A return to work from home
Moving on from an industrial age working model
Paradigm shifts often occur when innovation and upheaval meet. Take the invention of the printing press and the Reformation or the development of rocket technology and the cold war as examples. Without these ingredients societies can continue on for decades or centuries without seriously questioning the status quo or exploring new ideas. Ironically in hindsight, innovation often seems obvious, but only until the next earth changing event brings us to a new place of understanding. Over the last couple of years we have seen these ingredients meet with the continuing advancement of technology and the covid pandemic.
For much of human history, work and home life were deeply intertwined. Early hunter gatherers were simply focused on survival, but with technological advancements, farming and other skilled trades were performed to support the family and contribute to the local community. Up until the industrial revolution, about 90% of Americans made their livelihood on the farm where they both lived and worked. This was the original work-from-home. These families worked together to operate the farm with children contributing as soon as they were physically able. Families and relatives lived in close-knit communities that provided a built-in social support system.
With the industrial revolution, the percentage of the work force engaged in farming decreased from 90% to about 40% by 1900, 10% by 1950 and approx 1% of the population today (Farm Population Lowest Since 1850’s). Mechanization allowed for large scale corporate farming which greatly reduced the feasibility of many small scale family farms. As a result, many families left the countryside and moved to the city for new educational and work opportunities. This splintered many families as they became isolated from relatives and the ethnic communities that had provided their social safety net.
The industrial revolution brought isolation to the traditional nuclear family unit. The family was often separated throughout the day with children off to work or school while one or both parents spent long days in the mine or factory. Workers were a cog in the machine, performing repetitive tasks that machines were not yet advanced enough to perform. Separated from their close knit communities on the farm, many workers became fully dependent on their employers for healthcare and housing needs. This led to many abuses with rampant child labor and factory employees working 100hr weeks on average in the early 20th century. Workers rights movements and unionization eventually helped alleviate some of the more egregious violations. In 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act officially curbed many of these abuses and established the 9-5, 5 day a week standard that we are familiar with today (Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
At the dawn of the information age in the mid 20th century, science fiction and futurists explored the promise of technology. Concepts showed how many of the traditional-time consuming tasks around the home would be automated, telehealth, self-driving cars, remote-controlled farms, space colonization, work and school could be performed from anywhere through telecommunications, and people would be free from the bounds of the factory once again with abundant leisure time to spend with family, friends, hobbies and traveling.
Despite tremendous progress in technology and the growth of the service and tech sectors of the economy, companies by and large maintained the same factory-inspired working models and standards. The movie Office Space and the comic Dilbert have famously parodied the drudgery and monotony of 9-5 office work. Life on the factory floor was simply replaced by life in the cubicle but with more meetings. Rather than serving as a tool to enhance workers lives, technology has often been used to extend work beyond the bounds of the office with e-mails, text messages, laptops, slack messages as well as employee monitoring software. Instead of being free from the office, the office was everywhere.
Although a handful of brave, free-thinking companies had explored remote working models, it was largely dismissed as a fringe benefit by many corporate leaders. With the rise of the covid pandemic and resulting regulations, many companies where forced to quickly move to a largely remote working model. Although many failed to adapt optimally and simply moved their meetings online, this let the genie out of the bottle. For the first time in their lives, many people discovered that their productivity was not inherently linked to the factory or office. Suddenly workers began to more clearly see the benefits of increased autonomy, flexibility, and family time, and the inefficiencies of long commutes, back to back meetings, a 9-5 schedule, and overbearing managers. Going remote broadened opportunities to find work that matched personal interests and also put pressure on employers to update their benefits and working models to attract and retain talent.
My hope is that now more people can see what should have always been obvious. Mental and service work is inherently different than factory work. There is no need for many industries to constrain themselves to an industrial age working standard and most signs indicate it would beneficial for them not to do so. The 8 hour work day is an arbitrary standard designed for repetitive assembly line tasks and its effect on productivity in other industries has only recently been studied. Most studies show that there is at the very least no decline in productivity for remote workers, and recent studies have shown similar results for flexible work schedules and 4 day work weeks (Going Public: Iceland’s Journey To A Shorter Working Week). With the 4 day work week quickly gaining traction in Europe, we may see a new period of innovation and adaption in our working models. If economic forces and/or regulations can curtail its abuses, I have hope that technology can yet fulfill some of its original promise to create more balanced relationships with work and healthier families and societies as a result. Work from home or work from anywhere; perhaps even from the farm.