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  • Writer's pictureJudy C. Arnold

A 20-year-old 2020 Prediction...

Was it on target?

While attempting to declutter my home office recently, I uncovered a Collector’s Edition of Working Mother magazine—from June 1999! The lead story was, “How Working Moms Have Changed the Workplace 2020: Sneak Peek at Your Future,” by Susan Paynter.

Did the article predict that we would be living like the Jetsons? Relying on robots, using holograms, living on sky pads, driving aero cars and working just 2 days/week? Not quite.

But I was fascinated and amazed at the projected vision. And…spoiler alert…the article was predominantly accurate with its predictions regarding the ‘future’ work environments, technology and blending of work-life schedules and offices.

Personally, as a working mother of two daughters in the 90s, work-life balance wasn’t easy. At that time, you had to be in the office to be productive. Computers were bulky and sat on our desks and email was just starting to be adopted by organizations. To do work at home required carrying boxes of files and papers to your house. Plus, most of my career, I lived in suburbia and commuted via train or metro into a city. That limited how much you could carry and the hours you had left in your day to work after the commute. I was fortunate, however, that our family solution allowed for my husband to be a stay-at-home dad for 10 years. (That’s a story for another time.)

Today, of course, there are individuals who have full-time remote jobs and many others have flexible schedules—working a few days in the office and a few days at home. Plus, the growth of corporate child-care centers, and day cares in most neighborhoods, allow children to socialize and learn in a safe place while both parents can work. This makes juggling the everyday kid activities and other parenthood responsibilities a bit easier for both spouses.

We’ve come a long way. But it certainly didn’t happen overnight.

The Changing Office Space

According to the article’s projections, working from home or remotely would be commonplace. Big office buildings with stuffy conference rooms would be transformed to more collaborative, open and creative spaces with less offices. They would become ‘touch-down’ places you reserve instead of an office or desk that you ‘move into’ and a key site for socializing and forming business relationships.

Sure enough, today, many companies are moving away from personal desks and closed-off offices in favor of large, open areas with unassigned seating where people can more easily collaborate. These types of changes have also provided cost savings by converting assigned work spaces into shared desks and storage. #Ricoh is one example of a company that digitally transformed its facilities in 2017 with collaboration and productivity solutions. Workers were assigned a locker and a laptop and now sit at different available desks throughout the building when going into the office.

Where traditional office buildings do exist, it was predicted that spaces would become more individualized. The article envisioned a “sophisticated microchip application allowing an employee to flick a switch and alter wall colors and room temperature to fit changing moods.” Today, that has not yet materialized, and typical office personalization remains framed prints on desks or computer screens displaying family pictures and pets.

The evolution to remote work was right on target. Based on the Working Mother article from 1999, “Between 1990 and 1998, telecommuting doubled from about 3-6% of the working population—or about 8.2 million people…Twenty years from now, as many as 25 million Americans—nearly 20% of the workforce—will stretch the boundaries between home and work…” According to the current U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 26 million Americans—about 16% of the total workforce—now work remotely at least part of the time.

The article also forecasted that working from home was likely to shift the socialization for employees. It was predicted that many would flock to satellite, neighborhood work centers to expand their virtual community with interpersonal interactions. You might consider todays’ privately owned local coffee shops, #Starbucks and establishments like the #CapitalOneCafé, as filling those current needs for entrepreneurs, consultants and other remote workers, although they are not truly work centers devoted to business.

Beyond remote work options tied to a corporate office, another concept presented by the publication was that companies would share space. And, in fact, “coworking” began in 2005. As of 2019, there were dozens of major coworking space companies around the world, with large firms like Impact Hub, WeWork and Industrious dominating the global market.

Child-care Shifts

A companion article in the issue, “Profiles in Power,” by Anne Cassidy, outlined how the changing nature of work impacted child-care. In the 60s, when 27% of mothers were working, child-care centers were scarce. Most children were cared for by sitters or relatives. In the 70s, 39.7% of moms worked and 38% relied on child-care centers or home-based child-care. By the 80s, the percent of working mothers rose to 54% and 25% used child-care centers while 22% used family child-care services in homes. With the percent of working mothers reaching over 70% as of 1998, 47% were able to rely on options including on-site corporate or community care centers, child-care chains or family care.

Additional, recent research indicated that the demand for child-care facilities has dramatically increased over the last several decades from over 262,000 facilities in 1987 to more than 766,000 childcare centers in 2007 (US Census Bureau). In 2006 and 2007, child-care centers thrived as more families had two working parents and greater disposable income. However, the recession caused revenue drops and unemployment leaving parents less money to pay for child-care. Most recent statistics (December 2019) indicate a declining trend for the daycare industry with approximately 670,504 childcare businesses.

Paytner’s article (Working Mother, 1999) also noted that thousands of companies were offering on-site child-care in the late 90s, up from a handful in the early 1980s, and that employers would continue to find innovative ways to help workers with child-care. She predicted more options for part-time work and nontraditional hours. While the prediction that organizations would offer increased flexibility and part-time work options materialized, based on a survey from 2016, only about 7% of employers currently offer on-site or near-site child-care.

Tech Over Time

At the time the Working Mother article was published, wireless computers and seamless communication systems were already in the works. These innovations were predicted to enable remote working and global interactions, also anticipating a video phone to follow.

Looking back at the historical development of technology over time, the manual, then electric, typewriters were the primary office tools of the 60s and 70s, while the 80s brought fax machines and computers with word processors to workers’ desks. By 1999 Wi-Fi became part of computing language and users began connecting to the internet without wires. The evolution of more compact laptops, the invention of Apple’s iPhone in 2007 and the iPad three years later, made working anywhere, on any device, possible and the norm today.

In the article, email was projected to be replaced with ‘see-mail,’ a form of video messaging. In reality, the first video chat service first appeared in 2003 and Skype began offering online video chat in 2005. The popular Whatsapp instant messaging network allowed users to instantly send messages and make voice and video calls in 2009 and Apple launched FaceTime in conjunction with the iPhone4 the following year. While #Skype and #Zoom video conferencing, and FaceTime calls on smart phones, are commonplace in 2020, the pinging of email and overflowing digital inboxes has not gone away.

The Balancing Act

The Working Mother article (1999) wrapped up on the ageless topic of ‘work-life balance.’ “At the heart of all of these changes is the fact that we have finally begun to separate the idea of work from the place where we do it. And that will make blending work and family a lot easier for many people.”

According to a recent Forbes article, “the idea that employees should strike a delicate balance between their work life and their personal life is on the out.” Instead, today, especially for the Millennial and Generation Z employees, the new buzzword is ‘integration.’ “They want to be empowered to live a complete, meaningful, integrated life.”

Today, as I reflect on the past 20 years and all that has changed in the workplace, and for working mothers, I’m amazed at the technological advances and cultural changes that have transpired. And, I’m impressed with Working Mother’s vision.

As I write this article, during a very different “March Madness,” we are experiencing an unprecedented need to prioritize our health—and juggle life and work simultaneously—as the Coronavirus is sweeping the nation. Most of us are self-quarantined in our homes, working remotely while our kids’ classrooms have moved to our households, as well. For many companies, employees and schools, the shift was somewhat seamless thanks to existing technology. For others, unprepared, or where remote work isn’t realistic, the impact could be devastating. I do believe our perspectives will be dramatically altered and hope that the health crisis will inspire innovation and that the positive integration of work and personal lives will become our new normal.

Part 1 in a series

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