Illustration by Olenka Malarecka

Shifting dimensions

It took 100 years, but work just broke free of the assembly line


Published on November 09, 2020

The truth is, people used to work 16-hour days.

It’s simple, and even comforting, to think of our modern working experience as The Way It’s Always Been — and on a micro level, that’s been the case for quite some time now. We can enjoy period pieces like Mad Men or even classic works of literature like A Christmas Carol and recognize the basic shape of our lives today: people working in offices during the day and heading home for dinner.

But our modern offices, and indeed our modern workweeks, didn’t spring from the heart of society, fully-formed. We’re simply at the latest evolutionary step in the history between workers and their jobs. So, yes. In the days of the First Industrial Revolution, workers were subjected to, among other things: 10-16 hour workdays, no real weekends, and outright child labor. 

Through collective action, workers fought for humane work schedules and fair wages to give us the shape of jobs we now see. And even though many aspects of life during the Industrial Revolution would be absolutely foreign to us today, it’s strange how many things still remain intact. The 5-day, 40-hour workweek, first adopted by Henry Ford in 1913 for use in his assembly lines, is still alive and well even though the majority of American jobs (80.3% as of 2019) don’t involve the use of assembly lines and factories. 

Despite exponential gains in worker productivity; despite the fact that technological leaps have automated entire industries and allowed many others to be conducted flawlessly from anywhere on Earth; despite the fact that pre-COVID open-plan offices were hugely detrimental to worker productivity and happiness, our workplaces have remained largely unchanged from 1820 to 2020—a physical space where workers can be observed and “managed” by senior company members and owners. Factory foremen became office managers, and while the world went through massive change, office life refused to transform in kind.

Until now.

From fringe to familiar

Even in late 2019, the idea of distributed work was commonly held in the same regard as unlimited vacation days and four-day workweeks. It was written off as something too ambitious and novel to be adopted by anything but the most forward-thinking tech startups or the occasional European country. The American office system was firmly entrenched in the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of thought. But the COVID pandemic cracked everything open, and distributed work became the logical fix. More than that, it went mainstream.

Plenty of experts and thought leaders have spilled digital ink about what this forced migration towards distributed work means—whether it’s temporary or long-term, whether it will transform the landscape of major cities, small towns, or both, or neither. Much of it is speculation or wishful thinking from industries with a vested interest in our in-person lives returning to 2019 levels of operation. (Looking at you, cruise lines.)

We all love a good hunch or hot take, but meaningful estimations of the future need to be based on some form of data. Massive sea changes like this don’t become permanent through any one factor; for something to become a part of people’s lives, most need to voluntarily choose or accept it. A new study by the Economist Intelligence Unit (commissioned by Dropbox) asks newly-remote American workers: How is distributed work going for you?

No strings attached

It’s impossible to overstate just how rare distributed work was pre-COVID. While 75.8% of the study’s respondents said they began using distributed teams when the pandemic broke out, only 29.9% had done it beforehand (and even then, only “sometimes”). So the first takeaway is that we have never seen more people trying out DW in modern history. The second takeaway is that we have also never had a larger body of solid proof that teams can pivot to DW in a relatively short period of time without the world imploding. We’ve cut the umbilical cord of office-based work, and we’re doing just fine as a whole.

Our workplaces have remained largely unchanged since 1820—a physical space where workers can be observed and “managed” by senior company members and owners. 

That being said, it’s clearly early days as a whole, especially when it comes to finding the sweet spot with focus and productivity. While 36% of respondents said they found it easier to focus at home, 28% preferred focusing in an office setting. It’s not just about focus, either; the most-cited barrier (24%) to effective DW was the feeling of being disconnected from their colleagues. As a whole, 57% of respondents agreed that the positives of DW outweighed the negatives. But that level of satisfaction can be tied to how much freedom a worker has to shape their own days.

The biggest immediate advantage of DW is the freedom to change your work environment on-the-fly to suit your needs. The freedom to take regular self-directed breaks, tidy up a workspace, block out dedicated blocks of uninterrupted time for tasks, or put on noise-cancelling headphones were cited as the most common ways respondents were making their work days work for them. The ability to do this is notably different depending on what generation you’re talking about. So let’s talk about it.

Generational shifts

Unless your home has a purpose-built mini-office, it probably wasn’t ready for the scope of COVID-era distributed work. No matter how optimized your setup might be, our jobs are still perpetually unplanned-for guests in our living spaces. If that space also has to serve as a daycare/school/nursery/pet kennel, then the challenges only increase exponentially.

In fact, The Economist’s study found the most-cited barriers to productivity in remote work were a mix of home-life distractions and a lack of a dedicated work environment. Navigating the boundaries between work and life was the biggest challenge for Gen Z and Millennial respondents, while attending to a job and a child at the same time was hardest for parents of children under the age of 18.

Anecdotally, this all makes sense. Younger generations have a more woven relationship between their social lives and the internet, so for many logging onto their computer for the day is akin to trying to fill out spreadsheets at a (pre-COVID) bar during happy hour. They’re by no means great at it, but they’re veterans at the struggle. And parenting is a full-time job, as is educating; parents of young children who are learning remotely essentially have to fold three jobs over each day and hope for the best. And those three jobs are even more challenging without the right tools. 

One particularly eye-catching statistic showed that a majority of respondents said their primary method of inter-team communication was email alone, with video calls coming in second place. Anyone who has been CC’d into the middle of a 50-email thread with dozens of respondents can understand how much lost time (and sheer frustration) that represents.

One size doesn’t fit all

If you’re a parent to a school-aged child, you also know this goes without saying, but: Teaching is very hard. Keeping the attention and productivity of a room full of children is a challenge on the best of days, but engaging 8-year-olds in front of laptop screens borders on cruel. Yet this is exactly what is asked of millions of workers in the Education and Training field. Unsurprisingly, 40% of them found the transition to distributed work to be difficult, compared to the average of 25%.

Certain jobs, and indeed entire industries (such as Agriculture and Hospitality), cannot embrace distributed work in part or in full. Other industries could transition to distributed work more easily, but find themselves tied to a physical location and its sense of identity. When asked about the possibility of his workers leaving Silicon Valley en masse, Google CEO Sundar Pichai was supportive of the company transitioning to DW—over the next decade. Even tech giants are reluctant to let go of what we all had so recently, which leads to our biggest problem.

The final hurdle keeping workers from creating a distributed work situation that fits their needs: a lack of imagination on the part of employers.

Compared to what we were all doing just a year ago in late 2019, the number of jobs that can make the change is much higher than we dared to imagine. And ironically, that’s the true and final hurdle keeping so many workers from being able to create a distributed work situation that fits their needs: a lack of imagination on the part of employers themselves.

Pass it on

Industrial Revolution-era assembly lines essentially brought a worker’s task to them, usually via lanes of rollers or a conveyor belt. Each worker had a specialized task that they would perform on an object before sending it down the belt to the next worker with their own unique task. Pre-COVID offices often had the centralized physical space and job hierarchy of an assembly line, but they had none of the efficiency.

Then COVID happened, and that machine broke down. Jobs that revolved on workers collaborating in quick, unscheduled meetings can now be slowed down to a crawl if the right parties aren’t available for a video chat. The full-coverage productivity of an office can be difficult, if not impossible, to recreate at home for a dedicated 9-5 work day. We can’t take our workplaces home with us; literally and figuratively, they can’t fit.

Instead, the future of work could look a lot more flexible and purpose-built, almost like an assembly line, with the internet itself acting as our conveyor belt. Imagine your team seen not as a group spread thin by distance work, but as individual dots to be connected in order. With this new lens, digital communication becomes about getting information tools to the next person down the line. If we’re not expected to interact with an entire office as we try to recreate our old in-person social roles, those expectations can turn into specific tasks and roles.

Rather than leaning on the messy-and-questionably-productive scrum of meetings, a distributed workplace could adopt a signpost mentality when it comes to tasks and productivity. Instead of navigating your entire company’s social sphere to get the info you need to finish a task, your job could just be to complete your work and then provide context for the person who will grab the baton from your hand going forward. Think of it like trading our highly interdependent workflow for a more individually liberating, self-serve model. Or ideally, something even more exciting. Using the language of industrial-era labor to describe a future that surpasses it entirely is a great example of how limited our imaginations have become. It’s heartening to know we’ve never been closer to new ideas, attitudes, and ways to describe them both.

Learning from the history of work can help us move beyond the harmful and obsolete. Our top-down, factory-style approach to working is a setup that predates the invention of the lightbulb. We’re long overdue for an upgrade. This year has finally given us real data and insight into what widespread distributed work looks like, and from that we can finally push past the status quo. If we can embrace work that’s flexible enough to exist outside the office while protecting those who can’t make the digital jump yet, we can ensure the Distributed Work Revolution doesn’t wind up as a historical footnote.