Tag Archives: telecommuting history

IBM retreats to 20th century, drops telecommuters

According to the Wall Street Journal of 18 May 2017 [Note: the referenced article has a paywall], IBM has decided to call in all its telecommuters. The option given to the telecommuters is either to come in to an IBM facility every day or look for a job with some other employer. This was a shock to me since I helped IBM get its telecommuting program started in 1984, way back in the 20th century. So IBM has been supporting (and lauding) telework for 33 years. And now they have decided to stop it, to retreat to the pre-1980s. This does not seem to be a wise move. Why are they doing it?

The answer from IBM sounds a lot like Marissa Mayer’s excuse for calling in the telecommuters of Yahoo! Business is bad and it doesn’t seem to be getting better so it’s time call in all the troops in order to ignite a burst of innovation. Get them together every day so that the ensuing interpersonal communication (or friction), like striking a match, will produce light and the company will turn the corner and prosper. The implication, of course, is that business is bad because of telecommuting. Therefore it’s the telecommuters who are the source of the problem. It’s what my friend, Gil Gordon, calls telescapegoating!

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What is the optimal amount of telecommuting?

When we first started research on telecommuting in 1973 our focus was on whether telecommuting was practical in the real world, never mind the optimal amount of telecommuting. I insisted that the research involved testing telecommuting in an actual company, one whose bottom line was purely business oriented. The question of the optimal amount of telecommuting/teleworking didn’t come up because we were concerned with whether it was practical at all.

In those days the typical telecommuter was a person who worked using a computer terminal that was connected by wires to a mainframe computer somewhere. The idea of the person doing this from home was simply not practical; telecommunications cost — the cost of connecting that computer terminal to a distant mainframe via telephone connections all day — was simply too high. So in those mid-1970s days we concentrated on people working in what we called satellite offices: typically suburban offices solely owned by the employing company for use by its employees. Only after the arrival of personal computers in the late 1970s and early 1980s was it practical to think about home based telecommuting.

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Laila Padorr Nilles, the Mother of Telecommuting

I am desolated to announce that Laila Padorr Nilles, my partner of more than 59 years, left this world on August 22, 2016. She often was called the “Mother of Telecommuting”, reflecting the years she has encouraged and helped me in my research on telecommuting, telework and their impacts. Laila is the one who encouraged me to leave my job in the aerospace industry and invent a new one at the University of Southern California; a position that allowed me to set up the first formal research into what I called telecommuting. That was in 1972.

Laila also helped me organize JALA Associates, now JALA International. She is the LA in JALA. She participated in JALA’s activities around the world, giving or assisting in presentations about telework in the United States, Europe, South America, Australia and Southeast Asia. She was part of the management group of the European Community Telework Forum in the 1990s. Through this period her sense of humor, perspicuity and broad outlook helped sustain us though many “interesting” periods.

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The tide is rising

Over the years I have often said that telecommuting is  like a tide, not a tidal wave, when asked why telecommuting is not an overnight sensation. Imperceptible, perhaps, but sure. Yes, the telecommuting tide is rising steadily, as it has been for years. Witness an opinion column by Robin Rauzi in the 2 March 2016 edition of the Los Angeles Times in which she writes:

Labor statistics show telecommuting on the rise. In 2010 9.5% of employees worked from home at least once a week, and high-speed Internet connectivity has made that easier since then. (Ever wonder why traffic is the worst on Thursdays? That’s the day people are least likely to work from home.)

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Transit Troubles — again

In the January 27, 2016 issue of the Los Angeles Times, the front page headline was: Billions spent, but fewer people are using public transportation in Southern California This reminded me of the growing transit troubles dilemma: despite government spending billions (by now trillions) of dollars on mass transit projects in the United States there’s little to show for it. But first a little history.
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Telecommuting circa 1985

I recently came across one of the orientation manuals we used in the mid-1980s. Its purpose was to explain telecommuting to prospective telecommuters. It’s interesting to see what, if anything, has changed between telecommuting circa 1985 and today. Here’s an excerpt from The Teleguide for a typical large company. See for yourself how much has changed.

What is Telecommuting?

Telecommuting is the substitution of telecommunications and/or computers for commuting to work. There are two main forms of telecommuting: home telecommuting and satellite center telecommuting. In home telecommuting, a Company employee works at home instead of in the office, possibly with the aid of a personal computer. In satellite center telecommuting, the employee works at an office that is close to his/her home rather than at some more distant location. Telecommunications systems interconnect the home telecommuters, the satellite centers and the “main” offices so that everyone can keep in touch. Continue reading Telecommuting circa 1985

How many telecommuters are there now?

Those who wish to find an unimpeachable estimate of the telecommuters in the US these days have a problem. For example, my own forecast of the number of US teleworkers (mostly telecommuters) in the US at the end of 2014 says that they will constitute 30% of the workforce (40+ million teleworkers) and account for reducing vehicle travel by 140 billion miles over what would happen without telecommuting. On the other hand, the National Study of Employers run by the Family and Work Institute claims that “today more employers are providing occasional telecommuting (67%) for at least some employees than in 2008 (50%).” On the third hand, Top Management Degrees claims that there will be 3.9 million teleworkers in the US by 2016 — an order of magnitude less than my forecast for 2014.

So which, if any, of these estimates is right? The answer is: it depends.

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Urban sprawl revisited: the suburbs

Recently the New York Times ran an OpEd piece on the changes in urban sprawl, particularly suburban sprawl. The Times also asked for comments on the work-at-home aspects of sprawl. Here are my slightly expanded comments [not published by the Times because of length or . . . ].

The suburban sprawl (or not) trend is indeed a mixed bag. While some home owners, or prospective homeowners, may be moving to newly vacant homes in the suburbs, others are moving back into the city to occupy former office space converted to residences. Part of this is a result of the growing disconnect between where one works and where one lives. Just a few years ago the flight to the suburbs was driven by escalating land prices in the central cities; home-owning hopefuls went for affordable housing even at the price of long commutes to offices in the central cities. For many those commutes have since become telecommutes. Continue reading Urban sprawl revisited: the suburbs

Telecommuting and innovation

The press, both national and international, has been full lately of stories related to Yahoo’s impending termination of telecommuting for all of its employees. The reason for this termination, according to Yahoo’s spokespeople, is the need for more innovation within Yahoo so that it can gain market share. Furthermore, Yahoo’s position seems to be that innovation can only occur if the employees are always co-located and frequently interact with other employees not in their usual workgroup. It ignores the fact that most contemporary telecommuters do their telecommuting part-time and do spend time with their coworkers in face-to-face situations.

As you may have noticed in my previous two blogs on this topic I am skeptical of Yahoo’s approach. There are two aspects to my skepticism. First, there is the question of how much innovation is really needed in an organization. Second, is the premise valid that employees need to be co-located in order to be innovative?

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