Insights for Remote Professionals

The History of Remote Work

Cedric Jackson

September 13, 2021

For many people, remote work still seems relatively new. After all, it only started to take off during the pandemic. Take a closer look, and you will see that it has been steadily growing over the years. You might also be surprised by how long the idea of remote work has been around. 

Early History in the 1970s and 1980s 

The earliest version of remote work was telecommuting.

Jack Nilles coined the term in 1973. Nilles was a NASA engineer who wrote “Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff.” 

By 1979, remote work had extended to the tech sector. That was the year that IBM conducted an experiment and let five employees work from home. Their experiment went so well that by 1983, the company had 2,000 employees working remotely. 

Soon after, in the mid-1980s, call center staff working for J.C. Penney had the option of working from home. 

Of course, the arrival of the first personal computers in 1975 helped speed up adoption. The same is true with the creation of the internet in 1983. Online chat systems have also been around since 1982. File sharing systems came about in 1986. 

By 1987, 1.5 million Americans were telecommuting. 

An Extra Note on IBM

The IBM experiment with remote work came from Fred Brooks.

He was responsible for developing IBM’s System 360, the first commercially available computer. He knew the best option was to have a global team that could work around the clock. That required the ability to work remotely. So, IBM found a way to let the team work remotely. 

The 1990s

Two major events in remote work happened in 1995.

That was the year that Congress approved permanent “flexiplace” funding. This funding was for work-related equipment for federal employees to use at home. 

That was also the year that C-base was founded. This Berlin space was among the world’s first hackerspaces. Hackerspaces were the earliest co-working spaces. 

Early Tech Startups 

The concept of remote work continued to accelerate.

The tech startups in garages during 1999 were a big step forward for the idea. In these cases, working remotely was not necessarily by choice.

Working remotely was the only option due to the startups having limited budgets. Without money for office space, the garage was the only way they could build their dreams.

The 2000 DOT Appropriations Act

One major change in the trend of remote work came in 2000. That was the year of the DOT Appropriations Act. This act required companies to develop policies for telecommuting. 

The Early 2000s

Since 2004, the federal government has let all employees telecommute. The only requirement is that they do not experience “diminished employee performance.” 

2005 saw the creation of the first co-working space. This was the San Francisco Co-working Space, created by Brad Neuberg, an engineer. 

Putting the Last Decade of Growth in Perspective

Remote work has experienced most of its growth in the last decade or so.

GetApp estimates that since 2010, 400% more people have started working at home. The company’s survey found 78% of people engage in remote work at least sometimes. 

Here are some other interesting figures: 

  • Slack began in 2013 and had 4 million daily active users by 2016.
  • In 2018, there were 170 fully remote US companies, compared to 26 in 2014. 
  • By 2018, 70% of people in the world worked remotely once a week or more. 53% did so for half the week or more. 

For more perspective in the past decade or so, look at 2010.

At that time, more than 59% of people working remotely did so for private companies. This is opposed to freelancing. 

In 2010, President Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act. It required all federal agencies to develop remote work policies. 

Tech Companies Lead the Way

One common theme in remote work is that tech companies tend to lead the way.

Facebook and Google were among the first to announce the remote work option during the pandemic. 

Now many companies of the top tech companies have went completely remote or at least provided remote options.

COVID Accelerated the Growth of Remote Work

It should come as no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the growth of remote work.

With pandemic restrictions for safety, more people wanted the safety of working from home. Additionally, many areas required companies to let people work from home or close down temporarily. 

This forced companies to develop solutions that were previously not available. The result is people working from home, even in industries where that was not an option a year or two years ago. 

Remote Work Today

Today, remote work is incredibly common. The following statistics can help put it in perspective: 

  • 16% of companies only hire remote workers
  • Small companies have twice the chance of hiring remote workers full-time
  • 18% of people engage in remote work full-time 
  • In the US, 4.3 million people work from home half the time or more
  • By 2028, experts predict 73% of departments will have at least some remote workers. 

Here's more fascinating statistics on remote work in 2021.

Next Up