Remote Work, Redux
November 11, 2021
This article was published in the November 9, 2021 issue of Current, an online journal of commentary and opinion that provides daily reflection on contemporary culture, politics, and ideas.
The failed promise of the “electronic cottage” speaks across the decades.
In his 1980 book The Third Wave futurist Alvin Toffler’s coined the term “electronic cottage,” shorthand for the work-from-home revolution he believed was emerging. He prophesied that the coming years “could shift literally millions of jobs out of the factories and offices” and send them “right back where they came from originally: the home.”
Toffler’s prediction has finally come true. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1980 7% of Americans worked from home. By 2019 that number had only risen to 8%. But in 2020 COVID-19 caused this stat to balloon to 35%, and the number held at 15% through the summer of 2021. These trends appear even more decisive when looking at knowledge workers. One recent study from Gartner predicts that more than half of all knowledge workers will be working remotely by the end of 2021, up from 27% in 2019.
Why did it take forty years, the internet revolution, and a global pandemic to make the “electronic cottage” a reality? As it turns out, eighties optimism for the cottage fell victim to some of the same forces critics of remote work point to today: a mix of workplace compromises and psychological stresses that make any extended work-from-home experience feel more like an electric chicken coop than a country cottage.
During the 1980s, many work-from-home enthusiasts were, like Toffler, both technologists and social conservatives. They saw the cottage as a means of strengthening the family and returning work relations to their preindustrial status by rooting workers in the home. In the wake of a stagnant economy in the 1970s and growing numbers of women joining the workforce, the electronic cottage offered the promise of, as Toffler put it, a “home-centered society” that could address the “fracture of the family,” which he considered “part of the general crisis of industrialism.”
Toffler’s vision of the future especially caught the attention of two groups: scholars studying the social effects of technology and social conservatives championing a stronger home life. Both groups resonated with the idea that technology could somehow restore social relations that other technologies had ruptured.
Among scholars, the “new homeworking movement” emerged in the 1970s in response to higher energy prices and newly affordable computer technology. Its proponents, led by Jack Nilles of the Center for Futures Research in California, expected remote work to address growing global inequalities. Writing in 1985, Nilles claimed that if just one in seven American commuters transitioned to working from home the U.S. would be able to stop importing foreign oil and decrease pollution to manageable levels. Alternately, evangelical pastor and conservative writer Tim LaHaye cited Toffler in his The Battle for the Family (1982), hoping that the cottage “could eliminate the need for two cars, provide a parent to care for the children at all times, and serve to draw the family together.”
They were both wrong, at least in the short run.
The electronic cottage failed to grow the remote workforce during the 1980s. A 1988 report by Tom Forester declared that the biggest shortfall was that promoters “consistently underestimated the psychological problems of working at home.” While promising a return to preindustrial social harmony, the collapsing of public and private spheres that had been separated over two centuries of industrial life created new social problems. The blurred lines between home and work had little to do with the internet, social media, or millennial angst (all yet to be introduced), and everything to do with a broader social structure not designed for technology-driven, home-based work.
Forester documented a litany of tensions: “relations with the family or spouse; environmental problems such as noise; feelings of loneliness or isolation from colleagues; concern about social status, especially in the neighborhood; fear of failure; fear of poverty and the pressure to produce; workaholism; stress and burnout; hypochondria and computer anxiety.”
In a 1980 Washington Post article on “Life Inside an Electronic Cottage,” a remote worker noted that one of the stresses of working from home was that “You can’t drive away and forget about the work until Monday. You have to resist the magnetic pull.” The same worker, on the other hand, praised other aspects of his new work life. “I commute four steps to work. I sit there and gloat about those fools who are cursing the Beltway.”
In short, the psychological pressures of remote work were well-known and well-documented in the 1980s, and they lead us today to temper our expectations for the long-term sustainability of post-pandemic remote work that is not accompanied by broader considerations of how we as a society organize family, work, and social life. Four particular observations regarding that earlier era seem salient today.
The first is that while the COVID-19 pandemic is an extraordinary event, remote work is not. While 2020’s shift was a rapid response to a deadly virus, work from home is hardly new or unforeseen. Both the promise and the peril of remote work were outlined before the pandemic. We would do well to study this history more fully.
A second insight is that the consequences of remote work will only be measurable years from now. Forester’s obituary for the electronic cottage was written in 1988, with much of the supporting research appearing only after 1984. Forester himself worked from home for a total of seven years; he sensed that he typified the general experience of “an initial honeymoon period of two to three years” before deleterious effects became readily apparent. The 2020s are already seeing a flurry of research on new patterns of remote work, the upshot of which will not be discernible for at least a few years.
Third: Given the continuity of experiences from the 1980s to today, something deeper than the “always online” norm of the twenty-first century is at the base of “computer anxiety.” As one 1980 homeworker observed, “Whenever I’m awake, I’m working.” The problem isn’t the power or connectivity of the computer but rather the work expectations associated with continual access to one.
Last, the story of the electronic cottage is a cautionary tale. It reminds us that work cannot be reimagined as a preindustrial countryside cottage, as if it had no connections to the rest of our society, which is profoundly shaped by industrial and postindustrial impulses. Work may come to resemble the preindustrial restrictions of space but the rest of the world, even in its post-pandemic shape, will not. The fruits of industrialization—public schooling, grocery shopping, motorized travel—are (thankfully) not reverting to preindustrial norms. Modern work has developed in tandem with these and other features of modern society, and a selective idealization of work from home is bound to fall short of sustainability without wider transformations in society.
As we work toward these transformations, remote workers can fruitfully commune with the pioneers of the electronic cottage. They can reject the tendency to blame the internet and its capabilities for the stresses of remote work, and they can look skeptically at proposed technological solutions to these same stresses. They can keep in mind the limitations that accompany living and working in the same space and, where possible, advocate for more fully human approaches to the practice of remote work.
Daniel G. Hummel is an American historian and Director of University Engagement at Upper House, a Christian study center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His work can also be found at www.danielghummel.com.
Image Credit: Thomas Hawk – House of the Future, Disneyland, Anaheim, California/Flickr