October 2022 marks the 49th anniversary of the coining of the words telework and telecommuting. The occasion was the receipt of a grant from the National Science Foundation to my research team at the University of Southern California. The title of the grant was: “Development of Policy on the Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff”. My fellow researchers included professors Paul Gray from the Graduate School of Business Administration; Rick Carlson from the School of Engineering; and Gerry Hanneman from the Annenberg School of Communication.
Our overall objective was to see, in a real-world setting, whether running a dispersed workforce interconnected by telecommunications and computer technology, could be made practical. Our test laboratory was the west coast division of a major national insurance company. We ran an active test for several months and, on its completion, decided that our objective had been met and the test was a success. We wrote a report of the project to the National Science Foundation in 1974 and, with John Wiley & Sons in New York, published a book on it in 1976 titled “The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff: Options for Tomorrow”.
Then the real struggle began.
Continue reading Telework’s 49th anniversary!
As I leaf through my old (i.e., last century) presentations I thought, why not share them with the readers of this blog? So here’s one of them, circa 1992, in PDF format. It’s about 4.6 megabytes in size. You can download it here.
This was our general presentation to prospective employers of telecommuters. In 39 slides it covers the historic technological and societal forces that are acting to make telework not only desirable but inevitable for many types of jobs at least some of the time. It also tries to allay the fears of managers about losing control of their employees by showing results of actual telecommuting experience in both the public and private sectors.
Since the presentation was general in nature we used it primarily for introducing organizations to the concepts of telework and telecommuting. Detailed presentations came later, after we were able to incorporate the specifics of an organization’s culture and environment into the material.
Although the material in the presentation is from the 1990s the ideas in it are just as applicable now as they were then. Even more so since the technology behind telework has progressed to the point today where interpersonal communication is as good as, and in some cases even better than, face-to-face, regardless of the locations of the participants.
To round out the presentations, here’s one, in Spanish, presented to the Minister of Labor of Argentina. It’s both history and some thoughts about the future.
Development of Policy on the Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff: that’s what we called our research project at the University of Southern California, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), in 1973. That was a good title for winning a grant from the scientists of the US government. It wasn’t a good title for explaining our research to almost everyone else, especially the business and government organizations that we wanted to use for testing the concept.
The focus of the research team was to assess the possibility of substituting information technology for the daily commute to and from work by millions of information/knowledge workers. I decided that a catchy name might seriously help in recruiting participants. So, that October, I produced a portmanteau word: telecommuting. It was a combination of the words: telecommunications, commuting and computers.
Continue reading Telecommuting: what’s in a name?
Telework/telecommuting has always been based on the concept of location independence: the idea that some jobs/tasks are independent of where they are performed. Our mantra has been to move the work to the worker instead of moving the worker to work.
The telecommuting portion of telework concentrates on local situations; usually urban-oriented, replacing some or all of the daily commute between home and workplace. In fact, this was the brainstorm I had one day around 1970 while stuck in near-zero miles per hour traffic on a Los Angeles freeway. To make it worse an overhead traffic control sign urged: “Maintain Your Speed”. Inner thoughts: “My job generally involves thinking, computing, writing and otherwise doing solo stuff. Why can’t I just do it at home? Why am I wasting hours sitting here inhaling carbon monoxide and stressing?”
Continue reading Location independence 2.0
Telework versus transportation: for the past four decades much of my work on telework and its telecommuting subset has been on demonstrating the relative advantages and disadvantages of those two. It all started in the early 1970s when I got fed up with wasting my time sitting in traffic twice, or more, daily. The commute to and from work was a drag.
Then came the proverbial lightbulb! If what I’m doing at work simply requires a phone (remember, this was in the dark ages of computing) and a desk, why do I have to fight traffic for more than an hour every day to do it? Why not do it from home (Starbucks hadn’t been invented yet either)?
Since then a growing number of people and organizations have come to the same conclusion, fortified by the evidence that telework and telecommuting are good for business. There are now tens of millions of teleworkers worldwide and the number continues to grow.
So now what?
Continue reading Thoughts on telework versus transportation
Some recent news stories bring up the prospects of reverse telecommuting. Almost 45 years ago I wrote a piece describing the dynamics of central office versus employee residence location. The point was that, as companies become established, the residence locations of their employees tend to form a circular normal distribution — a bell-shaped curve — centered on the headquarters
(HQ) office. I gave some examples of what happens when the HQ pulls up stakes and moves to a new location some distance away, usually because the CEO wanted to both have a short commute and live in the suburbs. The initial impact is that while the CEO and other employees living nearby have a shorter commute, the average employee has a longer commute to the HQ. The result often is turmoil, dropping morale, lowered productivity and attrition. The attrition comes from those employees who can easily find jobs near their existing residences and perceive little penalty in leaving; often those are the most productive employees.
Continue reading Reverse telecommuting and Urban Centers
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!
Continue reading IBM retreats to 20th century, drops telecommuters
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.
Continue reading What is the optimal amount 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.
Continue reading Laila Padorr Nilles, the Mother of Telecommuting
When my research team first started working on telecommuting in the mid-1970s there was no such term as “millennials”. Now it seems that millennials may have a large part in the “rescue” of telecommuting. Let me explain.
Continue reading Millennials to the rescue?