Forty years prior to COVID-19, Alvin Toffler saw the future of working from home, and it looked very good. In his 1980 best seller, The Third Wave, the futurist author declared that modern economies would soon shift away from the office and toward “the electronic cottage”—a retro-utopian update of the preindustrial days of home work and piece work, now wired to the modern world via desktop computers, faxes, and dial-up modems. “The electronic cottage raises once more on a mass scale the possibility of husbands and wives, and perhaps even children, working together as a unit,” he explained. This arrangement would propel “greater community stability” and “a renaissance among voluntary organizations.”
Fast-forward to the great pandemic and shutdown of 2020, an extraordinary social experiment unfurling at global scale and astounding speed. By June, 42 percent of the American workforce was working from home. The benefits of the new normal became readily apparent—no commutes! comfy sweatpants!—and many relished the slowdown in the relentless pace of 21st-century life. As Toffler predicted, America’s remote-working classes became simultaneously placeless and newly rooted in place, their mental maps shrinking to a few neighborhood blocks, the local grocery, the nearby park.
Yet Toffler’s optimistic, communitarian forecast failed to perceive how this new electronic reality would exact a toll on mental and financial health; split open new fault lines of class, gender, and race; and accelerate a long-brewing social reckoning. Schools and child-care facilities shuttered, leaving working parents, especially mothers, struggling to balance professional and domestic duties. Some had to cut back work hours; others quit their jobs altogether.
Seven months into the pandemic, the US employment statistics reflected the sharp inequalities of COVID’s economic toll, with job losses falling disproportionately on women and people of color.
Many such losses were among those who could not stay home in the first place, on whose labor in grocery stores and Amazon warehouses and meatpacking plants all the comforts of the electronic cottage were dependent.
There already has been a great deal of speculation about the lasting effects of this information-overloaded digital year on work, schooling, and the public realm. As retailers shutter and major corporations announce they will keep workers home for good, it is clear the pandemic has already changed some things permanently. But looking backward to the roots of remote work is equally important. It turns out that these systems were never really designed to benefit the groups that could gain the most from them: working mothers, caretakers, and their children, especially those without easy access to new technology.
Perhaps the lesson to take from this year of living online is not just about making better, more humane work-and-learn-from-anywhere technology. It is about recognizing technology’s limits.
By moving out of the office, workers lost many of the rituals and regulations that protected them from overwork and exploitation.
Like many of Toffler’s ideas, the “electronic cottage” combined ahistorical grandiosity with canny insight into emerging technological and demographic trends. By the early 1980s, a growing number of mothers of young children had entered America’s waged workforce and, thanks to woefully inadequate child-care infrastructure, were struggling to balance work and family life. One job they could do from home? Code.
As the personal-computer market boomed, some employers hungry for talented programmers used telecommuting as way to recruit women back into the waged workforce. “I want to spend as much time as possible with my child and not having to commute gives me extra time,” one mother and part-time programmer told the New York Times in 1985. Work-from-home life offered flexibility and job fulfillment even for those without children. “I have the kind of personality that likes to make my own schedule,” one unmarried female programmer told the Times. She arranged to spend three days a week in the office and two at home.
But both the women and the men who became telecommuting’s early adopters quickly saw the tradeoffs. By moving out of the office, workers lost many of the rituals and regulations that protected them from overwork and exploitation. “Whenever I’m awake,” one telecommuting engineer admitted to a Washington Post reporter in 1980, “I’m working.” Labor unions were so concerned about remote workers’ susceptibility to employer surveillance and isolation that the AFL-CIO issued a resolution opposing “computer homework” in 1983.
The commercialization of the internet in the 1990s set off another wave of ebullient predictions about the work-from-home future, with little attention paid to addressing those early concerns about its impact on workers’ well-being. Thus, even as work-from-anywhere information-technology jobs increased, the actual percentage of telecommuters remained vanishingly low. One 1994 survey of companies that allowed remote work found that less than 1 percent of employees took advantage of it. The chief obstacle was managerial resistance. “Managers won’t give up control,” one researcher noted. “They still can’t trust that employees are working when they aren’t present.”
Stubborn insistence on face time helped explain why, even at the apex of the dot-com boom in 1999, a mere 7 percent of the American workforce worked remotely. What’s more, 1990s telecommuters often were not working from home. Instead, they flocked to satellite offices built to shorten commutes in traffic-choked regions like Los Angeles and Washington, DC. Grand predictions that the average knowledge worker would soon retreat to an internet-enabled cabin in the woods never came to pass.
The case of the tech industry is particularly revealing. Even as dot-com-era leaders steadfastly preached the gospel that computer hardware and software would upend the way the world worked, played, and communicated, they too remained firmly committed to the office. Skyrocketing real-estate prices in 1990s Silicon Valley and Seattle reflected that even the builders of this miraculous new online infrastructure believed it was far better to work face-to-face.
This intensified after 2000. Instead of dispatching workers to self-directed lives in their electronic cottages, internet-age Silicon Valley traded in drab office spaces for far-grander facilities designed to make workplaces compelling playgrounds that met employees’ every need. Google, founded by two Stanford graduate students, built an elaborate Silicon Valley headquarters that was a fantasy version of a richly endowed college campus, drenched with amenities like free food in the cafeteria, climbing walls, and massage rooms.
As CEO of Apple and Pixar, Steve Jobs helped popularize the gospel of innovation-by-serendipitous-encounter, facilitated by offices with open layouts and spots for impromptu connection. The perks that tech companies loaded into these campuses reflected the kind of employee they wanted to recruit and retain: young, unattached, able to put work first at any cost. Apple’s new corporate headquarters, opened in 2017, featured custom-designed ergonomic desk chairs and a two-story yoga room. Missing from the $5 billion facility: a child-care center.
Even firms that once embraced telecommuting pulled back from it. IBM had made a big remote-work push at the start of the “electronic cottage” era, but slumping stock prices and employee attrition helped prompt a reversal in policy. In a preview of what many would experience in 2020, IBM found that remote work made it difficult to build strong teams and mentor junior employees. Workers could easily be lured away by superstar tech companies with glitzy campuses where they could, as Amazon’s employee motto put it, “work hard, have fun, make history.” By the mid-2010s, Big Blue had joined the rush to build perk-filled offices in what one executive termed “really creative and inspiring locations.”
Soon after Marissa Mayer, a longtime Googler, became CEO of Yahoo! in 2012, she banned remote work altogether. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” the company’s human-resources director said at the time. Many employees found Mayer’s move particularly distressing because the CEO was the mother of young children. They had hoped she would be more sympathetic to the pressures working mothers faced.
Discouragement of telecommuting su
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