Definitions revisited

Ever since the early-1970s, when I coined the words, people have been asking me what telecommuting and/or telework mean. I’ve given some structured definitions on the JALA website but those are often not seen by visitors or may still be unclear. So here’s another attempt at clarifying the terms, plus a little background on their origin.

History

It all started in 1973 when I and my colleagues at the University of Southern California (USC) began work on a grant from the National Science Foundation. The title of the grant was Development of Policy on the Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff. It was part of NSF’s Research Applied to National Needs (RANN) program and was designed to explore the federal policy implications of encouraging people to forego using their cars to get to and from work and to use telecommunications technology instead. The title of the grant derived from my rocket scientist days when we were really into terms like tradeoff and system design. But after watching the eyes glazing over  as I told people we were working on the telecommunications-transportation tradeoff  (our team called it T-cubed for short) it became clear to me that a snappier term or terms was needed, something that had a more intuitive feel. Telework and telecommuting were the result. But to further make the concept understandable I insisted that we test it in real business situations, where the proverbial bottom line was the measure of success.

At the time we did the initial research the available technology was far less powerful than it is today. The personal computer had yet to appear on the scene. Computer communications was confined to messaging between mainframes and/or minicomputers over phone lines at speeds like 30 characters per second. Only large organizations could afford the technologies. Broadband networks essentially did not exist, certainly at the national level, except possibly for very large high tech organizations. Therefore my emphasis in those early years was on assessing telecommuting because that’s where the greatest near-term impact would be: reducing energy use and pollution impacts from the numbers of cars involved in the daily commutes between homes and workplaces. Even then, with what we would now call primitive technologies, telecommuting was demonstrably effective.

Today the underlying technologies have morphed though many generations of improvement, to the extent that extremely powerful information processing and communications capabilities are quite inexpensive in the developed world and also are becoming so in emerging economies. So let’s see how those developments have changed the situation.

Teleworking

My original definition of teleworking was: Any form of substitution of information technologies for work-related travel; moving the work to the workers instead of moving the workers to work.

The key components of telework are thus: work; telecommunications (these days usually involving some sort of computer at each terminus of the communications network); and trips not taken because the first two components eliminate the need for travel. All three of these components have to exist for it to be called telework. Two of these are pretty clear: telecommunications and trips not taken. The definition of work is a little more problematic. For example, our initial concept in 1973 was that work involved an employer and employees. Yet part of our reality test included engineering students in USC’s distance learning facility, most of whom were employed full time in the Los Angeles region. Their trips not taken were between their workplaces (which had distance learning facilities) and the USC campus. Their home-work trips were largely unaffected. Still, most surveys over the past few decades have confined their counts to people in traditional 20th century employment relationships. This adds another telework component: an employer-employee relationship. The employer can be a traditional organization or a number of separate clients.

Telecommuting

My definition of telecommuting is: Periodic work [where the worker is] out of [away from] the principal office, one or more days per week, either at home, at a client’s site, or in a telework center; the partial or total substitution of information technologies for the commute to work. The emphasis here is on reduction or elimination of the daily commute to and from the workplace. Telecommuting is a form of teleworking.

Now here’s the key distinction to keep in mind when arguing with someone about whether someone is teleworking or telecommuting:

All telecommuters are teleworkers but not all teleworkers are telecommuters.

Think about the physical distance separating employer and teleworker. If that distance is relatively short, that is, can be traversed by some means of affordable transport in about an hour or less, then the teleworker is probably a telecommuter. If the employer-teleworker separation is such that  it’s unlikely that the workplace-residence trips could be made by affordable transport on a daily basis, then the teleworker is probably not a telecommuter.  So most telecommuters live within 60 miles (100 km) or so of their employer’s workplace. In the mid-1970s almost all teleworkers were telecommuters; today probably the majority of teleworkers are telecommuters but the number of teleworkers who connect over long distances continually grows.

Clearly there are some ambiguities around the edges here. These particularly affect how surveys identify teleworkers; most surveys don’t carefully define what constitutes a teleworker and there is no de facto standard set of questions asked. Therefore it is very hard to compare results of different surveys.

Examples of teleworkers (and otherwise)

Sam is a regular employee of the Ajax Toolworks. She typically works at home, using the company-supplied computer and a broadband connection to the main office. She drives into the office two days per week, on average, to meet with her colleagues and access some locked files. Sam is a typical telecommuter.

Joe is an employee of the Universal General Corporation. Although corporate headquarters are in Singapore, Joe lives and works in San Diego, California. Joe works from home full time and his computer is connected to his headquarters via a broadband connection. Joe visits Singapore every six months or so for meetings and to renew contacts with his co-workers.  Next year Joe’s trips to Singapore may be curtailed since video conferencing has become a much more affordable alternative to some of the meetings. Joe is a typical long-distance teleworker.

Lucy drives 10 km to her local office every day where she monitors network activities of her employer, Digital Designs, Ltd. Lucy is responsible for identifying and resolving network traffic problems for the company’s 11 worldwide divisions. Like Joe, Lucy is a teleworker but not a telecommuter.

Frank ordinarily droves or car pools between home and his downtown office. At the office his communications are mostly with co-workers on the same floor. He often takes work home to complete at night. Occasionally, once a month or so, he works at home instead of going to the office. Frank is not a teleworker on two counts: his after-hours work at home doesn’t count because he still went to the office those days; and his at-home days were too few to count him as a regular teleworker.

Summary

Over the past four decades teleworking has grown from a few small experiments to a global phenomenon that is still growing. As information technology improves, so will the reach of telework—despite the occasional attack by ignorant, or at best misinformed, journalists. If you are still confused about what constitutes a teleworker, please contact us. If you have a unique example of a form of teleworking please let us know.

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