The Future of Work Looks Like Staying Out of the Office

The following was published by arsTechnica on February 18, 2020
by Kate Cox 

Dozens of studies find remote workers happy and productive. Why not let them be?

It’s 2020: we finally live in the future! Or at least a future—one where broadband Internet connections and portable, reasonably high-powered computing tools are pervasive and widely accessible, even if they aren’t yet universal. Millions of workers, including all of us here at Ars, use those tools to do traditional “office jobs” from nontraditional home offices.

Tens of millions of jobs at all points of the income and skill spectrum are of course not suited to remote work. Doctors, dentists, and countless other healthcare workers of the world will always need to be hands-on with patients, just as teachers need to be in schools, construction workers need to be on building sites, scientists need to be in labs, wait staff need to be in restaurants, judges need to be in court, and hospitality employees need to be in hotels. All of that said, though, many more of the hundreds of different kinds of jobs Americans do can be done off-site than currently are.

Roughly a quarter of us are already doing at least some work remotely. About 24 percent of US workers employed full-time did “some or all” of their work at home, according to the most recent federal data available. Even as some workplaces become increasingly distributed around the nation and the world, though, others are reversing course and doubling down on the corporate campus. So as we here at Ars look toward the future of work, we find ourselves wondering: employers and employees alike benefit from getting some folks out of cubeville, so what are so many businesses and managers afraid of?

A surprisingly ancient argument

The idea of remote work, as we currently imagine it, goes back about 50 years. The fight over whether employees should be allowed to do remote work—whether they can in fact be trusted with it—goes back almost exactly as long.

The first documented use of the word “telecommute” showed up in 1974 when The Economist wrote: “As there is no logical reason why the cost of telecommunication should vary with distance, quite a lot of people by the late 1980s will telecommute daily to their London offices while living on a Pacific island if they want to.” Similarly, futurist writer Alvin Toffler (together with his wife Heidi Toffler, uncredited) described the concept perfectly in the 1980 book The Third Wave:

When we suddenly make available technologies that can place a low-cost “work station” in any home, providing it with a “smart” typewriter, perhaps, along with a facsimile machine or computer console and teleconferencing equipment, the possibilities for home work are radically extended.


As the idea of telework landed in the 1970s, “pro” and “con” camps formed, became entrenched, and dug in rapidly thereafter. By January 1984, Time magazine had “fans and foes take second looks” at proliferating “experimental projects” in telecommuting—at the time still novel but potentially destined to become much less so.

In the 1980s the state of California commissioned a study on the potential costs and benefits of expanding telework among state employees. The final report (PDF), published in 1990, is an extremely familiar tune to the one still sung today.

Remote work “enhances the quality of work life for telecommuters, including those with disabilities,” the report found. “Telecommuting more than pays its way … there are societal benefits as well.”

The group that compiled the report determined that telecommuting “should be encouraged to expand within state government, that every state agency should have the option of using telecommuting both as a means of improving its effectiveness and for reducing traffic congestion and air pollution.” That said, the working group also cautioned that in order to be effective, a telecommuting program must be “implemented properly and [have] its utility monitored regularly.”

The California report was one of the earlier deep-dive efforts to determine if remote work could be effective or valuable, but not the last. Dozens of studies have emerged in the 30 years since backing up the state working group’s findings. Taken in aggregate, they show remote work, where feasible, has a clear pattern of benefits for both workers and the firms that employ them.

“The advantages [of telework] are many,” Johnny C. Taylor, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, told Ars. “It’s a good thing for several reasons from the employer’s perspective in a very tight labor market.”

To read the full article ad learn more about the studies that support telework, head to arsTechnica by clicking here.

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