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Why Did It Take a Global Pandemic to Trigger the WFH Revolution?

We had the tools but lacked the imagination

2 min read

One hand handing another hand a folder of papers.
Photo-illustration: Edmon de Haro

One hand handing another hand a folder of papers. Edmon de Haro

I have a friend who lives on a farm and for years had connected to the Internet through a slow and prone-to-fail DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) link. He was okay living without Netflix, but as an attorney, he would have sorely liked to teleconference with clients, particularly after COVID-19 arrived. So he desperately needed a better Internet connection for his rural abode. Starlink, Elon Musk’s new satellite-based broadband service, fit the bill, so he signed up for its public beta test. Imagine how many people will follow in his footsteps when Starlink becomes fully operational.

The pandemic appears to have reversed the migration toward urban centers that has been going on since the start of the Industrial Revolution. People are now fleeing cities like San Francisco while rewriting the rules of office work. After all, why maintain expensive homes in or near a city when you can work from anywhere, via satellite?

The magnitude of the change that many people made over the last year cannot be overemphasized. Within hours of the planet effectively shutting down in mid-March 2020, many information-based businesses resumed operations, more or less unaffected. An entire population of office workers continued to carry out their daily tasks without skipping a beat. That is nothing less than miraculous. How could so many manage so painlessly to achieve this transformation?

Why maintain expensive homes in or near a city when you can work from anywhere, via satellite?

More than three decades ago, I earned my living at Shiva Corporation writing firmware for “dial-up” modems, peripherals that allowed anyone to connect a computer to an office network from anywhere with a telephone line. That and other forms of portable office technology introduced over the years—everything from the Apple II to the latest smartphone—provide people the chance to work from anywhere, even (at least in our imaginations) from underneath a cabana on some tropical beach. The potential always lay within reach, yet most of us were unable to grasp it because work had always been performed under the watchful eye of the boss.

Decades ago, economists predicted that the massive investment in office technologies would lead to sharp increases in productivity. Yet, those gains never appeared. It seems that established business practices undermined those productivity gains, so we saw few benefits from all that gear until those practices changed, as they did very suddenly last year. At that point, the value of those years of investment in work-from-anywhere technologies fully revealed itself.

Had the pandemic come along 30 years ago, the business world truly would have come to a stop as we withdrew into our homes. With very few personal computers around, fewer still with modems, and no Internet services to speak of, we would have struggled to connect with one another via landlines. Home schooling would have been conducted via mimeograph and mail drops. Office work would have been Xeroxed, carted home, and written out in pen.

Over the last generation, office workers have gained powerful tools for boosting productivity, but they hadn’t taken full advantage of them. It was like having a chainsaw available but using only a stone ax—simply because we’d always used one. But now that many of us have found a new way to work, one supported by incredible tools for remote collaboration, our offices and our work habits will never be the same.

This article appears in the June 2021 print issue as “An Overdue Revolution.”

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