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4 Influential Events in the History of Remote Work


Barbecues. Cold beer by the poolside. A chance to disconnect from the demands of your digital lifestyle. For those of us in the U.S. and Canada, Labor Day signals the end of summer and sends the kids from camp back to the classroom. It’s also an excellent time for you, the remote worker, to be grateful for the fact that come Tuesday, you won’t be returning to the confines of a cubicle or sitting for hours in rush hour traffic. So while you take a much-deserved break, toast friends and family, and relax in the water, take a moment to reflect on how the following four milestones in the history of remote work made your location independence possible.

Check your fax

Let’s go back to work—just for a second, we promise. As you imagine yourself setting up your ultra-lightweight laptop, connecting to your favorite coffee shop’s fast Wi-Fi network, and opening your trusty collaboration apps to keep in touch with coworkers or clients, take a moment to ponder the humble origins of the fancy tech that supports your location independence.

Back in 1964, the Xerox Corporation invented the Long Distance Telegraphy, the forerunner of the modern fax machine. The concept was both relatively simple and uniquely novel at the time.  By connecting two copiers via public telephones, you could transmit data and share information remotely. Taking six minutes to send a 4-page document may not seem to be on the level of the discovery of fire, but back in the 1960s, it was a creative way to make the most of the available technology. It was now possible, at least on a rudimentary level, to share information over distance with coworkers and teammates. In other words: remote work.

Oils well that ends well

In response to the 1973 OPEC crisis, where oil producing countries reduced their output due to fighting in the Middle East, NASA scientist Jack Nilles and his team confronted the crisis by envisioning a new type of workplace. They wanted to allow employees to work from their homes or conveniently located satellite offices to combat gridlock, reduce commute times, and prevent long lines at gas stations. Nilles and his team also promoted a healthier work-life balance and energy conservation through their advocacy for the use of alternative transportation to get to work. These ideas resulted in the birth of telecommuting as we know it today.

Telecommuting, the grandparent of remote work, was primarily a response to an economic and political problem. But it also changed work culture. Corporations and the federal government began to understand that allowing employees to choose where they performed work could also increase their productivity. Linking intangibles such as happiness and satisfaction with productivity reshaped the face of the workplace.

Companies could now exchange rigidity with flexibility, and burnout with employee satisfaction. By opening clogged streets, lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and moving work closer to home, telecommuting was both a win-win and a critical precursor to modern remote work.

The need for speed

One of the key achievements of Bill Clinton’s presidency was the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in 60 years. Coming 12 years after the shattering of “Ma Bell” AT&T into regional telecoms, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 sought to increase competition among telecommunications providers, speeding the path to innovation, and providing greater consumer choice at affordable prices. It was also the first bill to be signed electronically.

One of the specific goals of this piece of legislation was to increase the pace of broadband network development across the U.S., moving the country away from the tethered dark ages of 33.6 Kbps dial-up modems and less-than-mobile devices towards a high-speed future. It was also at least indirectly responsible for the emergence of Wi-Fi since the speed cap associated with consumer-grade narrowband made wireless connections far less practical.

While the Act can hardly be called an unmitigated success, it helped pave the way to today and the road to tomorrow—all 50 states and all U.S. territories now have broadband service. The result? U.S.-based remote workers now have a wide variety of providers and services to choose from, as do the work-friendly venues they support such as coffee shops and coworking spaces.

Think globally and work remotely

A natural evolution of the earlier Kyoto Protocol, the landmark 2016 agreement created an international network of government organizations to combat global warming. But how does this change the climate for remote work?

While the push for telecommuting around the time of the OPEC crisis was largely based on fears about dependency on foreign energy, the threat of climate change may take the popularity of remote work to new heights. Most countries, including China and India, have reaffirmed their commitment to the accord despite President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of it. And even within the U.S., plenty of cities and states have pledged to continue their efforts to reach the targets set in Paris.

The potential positive environmental impact of remote work has been well documented. Remote work can even be said to directly support the UN Sustainable Development Goals that gave birth to the Paris Agreement. Despite notable exceptions such as Yahoo and IBM, many companies are coming around to seeing the environmental benefits of remote work—including those who choose to have a completely remote workforce.

As climate change becomes an even more pressing issue, remote work will leave an indelible footprint while treading lightly where it counts the most—on the roads and the freeways.

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Tell us your thoughts: how do you see remote and flexible options impacting the future of work? Add your comments below or join the conversation on Twitter @Workfrom using #untethered.

About the Author

Julian Stewart is Executive Editor and Andrew Wollard is Associate Editor of #Untethered.


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