Telecommuting: what’s in a name?

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.

Although our field test emphasis was on commuting we knew that the substitution of infotech could be applied in all sorts of ways to reduce or eliminate work-related trips. At first we thought we might call it teleworking, another word I coined, but we felt that the biggest bang would (and still does) come from reducing or eliminating commutes. So we continued to use telecommuting as our usual term.

Teleworking steadily gained in importance as a means of enticing executives to try it for their organizations. The reason is simple: the idea was that employees get paid for their work, not their commute. [Although subsequent research has shown that the stresses of commuting have real negative effects on worker productivity.] The costs of commuting don’t show up in the chief financial officer’s lexicon. The costs of work do. So telecommuting appealed to employees while teleworking appealed to their employers.

Yet, as our research expanded beyond the NSF grant, we found no problems in recruiting commuters but many problems in recruiting employers. So we started to use telework more frequently. I made the distinction between the two terms thusly: Teleworking is any form of substitution of information technology for work-related travel while telecommuting refers to that part of teleworking that involves, or substitutes for, the daily commute between home and non-home workplace.

Since those days in the last century(!) other words have evolved to describe teleworking. Technology has also exploded in making telework available to many jobs. The terms distance, remote and distributed working all have their adherents. It seems to me that hey all repeat our first error if you’re trying to sell the concept to employers: they emphasize what’s desirable for the workers, not their employers. Employers don’t want to consider distance; remote makes them nervous and distributed is ambiguous. All the terms refer to the same process: telework.

So, if you’re trying to entice an employer to try teleworking, point out the benefits to her, not to you.

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