The history of remote work

Before going into full how-to mode, we’ll review the essence of remote work and the history behind what we know and do today.

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👀What is the history of remote work? NASA and IBM left us two great lessons about methods for remote work.

🔌What technology is involved in remote work? Telephone, email, online chats, file sharing systems, online video chat and many new technologies.

📈What is the state of remote work today? It’s the first choice for many workers who have come to see it as the future.

🕛How do I get started? Contemplate the nature of your product and the team that is necessary to make it a reality.

Here's an obvious statement- there are many aspects of remote work. However, a deeper understanding of the physical situation, processes, and outcomes separate it from the daily experience of being co-located in a company. This becomes even more apparent when considering how a truly global workforce operates to create value and a good living for the entire team.

The Cambridge online dictionary defines it as:

"A situation in which an employee works mainly from home and communicates with the company by email and telephone."

Simple enough? But this is far from adequate for many reasons. Remote work requires a change in goal definition, management, communication, compensation, and the daily life of every employee to the point where it is very different from the traditional office. And there is much more technology necessary to make it work.

What is the history of remote work?

Telecommuting, or making use of simple technology like telephones, is far from new. Allied Telecom credits NASA engineer Jack Niles with the invention of that term in 1972. Yet the idea itself is considerably older.

From 1961 to 1964, Fred Brooks was in charge of developing the IBM System 360. This was the first computer that would be commercially available for any company that needed advanced information management. Many saw that market as limited, but Brooks knew if it was made easier to use, the potential application would be much greater.

He saw its use in airline reservations, financial companies, and many more companies with complex operations.

In order to make this happen, it needed an advanced operating system. He assembled a truly global workforce of programmers operating in many time zones to work around the clock, each adding more functionality to the product. He was able to punctually deliver a product that not only exceeded initial expectations, but redefined work for everyone.

It wasn’t just the product that redefined work, it was his methods – even though much of this would take years to be standardized and absorbed as truly remote work.

What is remote-friendly v.s. remote-first?

From these historical events, we can see the difference between “Remote Friendly” work and “Remote-First” work. Telecommuting is a remote friendly operation, where the ability to work from home is an option.

Fred Brooks, however, had a schedule which demanded a remote-first operation. A global workforce was built into the definition and management of the project to make it work.

What technology is involved in remote work?

As you can see, technology is so essential and has always defined remote work. From the early beginnings, it has been the development of communications technologies which has made it increasingly possible to reap the benefits of a global workforce, well beyond what IBM’s Brooks could imagine.

While remote friendly telecommuting has been an option for decades, companies which are truly remote-first are relatively new. The technology which made it possible to be a fully global workforce includes, in order of development:

Today there are many new technologies being developed all the time to make remote work possible, regardless of distance. The process is being redefined as the market for these tools mature every day.

What is the state of remote work today?

From the early beginnings, the advantages of remote work have been demonstrated and grows exponentially in popularity. Today, there are dozens of companies which are remote first and employs thousands of people, some of which are publicly traded companies.

A comprehensive list of remote-first companies is maintained by GitHub. Because of its popularity and the advantages of a global workforce, this listing includes how to find jobs with each of these companies. It’s the first choice for many workers who have come to see it as the future.

Your company could be on this list, too.

There are many organizations and companies which support remote work and the development of a global workforce. The resources which are available continue to grow and the number of employees who have come to expect remote work is expanding on a daily basis. For instance, Career Karma's guide to Remote Work in 2020 and Toptal's The Sudden Remote Playbook are also really extensive resources!

How do I get started?

Remote work requires a deep understanding of the critically different ways of defining and performing work. It can be done by contractors or full time employees, on a project by project basis, or as an open-ended agreement spanning several projects and products.

Before you get started, it’s important to understand all the aspects of remote work. It’s not as obvious as it seems once you get down to the nitty gritty. 

While technology has always defined the ability to perform remote work, making good use of it requires a completely new understanding of the nature of work itself.

It seems simple enough, but it is not. Once the decision is made to implement a remote first company, there are many other aspects to consider. Such a company is inherently different, particularly if it operates within a global workforce. It is critical to build a company from the ground up for remote work in order to realize its many advantages.

The most simple definition is not enough to make it happen, primarily because it is not enough to understand how fundamentally different remote work is. To gain that knowledge, it is critical that you first contemplate the nature of your product and the team that is necessary to make it a reality.