In the beginning (of work), there was no such thing as going to a different place to labor.
Many early humans foraged for plants and hunted animals for food. One of the earliest of these was Homo ergaster who lived throughout eastern and southern Africa between 1.9 to 1.4 million years ago. Literally, the “working man” was so named because of their use of advanced tools. Evidence from charred animal bones in fossil deposits and traces of their camps indicate they crafted these tools close to their dwelling places and used fire.
From Longhouses to Top-Shops to Sweat Shops: the unpleasant ways we combined work and home
Many millennia later, labor was clustered in the home. Medieval England had the “longhouse,” which was inhabited by peasants and their livestock at either end of the building. In the middle, there was the kitchen, as well as the center for spinning/weaving/dressmaking, dairy, butchering, and tanning. Medieval merchants also worked their trades from home.
Not much changed as time wore on. As evidenced by the 200+-year-old buildings with large windows still existent in England, 17th- and 18th-century craftspeople, such as silk weavers and watchmakers, used the abundance of natural light to make their wares. Some workhomes called “top-shops” had a “steam engine at one end and a single driveshaft linking power-looms in the individual weaving lofts” to allow them to compete with factories, according to the WorkHome.com.
They also note that after the Industrial Revolution, home-based work continued to thrive as shopkeepers, funeral parlors, and schools featured proprietors and teachers living and working in the same building.
This trend continued into the 20th century in the United States. The immigrants who flowed into New York City during the late 1800s and early 1900s often took in work in their tenement apartments, where the heat and lack of fresh air led to the term “sweatshops.”
For example, according to the historical records of the Tenement Museum, “The Levines operated a garment workshop in their tiny apartment at 97 Orchard in 1892. Harris Levine, the patriarch, hired three workers and worked long 15-hour days, stopping only to observe the Sabbath each Saturday. A family of six, the Levines managed to raise their children and compete with other garment shops for 13 years—and all within a 325-square-foot apartment.”
In-home sales and the invention of “telecommuting”
While WWII saw the rise of women in the workplace, peacetime relegated them back to their homes. At this point, two innovations occurred: one was the invention and manufacture of plastic containers to store food and other goods using an industrial byproduct created by Earl Tupper; the other was a way to sell them, created by Brownie Wise, a woman who’d become a salesperson for Stanley Home cleaning products. She piggybacked off of the Stanley Home party model and created her own “patio parties” as a way to get housewives to sample the products and have fun while doing it. This spawned an entire industry of in-home sales.
The advancement of technology further allowed workers to use their homes for a dual purpose. Think: alongside the rise of cars to commute from the suburbs to offices in the city came the oil crisis of the early 1970s.
That’s when Jack Nilles was working remotely on a complex NASA communication system that he coined the word “telecommuting.” He went on to coauthor The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff, which proposed working from home as a solution to traffic tangles as well as limited resources. Over the next few years, as the oil crisis came to a head, Frank Schiff coined the term “flexplace” in an article for The Washington Post called “Working From Home Can Save Gasoline.”
Remote Work and Flexible Hours
In the 1980s, companies began officially experimenting with flexible work. For example, IBM installed “remote terminals” in several employees’ homes during that time, and the program flourished to the point that “by 2009, 40% of IBM’s 386,000 global employees already worked at home (the company noted that it had reduced its office space by 78 million square feet and saved about $100 million in the US annually as a result),” cites a report in Quartz.
By 2010, the Government had passed the Telework Enhancement Act, which sought to make telecommuting more secure and effective for Federal employees. The most recent Census report found that 13.4 million people (out of a workforce of 142 million) worked from home, which represented an increase of 4.2 million in a little over a decade.
Remote work continues to thrive. A recent report from FlexJobs indicates that companies in all industry sectors are offering flexible work arrangements, and some positions pay six figures. And let’s not forget the rise of the freelancing class. A recent survey from Upwork and Freelancers Union revealed that while millennials are now the largest demographic in the American workforce, 42% of 18-to-34-year-olds now freelance, up from 38% in 2014.
“There are no crystal balls, but a good way to assess the future is to look at the people inheriting it,” writes Stephane Kasriel, CEO of Upwork. “Many of those choosing to work differently today are doing so to get back to basics and closer to the lives they want. In order to achieve that, people need the flexibility to define their lives on their terms.”