As a site that champions flexible and remote work, everyone at FlexJobs knows quite a bit about the history of flexible working. But we wanted to dig deeper to see what we could find, in particular, about the history of working from home. And we really do mean the complete history… we got swept up in research and wound up as far back as the hunter-gatherers. But if you’re at all interested in remote work and how it came to be, which we clearly are, it’s all pretty interesting.
In fact, as you’ll read in this piece, the history of working from home isn’t nearly as recent as many think. It actually has a much longer past than our history of working in offices. The growth of remote work in the last 10 years is ultimately a return to an early and long-used way of working.
We hope you enjoy this comprehensive history of working from home!
This article is adapted from an article that orginally appeared on FlexJobs.com.
Hunter-gatherers: the earliest at-home workers
From a long-view perspective, working from home has always been a thing, not just in the last several decades with the advent of telecommuting, but for hundreds of thousands of years. Combining work space and living space is a natural way for families and communities to efficiently pool resources, make the most of the space at hand, and work cooperatively together for the good of all.
The work-home environment was a definite feature of life for hunter-gatherers, who foraged for sustenance and brought the fruits of their labor back to the hearth. People prepared animals for consumption, sorted and ground grains, and fashioned clothing for coverage and protection.
Medieval work-homes: the first open-plan offices?
Fast-forward to the work-home of medieval times, when the working classes often set up craft and trade-focused shops in their homes. They offered goods and services to support their families in living spaces that were architecturally designed to accommodate working from home.
For example, during Medieval times, most working-class English people lived in work-homes. The single-story, one-room houses were “a combination of kitchen and spinning/weaving/dressmaking workshop, bedroom and dairy, dining room, butchery, tannery, and byre.”
Domesticity was a focal point of early work-from-home activities. Managing the home meant multitasking and managing resources, finances, and the division of labor. Boundaries between home and work life, if they existed at all, were blurred at best.
Early at-home work in the middle ages covered professions like bakers, seamstresses, shoemakers, potters, weavers, ale brewers, and blacksmiths. Notably, the gender gap was not a significant factor, given that home-based workers could as easily be male as female.
The all-hands-on-deck spirit of working from home placed value on many of the skills at which women excelled, like sewing, calligraphy, or other of the so-called “womanly arts,” an umbrella term that includes domestic science and home economics.
The Renaissance’s focus on administration leads to “offices”
As time went on, merchants and craftspeople before the Industrial Revolution created what might be described as the first home offices. These hybrid work-homes had street-facing shops or workshops, and private areas set aside for day-to-day living.
But a growing interest in keeping historical archives, administering state business, and creating a centralized location for these activities led to some of the first administrative buildings. “One of the most notable examples is the Uffizi Gallery, built by the Medici family in Florence in 1581. This process required the administration, archives, and a state court to come together in the same building.”
This space officially became an art museum in the 1700s and is still one of the best-known museums in the world.
The mental shift during this time towards free thinking and education also created a growing need for centralized learning in the form of schools. And the Industrial Revolution was just around the corner, bringing even more centralized administrative oversight to the working world.
The Industrial Revolution pulls workers out of the house
The Industrial Revolution brought profound changes for men and women alike. Factory work, particularly in the textile industry for women, meant leaving home and toiling in outside work environments.
The industrial age birthed a new movement of skilled workers and set up a working-outside-the-home model that many employers still follow today, even though it’s become increasingly outdated.
That model (the precursor of the 9-to-5, in-office work schedule) meant working an inflexible schedule from an employer-provided environment, with employer-provided tools or equipment. The means of production were transferred from the work-home to the work-site.
Despite the advent of work opportunities outside the home, some people continued to work for pay from their homes into the 19th and early 20th centuries. For women, that work may have included doing laundry for outside customers, providing food and baked goods to sell to factory workers, or doing “finish work” for shoe and garment manufacturers.
Dawn of the 20th century: the modern office takes shape
Office work brought further changes. The history of the office shows that the first commercial workspaces were hugely transformative, thanks largely to some new-fangled inventions: the telephone, the telegraph, widespread public electricity, and the typewriter. These were some of the precursors to the remote office communication tools we use today.
The development of public transportation options that enabled workers to travel to and from home relatively inexpensively had a huge impact as well. Commuting was well underway.
Women, in particular, moved into a new realm of professionalism that took them beyond craft-based or domestic work. The job of secretary, still a leading position among so-called “pink-collar workers,” required trading off home for the office.
For both women and men, work became increasingly associated with leaving home for an office or a manufacturing facility.
World War II changes the definition of women’s work
To this day, working from home is often thought of as women-dominated even though about the same number of men and women engage in remote work, according to the “2017 State of Telecommuting” report.
That might be because early at-home jobs for women were often based on their domestic duties. The idea of a woman earning wages to support her family seemed somehow more sensible if the work involved cooking, sewing, or caregiving services like babysitting.
Then came World War II, Rosie the Riveter, and the need for women to work in factories and shipyards to take the places of men who’d gone off to war. Women left home to enter the workforce by the millions.
Between 1941 and 1945, the number of women in the workplace rose from 11 million to nearly 20 million, according to a study of women, gender, and World War II. Even though many of these newly minted women workers returned home to traditional roles after the war, they’d succeeded in changing the U.S. workplace forever.
Wartime technology lays the foundation for modern remote work
Wartime innovations brought the advent of what PricewaterhouseCoopers called the biggest disruptor of all: technology.
In 1942, the world’s first electronic digital computer was built at Iowa State University, which not only helped crack enemy codes, but also laid the groundwork for the work-from-home movement that was still years off.
As noted in the PwC report, technology is fueling “major trends like demographic change, resource scarcity, climate change, urbanization, and a global shift in economic power.”
1950s: Housewives find work-from-home jobs in multi-level marketing
After World War II ended, women who’d taken jobs while men went into battle found themselves suddenly thrust out of a workforce that they’d excelled in. They had the skills, the experience, and the desire to work outside the home, and yet those opportunities suddenly no longer existed for them.
Back to the home they went—and with their return to homemaking came the rise of new types of work-from-home opportunities, both legitimate and less so.
One type of work-from-home job we’ve seen once again rise in popularity traces its roots back to the post-World War II era: multi-level marketing.
In Vox’s article, “Why Your Facebook Feed Is Filled with Women Selling Essential Oils and Press-on Nails,” writer Kate Shellnutt explains the birth of so-called multi-level marketing “schemes,” also known as MLM, referral marketing, pyramid selling, and network marketing.
The first opportunity for post-war housewives to have their own “business” at home came from Tupperware.
“Brownie Wise invited fellow ’50s housewives to demonstrate Earl Tupper’s line of plastic containers at one of her ‘patio parties.’ Just a few years later, in 1954, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance wrote that 20 million American women a year attended ‘sales parties in the home.’”
Unfortunately, these popular business ventures are still unprofitable for most people involved with them. At one MLM company, “92 percent of the 130,000 consultants make $500 a year on average.”
1960s: Creative workers keep the work-home fires burning while most report to the office
By the 1960s, the 20th-century workforce was a commuting workforce. And labor was still quite physical. Manufacturing and textiles were still booming industries and the “knowledge economy” that dominates today didn’t yet exist.
But members of the creative professions (artists, writers, etc.) continued to work from home most of the time.
“What we’ve come to think of as modern stay-at-home workers really grew out of the late twentieth century with creatives in metro areas like New York, London, and Paris reverting back to the Medieval way of doing things—with studio apartments that doubled as work space and living areas,” writes the History Cooperative.
This can be seen as both a return to pre-industrial revolution work routines and an advancement towards the future of work.
But companies still largely controlled the means of production, as manufacturing, office equipment, and other work staples were not yet inexpensive or portable enough to be utilized by individuals working from home.
However, a technological revolution was just around the corner that would tip the means of production towards the workers, and encourage companies to start adopting “telecommuting” in ways we would recognize today.
1970s: Oil embargo and clean air push telecommuting to the forefront
According to the Atlantic’s “What Telecommuting Looked Like in 1973,” the start of the 1970s saw several key trends that pushed telecommuting to the forefront:
The Clean Air Act was passed in 1970.
The OPEC oil embargo began in 1973.
The idea of “gridlock” was coined to describe what then seemed like terrible commuter traffic into and out of cities every day.
Jack Nilles is largely regarded as the father of modern telecommuting. He was the lead author of the “founding document” of the telecommuting movement, a book called The Telecommunications Transportation Tradeoff.
Published in 1973, the book recommended “either the jobs of the employees must be redesigned so that they can still be self-contained at each individual location, or a sufficiently sophisticated telecommunications and information-storage system must be developed to allow the information transfer to occur as effectively as if the employees were centrally collocated.”
Today, telecommunications and information storage systems have developed to a point where information transfer among remote workers occurs “as effectively” as between collocated workers.
“If 10% of those who commute to work each weekday were to start working at home two days each week, this would reduce the volume of such travel by 4%. This is not a large number in the absolute, but significant when compared to the 3 to 5% overall shortfall in petroleum availability which brought on the recent gasoline lines.”
The article even points out that the rising service industry, declining manufacturing sector, and the growth of information-based jobs make it much easier for people to return to decentralized, home-based methods of work that were largely popular before the Industrial Revolution.
1980s: Companies test the telecommuting waters
With the trends of the 1970s still very much in effect as 1980 rolled around—high gas prices, gas shortages, the rise of the information economy and service jobs, environmental concerns, and “gridlock” commutes—companies began to experiment with and formalize telecommuting programs for employees.
Throughout this decade, companies like JCPenney, American Express, The Hartford, General Electric – GE, Levi Strauss & Co., and Sears Holdings implemented or grew telecommuting programs for employees, many of which are still in place today.
In June of 1987, the Christian Science Monitor wrote, “Telecommuting: Reality Sets In,” where it says about 1.5 million Americans were telecommuters and about 300 companies ran telecommuting programs.
Regarding gender and remote work, the article was clearly written when women were still the primary—or sole—caregivers for young children.
“‘A woman cannot simultaneously care for her child and do her work,’” said Kathleen Christensen, director of the National Project on Home-based Work. “She conducted a national survey of 14,000 women, including those with preschool children. It found that two out of three of these mothers who work at home (or would like to) had to use supplemental day-care.”
Perhaps this is the origin of all those terrible work-from-home stock photos we see of moms wrangling children while simultaneously working.
Remote work picked up steam in the 1980s, but there were still some kinks to work out—some of which we’re still debating today.
1990s: Federal agencies, Congress, and the president back telecommuting
Telecommuting in the 1990s began with a large telecommuting experiment by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration.
Called the Federal Flexible Workplace Pilot Project, the purpose was to “assess the benefits and challenges of allowing employees to work at locations other than their government office base.” Rather than call it home-based work or remote work, these non-office work locations were called “flexiplaces.”
About 550 employees participated and the results showed benefits such as:
Eliminated the need for office space
Afterward, Congress voted for legislation that appropriated funding for “flexiplace” work-related equipment and utilities in federal employees’ private homes annually until 1995, when it was made permanent.
In 1994 and 1996, President Clinton issued a Presidential Memorandum directing executive branch agencies to create more “flexible family-friendly work arrangements,” including telecommuting.
In 1997, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report showing the benefits to include:
Reduced commuting time
Lowered personal costs for transportation, parking, food, and wardrobe
Improvement in the quality of work life and morale
A better balance between work and family demands
Telecommuting was also being covered by academic and business journals. Telecommuting studies were published by the Journal of Communication and SAM Advanced Management Journal, and articles were written in the Wall Street Journal, Working Woman, USA Today, Computerworld, and other large publications.
2000s: “Working at home is on the rise”
That’s the statement declared by the U.S. Census after an analysis of remote work in the years 2000 through 2010. Here are some of the best stats from the Census’ analysis:
Remote work on the rise: Between 2000 and 2010, people who worked at least one day at home per week increased by over 4 million—35%. The population of occasional remote workers went from 9.2 million to 13.4 million during this decade.
More employees working remotely than self-employed workers: Between 1980 and 2000, employees grew to become the majority of remote workers (over self-employed workers). In 1980, 39.4% of remote workers were private company employees (not self-employed). By 2010, they grew to over 59%.
Remote workers are better educated: By 2010, home-based workers were more likely to have a bachelor’s degree (50.5%) than on-site workers (29.7%).
Occasional remote workers made more money: Workers who work both at home and on-site earned $52,800 per year on average. On-site workers: $30,000 per year. Remote workers: $25,500 per year.
In 2001, the federal government expanded federal telework by passing legislation to establish work policies allowing eligible federal employees to telecommute “to the maximum extent possible without diminished employee performance.”
Throughout the 2000s, more companies started offering remote-friendly jobs and advertising telecommuting options in their job listings. This meant professionals could potentially gear their job searches towards telecommuting jobs—but scam jobs were also becoming a huge problem in the work-from-home job market. It’s estimated that for every one legitimate telecommuting job, there are 60-70 scams.
2010s: Remote work transitions from perk to business strategy
In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, which doesn’t just encourage, but requires all federal executive agencies to establish policies for eligible employees to work remotely.
For fiscal years 2014-2015, the Office of Personnel Management said telework participation increased from 39% to 46% of eligible employees and from 17% to 20% of all employees.
All participating agencies were asked to report on the outcomes they experienced from telework. The most common outcomes included:
Better emergency preparedness (59%)
Improved employee attitudes (58%)
Better recruitment (35%)
Better retention (35%)
Reduced employee commute miles (29%)
Improved employee performance (17%)
Reduced real estate costs (17%)
Reduced energy use (13%)
And remote work isn’t just expanding and succeeding in the federal government.
In 2017, FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics partnered to report on the state of telecommuting in the U.S. We found that between 2005 and 2015 telecommuting half-time or more increased 115%. Furthermore, 56% of jobs in the U.S. are now compatible with at least occasional remote work. And the number of people working from home “occasionally” increased from 37% in 2015 to 43% in 2016. All signs point to the continued rise of remote work.
Even still, remote work has a ways to go.