4 min read

The last time everyone was working from home

Sydney last attempted city-wide working from home in 2000 when it hosted the Olympics.

In those days people called it teleworking or telecommuting.

Auckland had a go in 1998 when the CBD power was out.

The Sydney Olympics ran for two weeks. Buffer zones around that time meant employees could have been out of the city centre for up to four weeks.

In Auckland the CBD power was off for five weeks. People set up office desks and equipment in suburban garages and other spaces.

Something similar happened in Christchurch after the 2011 earthquake. The need to work from home was more open-ended.

Temporary working from home

In each case companies saw the need to work from home as temporary.

During each of these events, there was discussion about whether working from home could become permanent. We’ll come back to this point in a moment.

The key difference between the two New Zealand events and Sydney is that people in that city had time to plan and prepare.

Up to a point the earlier New Zealand working from home events gave an early foretaste of 2020 lockdowns. Managers, technology professionals and workers improvised and reacted overnight to changed circumstances.

Planning for working from home made things easier. Yet preparations started as Australian technology professionals were grappling with Y2K and getting ready for the introduction of GST.

Not the first time

Teleworking was not new in 2020, nor was it new in 2000 or 1998.

Los Angeles had various attempts to encourage teleworking. The ’84 Olympics, ’89 and ’94 earthquakes saw the US federal government-lead programmes to help people work from home.

Let’s put aside the Christchurch experience for one moment. All the other attempts at teleworking were low-tech by modern standards.

The internet wasn’t in widespread use before the mid-1990s. There were ways to log-on to company computers that involved low-speed acoustic modems. If you were lucky and clued up you could use pre-internet services like Compuserve.

Data speeds were slow. It was easy to send text files, word processor documents or spreadsheets. Video wasn’t possible and even transmitting a photograph could be a lengthy process that might take many tries.

Landlines and fax machines

People had landline phones and fax machines. That was enough for a lot of office work. You had to keep your wits about you and be understanding of the limitations.

It wasn’t unusual for people to drive across town with floppy discs or external hard drives. If you didn’t have time, couriers could do this for you

Despite the restrictions, a lot of people felt comfortable working from home. It looked and felt like this could be something that might catch on.

In a limited sense it did. Privileged managers and professionals needing to focus away from the office would take complex jobs home. Report writing, editing and serious number crunching was suitable candidates.

A few managed to build teleworking into their lives. Technology companies encouraged the idea.

Working from home technology

One thing that we can overlook as we cast our minds back is the technology needed for teleworking improved at a steady clip. Dial modems got faster and faster. The internet arrived bringing email. Then we got Gmail and other basic cloud services.

By the early 2000s dial-up internet was giving way to early ADSL. People began talking about broadband. Scanners replaced faxes. It became practical to send or receive photographs: low resolution and first, then higher and higher.

Applications appeared making it easier for people to work and collaborate from home.

The main reason for encouraging teleworking during the Sydney Olympics was to keep commuters off the roads and rail networks. Both were stretched to the limits with a special, non-commuter railway timetable.

As the games started and commerce ticked on without a glitch, there was optimism that telecommuting was here to stay.

Back to normal

The first days after the games ended, it looked as if that might happen. The roads remained clear and rail passenger numbers remained low.

Yet two weeks after the games finished, traffic was back to normal levels. If a section of society continued to telecommute at all, the numbers were less than a rounding error.

In the wash-up, journalists and researchers investigated what happened. Why didn’t something that seemed to be such a good idea get dropped?

The problem was not the technology. That coped well despite the limitations. Nor was it the workers. Many were happy to continue working from home at least for part of the week.

Sydney’s switch to telecommuting was temporary. Managers hated not being able to look out over their open plan offices and see rows of workers beavering away. Never mind, they were more productive working from home. Bosses hated the idea they were not in control.

This time things are different. At least for now. Workers have proved they can be productive at home. The technology is better and dysfunctional controlling bosses have all kinds of dystopian tools in their armoury to check up on remote worker performance.

Insecure managers

It’s going to be harder for insecure managers to insist on a full return to the office when the pandemic is no longer an issue. Harder, but not impossible.

There are roles where people have to be on site. That is not everyone.

Yet that’s where things are really different this time. A sizable slice of workers relish the idea of returning to the office. Another sizable slice doesn’t want to, and, in many cases, have decided they don’t have to.

If their employer gives them no choice in the matter, they can always find another one who does. This is especially true of people with in-demand skills.

The race to attract talent has never been tougher that today. Any insecure boss who refuses to embrace teleworking is going to struggle to find compliant minions to order about.