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.
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.