The digital hermitage: how “remote work” has changed over 20 years


As we look back on the past 20 years of Ars Technica from our “orbiting HQ,” one of the things we’ve gotten to witness firsthand is how the nature of working from home has changed. Today, everyone at Ars works from home—and actually, that’s how things have been since the very first post on the site’s forums

These days many people work from home in some way, whether they want to or not. Smartphones and perpetual connectivity have pushed work life into our home lives, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. (Thanks, Slack.) But when you work from home full-time, as I have for most of my adult life, it completely redefines the notion of work-life balance. 

While I can’t and won’t speak for all of the Ars staff, I admit that it would be extremely difficult for me to return to working in a traditional office at this point. Though I’ve only been with Ars for the past seven years, I’ve been working from home in one form or another since 1990 (as a freelancer and side-gig tech consultant) and full-time since 1994. I have been through each stage of Internet connectivity, from dial-up to ISDN to DSL to cable broadband, and have the battle scars to prove it. 

You could say my service as a Navy officer prepared me for working from home, since I lived at work. And after the Navy, I did work in bursts from home and had occasional “telecommutes” via dial-up Internet service. But my real adventure in home-based, Internet-enabled employment really began in 1994. That’s when I found myself with two very young kids to parent on my own and a mind-numbing daily commute to DC. When I was offered a job as a technology editor at InformationWeek, a weekly tech news magazine, my new boss, Julie Anderson, told me that she wanted me to work from home—because of the limited office space available at the National Press Building in Washington. The problem was, she wanted me to build out an enterprise review lab, and I was living in a basement two-bedroom apartment at the time (a place that my family now refers to as “The Pit”). 

Working from home under these conditions did not exactly help my social life. Fortunately, in the pre-Internet dating days, I found my future wife with a personal ad in the Baltimore City Paper (pour one out for the late, great weekly alterna-paper). A persistent Internet connection allowed me to impress her early on by finding a banana-bread recipe with Alta Vista. And as our relationship accelerated rapidly, we moved into a row house. The InformationWeek lab suddenly moved from a basement apartment’s living room to a basement (at least when that was not also living space). This arrangement also led to some adventures in infrastructure management, but fortunately InformationWeek paid for part of my electric bill. 

Of course, in retrospect, this arrangement made it impossible for me to ever take a full-time job where I had to physically show up somewhere other than across the hall from my bedroom every day forever. Every job I have held since then has had to accommodate me working from home in Baltimore a majority of the time. That has not always been an easy path. 

Pioneering “broadband” 

Network bandwidth—be it a private connection back to the corporate HQ or an Internet connection—has always been the throttling factor on work-from-home connectivity. Early on, when I was using Quark to drop articles onto the layout for a print magazine every week on a Mac PowerBook Duo over a 14.4 modem connection, I got a lot of coffee breaks. Switching to a dual ISDN connection made things a little simpler, and thankfully I wasn’t paying for those ISDN lines. When Bell Atlantic deigned to provide me with them, it did so with all the enthusiasm a regional Bell operating company could muster for something out of the ordinary for residential customers (which would be slightly above none). 

Soon, along came the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and my friend (and Internet service provider) David Troy leaped into the Competitive Local Exchange Carrier (CLEC) business—and into Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL) through a partnership with Covad. With the prospect of a 1.1 megabit Internet connection at a fraction of what it was costing for ISDN, I was one of the first people in Baltimore to sign up for Symmetric DSL (SDSL). 

Sadly, my story on InformationWeek about the experience (which I mentioned in an Ars 15-year retrospective) is now a dead link. (Update: it’s here on Internet Archive.) But let’s just say it was not as advertised. At one point, I had a Covad van and a Bell Atlantic van in the alley behind my house with technicians from both companies arguing about who was responsible for my DSL not working. 

Fortunately, my job at InformationWeek did not require perpetual connectivity. We had email, phone, and weekly deadlines. Once a week, I had to do a big file push of Quark CopyDesk files. But when I became managing editor of InformationWeek Labs in 1998, things got more interesting: my entire team was remote, and I was coordinating multiple deadlines. 

Being present 

AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) came along at the right time to help by providing a way to quickly communicate interactively. And after a bit more DSL hell, cable broadband arrived in Baltimore just as the CLEC business was beginning to collapse. Broadband finally gave me enough bandwidth to support remote testing from my lab. As unreliable as it initially was, Comcast’s Internet service provided a way to maintain a full-time digital presence and not just the kind provided by an AIM status message. 

But being that there wasn’t a Slack or a Google Docs or even a Microsoft SharePoint at that point in history, I needed more than what AIM had to offer. After taking a new job at Fawcette Technical Publications in Palo Alto (running three developer magazines), I was turned on to Ray Ozzie’s Groove. That bit of software made it possible to synchronize files and other parts of our workflow across the Internet without servers.  

A sample AIM Buddy List. The yellow sticky notes indicate away messages. To see profiles, you had to click on each screen name one by one. 

Groove was, in part, an extension of the concept of “presence,” a shorthand term for the activity-tracking capabilities born from instant messaging services. Before SMS messaging became affordable and widely adopted—and before the introduction of iMessage and Google Hangouts—IM clients went a long way toward making remote work easier. These programs allowed real-time communications in a less-formal way than email. While Ars adopted group communications over Internet Relay Chat (IRC)early on, other organizations were coping with employees using unofficial channels like AOL and Yahoo’s instant messenger services and Jabber (XMPP) based servers. 

Instant messaging and Groove did a lot to help me keep my team in Palo Alto coordinated and comfortable with my geographic remoteness, and they made it possible for me to add other remote staffers to the organization. But those programs didn’t help deal with company leadership’s desire to have me there once a month for a week at a time. 

Saving the day remotely 

I began running a personal blog in 1998, at first using Radio UserLand from Dave Winer’s UserLand Software, then moving to Rael Dornfest’s Blosxom, running on a host on Dave Troy’s ToadNet. But as the CLEC business began to collapse and Dave sold his business, WordPress arrived on the scene in 2003, and I shifted to a shared host account that supported PHP, Perl, and other scripting languages. The hours I spent crafting my personal pages would pay off for my next employer, Ziff Davis Enterprise, in unexpected ways: I found myself suddenly managing several websites for Ziff publications after a lateral move from a print magazine. 

Ziff had a handful of remote people at the time, and I spent a few days a month in Ziff’s East 28th St. office in New York for meetings and general confidence-building with management. But then someone did a smash-and-grab on Ziff’s Cisco router at the Verizon co-location facility linking Ziff’s main office to the company’s remote data center and the Internet. Not only did that sever corporate VPN access and email for everyone, it severed access to the content management system for everyone who wasn’t an employee in the San Francisco office. We all had to fall back to personal email accounts and instant messaging accounts to communicate. I set up a login-protected Wiki on my personal hosting account, sent everyone credentials, and created a Wiki-based workflow to keep us up and running until Cisco could deliver a replacement router. 

My editorial director was so thrilled with what I had done that he asked me to write up a story on how we had survived the outage. But the CIO and corporate counsel yanked the story off the site—they said it showed Ziff wasn’t Sarbanes-Oxley compliant. 

Still, working remotely saved the day in other ways. When Ziff’s eWeek Labs team launched a blog of its own on WordPress (without advertising tags) and set off a political firestorm within the company, I spent the long Thanksgiving weekend figuring out how to build out its blog in the corporate-approved, blogging platform (Community Server) with advertising codes embedded. Working from home meant that I never technically left work, after all. 

The hazards of the electronic commute 

Over the past 20 years, companies in general have become more accepting of remote work, usually for financial reasons. Not having to provide a desk, phone line, and other resources consumed by an office-based employee (and in many cases, not providing other benefits by opting to hire remote workers as contractors) is as much of an appeal to some companies as being able to find talent without geographic restrictions. 

 While InformationWeek paid for my connectivity early on, no employer since has paid for my Internet connection; only a few have even paid for my phone line. Corporate IT support has seldom known how to deal with me. 

Sometimes, working from home can be a shield against bad corporate culture. Other times, it just magnifies issues. I realized that my long tenure at Ziff had been possible because I had “managed up” effectively and because the company already had to deal with people working at multiple offices. But at smaller organizations with a single office, getting people to change their collaborative ways was more of a challenge. It was easier when I took a position as a contractor, because the relationship was better defined. But even then, not having a real sense of the office politics going on out of view left me unprepared for sudden shifts I might have detected if I was in the office more than a day a week. 

Ars was born as a virtual organization, but its evolution into a fully distributed workplace took a while. When I joined in 2011, the “office” consisted of an IRC channel, Exchange email and a SIP phone line hosted by service providers, a staff Wiki, and a collection of bolted-together Web applications. There were a dozen or so of us at the time, and we could all fit comfortably into a conference room in Chicago if we needed to get together for a meeting. 

Since then, the basics have changed a little, but the “office” has changed substantially: Slack instead of IRC, Google Docs instead of Groove, our beautiful custom CMS (thanks, IT) instead of anything Microsoft .net-based. Ironically, these same tools are now powering much of traditional office collaboration, but they’ve also made remote work much easier. But if Slack and Google ever go down in 2019 and beyond, know that I remain ready to roll out my Wiki and an IRC server just in case. 

#remote_work #telecommuting


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