Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few years, you’ve likely at least heard mention of flexible work. Social media is full of idyllic photos – laptops in front of a beautiful sunset or next to a perfectly crafted cappuccino. It’s hard to escape the #remotework, #workfromanywhere, #laptoplifestyle and #flexiblework hashtags on Instagram and Twitter…each new post looks more appealing than the last.
But have you ever wondered about the history of flexible work?
The last ten years have seen a dramatic increase in the prevalence of flexible working, but historically, people have been working from home for hundreds of years. In Medieval times, many of the working-class English lived where they worked. The boundaries between work and home were fuzzy, with bakers, seamstresses, blacksmiths, shoemakers, and more all operating businesses out of their homes.
The Renaissance, with its interest in maintaining historical records and conducting state business, would give rise to the first administrative offices. Offices grew in popularity and necessity during the Industrial Revolution, and by the dawn of the 20th century men and women alike were trading home for office.
With the creation of modern offices, new innovations like the telephone, fax machine and mass transit systems laid the foundation for people working outside the home. Women who chose to work outside the home were generally found in domestic positions (cooking, cleaning, caring for children or the elderly) or secretarial work. In fact, these jobs were sometimes referred to as “pink collar jobs” because they were so largely dominated by women.
World War II and Rosie the Riveter led to women entering factory work and other positions typically dominated by men. Between 1941 and 1945, more than 9 million women who previously stayed at home entered the US workforce. In addition to bringing millions of women into the workplace, the war also saw huge gains in technology. The first computer was built in 1942, paving the way for today’s technologies that make remote work viable for so many companies and their employees.
After the war, many women returned to their homes, and we saw a significant increase in women running businesses from their homes; multi-level marketing provided women with the opportunity to make money and manage a business. Tupperware, Mary Kay, and Avon gave rise to Young Living, Lularoe, and Scentsy. In the early 1970s, a few key factors contributed to the rise in telecommuting: increased traffic, The Clean Air Act, and the oil embargo. Jack Nilles published his book The Telecommunications Transportation Tradeoff in 1973, and it is still widely regarded as the foundational document of telecommunication.
With high gas prices and shortages continuing into the 1980s, many of our country’s largest companies expanded their work from home employment opportunities. Sears, General Electric, and American Express were among the most well-known companies offering increasing opportunities for employees to work from home.
In the 1990s, the Federal Flexible Workplace Pilot Project was launched, and showed benefits of remote work to include:
Heightened employee productivity
Elimination of the need for office space
As a result of the pilot program, Congress passed legislation appropriating funds for flexible work. In 1995, approximately 9% of workers were working from home at least part of the time; that number rose to 37% in 2015, and will continue to increase as more and more employers realize the benefits of workplace flexibility. A recent article from Forbes predicts that freelance, remote workers will be the majority of our US workforce by 2027.
Whether the flexibility comes in the form of remote offices, flex-time, or a compressed schedule, companies are virtually guaranteed to see multiple benefits of changing their workplace design. Research suggests that by offering some type of flexibility, employers can expect decreased turnover, reduced absenteeism/tardiness, increased morale and commitment to the organization, decreased cost, and the ability to attract better talent. With benefits like those, we expect to see flexible work opportunities continue to grow and expand.