Most of us consider the Covid-19 pandemic to be a game-changer in the transformation of the workplace.
The Work From Home (WFH) revolution that triggered has undoubtedly remolded the concept of work in ways never imagined earlier. However, remote work does have a history that’s much older than the 21st century.
It is also set to be around for a very long time and adapt to new difficulties as the situations demand. The future of remote work seems like a panoramic landscape that’s waiting to be discovered by generations of workers yet to come.
How And When It All Began
If you want to go back in time, take a look at our hunter-gatherer ancestors. They roamed far and wide to forage for food and then brought it back to their homes as the fruit of their work.
In medieval times, the home was the original workplace. Individual skilled workers operated from their homes or yards as blacksmiths, carpenters, artists, document writers, lawyers, doctors, architects, sculptors, or entertainers. If you needed work to be done, you contacted them directly and got the job commissioned, paid a fee, and that was it.
Certain crafts such as weaving, tailoring, and transcribing or illuminating holy books were done by groups of people who gathered in the home of a master craftsperson and worked under their guidance. The home was still the center of all their activities, and there were no boundaries between the workplace and the family home. Age and gender differences were almost non-existent.
As trade and commerce increased, there was a greater need for documentation, billing, and book-keeping. Gradually, there was a separation between home/office. Many craftspersons found it better to have hybrid shop-houses, where business transactions were carried out in the front of the home, while private areas became increasingly set aside for domestic purposes.
The need for education led to the creation of schools/colleges where students gathered exclusively to learn. Once they emerged from these institutions, it was only natural that they felt the need for separate places to conduct their work. Administrative work, law and order, trade and commerce, archives, and other special tasks needed exclusive spaces. Thus was born the “office” as we know it.
As the Industrial Revolution unfolded in the 18th century onwards, it created a new class of skilled workers who needed to be collectively in a particular space at the same time. This was because a large task was shared piecemeal by several workers for better efficiency and swifter, more economical production. It created an inflexible, fixed-time schedule in an employer-controlled space with employer-owned tools and equipment. The invention of the telephone, telegraph, electricity, calculating machines, public transportation, printing, and the typewriter led to the establishment of office space. However, WFH continued in informal sectors such as baking, laundry, day-care, crafts, and entertainment, to name a few.
Today, the clock has turned completely back with the Internet, virtual communication, and digital technology.
What Is Remote Work?
Remote work doesn’t just mean WFH. Known by many other terms such as teleworking, telecommuting, distance work, mobile work, WFH, hot desking, flexible workplace, etc., remote work eliminates the need for workers to congregate in a central, designated working space. It could also include working while commuting/traveling or sitting in a cafe, or co-working space.
According to the US Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor, before the outbreak of Covid-19, 4.7 million Americans (more than 3% of the workforce) were WFH. 2012 estimates suggest that 40% of the working population could work at least part-time. Though the terms “remote work” and WFH are not necessarily interchangeable, there are enough points where they touch to make them similar.
After the outbreak, more than 80% of companies across the world mandated or encouraged WFH. A majority of organizations canceled all work-related travel.
Remote work has increased by 173% between 2015-18. The rise of the call-center industry has resulted in millions of workers WFH worldwide.
77% of employees say they’re more productive in WFH, and 80% report less work-related stress.
Types of WFH jobs typically include:
- Web/graphics designer
- Customer service rep
- Social media manager
- Editing, proofreading, writing, publishing
- Sales and Marketing
- Project Management
- Data analysis
- Software engineer
- And more!
Future of Remote Work: What Tomorrow Holds
Cubicles and office towers were the odd ones out! Today, we’re almost back to where we began. Most career trajectories today include a large component of remote working.
To reduce attrition and retain employees, companies must adopt a more flexible approach to the Work-Life Balance. Tech advances in phones, computers, tablets have been in tandem with sophisticated Wi-Fi technology. These devices can connect you from anywhere to anywhere on the planet. Cloud-based computing leveraged the ability to store and retrieve information. Teams can now be spread across the work and still work in sync.
Statistics show that nearly 90% of workers who work remotely never go back to conventional workplaces.
Companies are finding increased levels of engagement and productivity with remote work. 77% of employees were more productive, 30% reported that they accomplished more and quickly, 52% were less likely to cash in on vacation time.
Studies also show increased mental and physical health levels, while companies are making big savings on overheads.
In fact, as a first-time entrant into the job market today, you could have your interview via social media portals, with a virtual tour of your interviewer’s place of work, followed by digitally scanned contracts and your paycheck being deposited via net banking. You may never see your co-workers in person, and often, you may never meet clients or managers either.
The US Federal Government mandates that agencies establish teleworking programs, though remote working is not an employee right. The Telework Enhancement Act (S 707) was passed in 2010.
Security is a major concern, with remote work providing enhanced opportunities for unscrupulous and malicious activities by criminals and disgruntled employees.
Remote work is here to stay, and this is a fact, at least in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. However, certain industries such as food, some types of retail, construction, etc., still require an on-site presence, but as new tools and technology emerge, these too may adapt to create new opportunities for remote working.
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