As a result of coronavirus-induced lockdowns, the way we work has changed dramatically in 2020. Plenty of employees and businesses are now talking seriously about remote working and whether it represents a viable path forward for reimagining employment.
It turns out that Steve Jobs was talking about this exact topic 30 years ago. No, Jobs didn’t foresee COVID-19. But an old interview clips unearthed by journalist Jon Erlichman shares Jobs’ thoughts on the way technology can transform the way that you and I work.
Check it out.
Steve Jobs in 1990 on working remotely:
“We’re finding we can reorganize our companies electronically very rapidly and that’s the only type of organization that can begin to keep pace with the changing business conditions.”pic.twitter.com/nChrHgvlyc
— Jon Erlichman (@JonErlichman) July 8, 2020
Jobs talks remote working:
The clip comes from a 1990 interview with Jobs that’s available to watch in full here. It was from a WGBH show called The Machine That Changed the World. Jobs’ comments in the above clip are as follows:
“As an example, in an organization, we’re starting to see that as business conditions change faster and faster with each year, we cannot change our management hierarchical organization very fast, relative to the changing business conditions. We can’t have somebody working for a new boss every week. We also can’t change our geographic organization very fast. As a matter of fact even slower than the management one. We can’t be moving people around the country every week. But we can change an electronic organization like that.
And what’s starting to happen is as we start to link these computers together with sophisticated networks and great user interfaces, we’re starting to be able to create clusters of people working on a common task in a– literally in fifteen minutes worth of setup. These fifteen people can work together extremely efficiently no matter where they are geographically. And no matter who they work for hierarchically. these organizations can live for as long as they’re needed and then vanish. And we’re finding we can reorganize our companies electronically very rapidly.”
Common sense today. Not so much in 1990
Jobs’ insight isn’t especially remarkable more than a quarter century on. But it certainly was remarkable at the time that he said it. Networks of computers had been around for some time, but they were far less widespread than today’s ultra-connected networks. In 1990, only 0.5% of the world’s population was online.
What Jobs was predicting was the transformative effects these technologies would have on the workplace. To this day, there are people that I’ve written for and worked with for years whom I’ve never met. Tools like Slack and collaborative document tools have reshaped the workplace. Not everyone currently works remotely, but that seems to be the way things are shifting. This has the potential to fundamentally change not just how jobs are carried out, but also the way we think about and organize geographies.
Coronavirus may have speeded-up the urgency of remote working. But a lot of that infrastructure was already in place thanks to the kind of thinking Jobs helped lay out.
Remote working — and its downsides
Ironically, it’s also a bit of Steve Jobs wisdom that means that Apple today is one of the companies that doesn’t embrace remote working more than it has to. Former Disney president and Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull has recalled how, “Steve was a big believer in the power of accidental mingling; he knew that creativity was not a solitary endeavor.” This idea led to the creation of the enormous Apple Park headquarters, which can support up to 13,000 Apple employees.
While Apple employees worked from home during the worst of the coronavirus, Apple was eager to get people back to the office as soon as possible. By contrast, many other tech companies have said they plan to do more remote working in the future.
But in a recent Bloomberg article, journalist Mark Gurman noted that: “Apple has long prioritized in-person meetings and hands-on product development, and its central business is hardware, which is less conducive to off-site work.”