will the next generation of professionals still contend with employers who prefer in-office employees even when it’s not functionally necessary? Absolutely. 

If the rise of remote work over the last 50 years has taught us anything, it’s that employer preference will have the largest impact on its prevalence and potential.

Nick Dauk | Contributing Writer

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