A Brief History of Virtual Teams

graphic that says a brief history of virtual teams

You probably think that the concept of virtual teams is relatively new – but you’d only be partly right. Sure, technological advances, the Internet, and the global workforce created conditions for virtual teams to explode in recent years, but they have been around for centuries.

I’ve been spending a lot of time researching and writing about virtual teams for my new book Virtual Teams for Dummies (out July 31, 2018 and available for pre-order now).

Along the way, I discovered the long history of virtual teams. Think of it this way –- basically any team that worked together to accomplish anything from separate locations has operated “virtually.” From the complexity of the Roman Empire to the critical transportation of the Wells Fargo stagecoaches, teams have been geographically dispersed and highly effective for a very long time.

Even the concept of working from home is not new. Historically speaking, home and work were one in the same for most trades. Farmers, bakers, seamstresses, shoemakers, potters, weavers, and blacksmiths have always worked from their homes. It was the Industrial Revolution that pulled many workers out of their homes and into factories. In the early 20th century, widespread electricity and public transportation separated work and home even further by driving workers into offices equipped with telephones, telegraphs, and the typewriter.

Then commuting became expensive. In the 1970s, the OPEC oil crisis and rising fuel costs led Jack Nilles (sometimes called “The Father of Teleworking”) to look for ways to reduce the cost of driving to work. He conducted the first formal tests of telecommuting and coined the term “telecommuting” in his book The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff. Telecommuting grew rapidly from there. In the 1980s, J.C. Penney began hiring home-based call center agents. The Clean Air Act of 1990 led many large businesses to offer telecommuting, and the National Telecommuting Initiative was created in 1996 with the federal government confirming its support for telecommuting.

Throughout the 20th century, new technologies have fueled the rise in telework and virtual teams. It began with surging sales of PCs, followed by cellular phones, voicemail, and of course that whole Internet thing. All of these factors paved the way for the virtual workplace we know today. By the early 21st Century, people who worked at least one day at home per week increased by over 4 million, and today nearly half of working Americans say they spend at least some time working remotely, and all signs indicate virtual work will continue to grow.

Interested in learning more about flexible work and the future of virtual teams? Check out my new book, Virtual Teams for Dummies, to be released July 31, 2018, and available for pre-order now.

Our Virtual Team Effectiveness training program helps teams adapt to new ways of working to maintain productivity, group communication, and engagement.

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