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.
First, the good news
My original motivation for the project was to discover ways of getting people out of their cars, particularly for the twice-daily commutes between home and work. I knew that I didn’t have enough information in my head to cover all the viewpoints needed so I assembled that faculty team and we recruited the test company. As part of the recruitment I needed to come up with a catchier name than The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff and produced two of them: Telecommuting to appeal to the prospective, commuting-stressed workforce; and Teleworking to get the attention of the executives whose focus was on successful work results, not fancy technologies.
I had side interests as well such as: what happens to bedroom communities when most of them don’t leave home weekday mornings to return in the evenings? How much can our oil consumption be reduced because of our decreased commuting? How will this affect air pollution? Will severing the commute ties result in people moving away from (or into) central cities? What will happen to those central cities if millions of office workers no longer show up every day?
The 1970s and early 1980s
Of course not all of those questions were answered during that first project so I spent years cajoling companies into trying teleworking for themselves, if only as a disaster recovery technique. We enlisted several Fortune 100 companies to give it a try. One problem was that when a company discovered that it could reduce staff turnover while increasing productivity — and even with a low up-front cost — why tell their competitors? So telework remained a relative secret until at least the mid-1980s.
By that time I had focused on searching for a public sector adopter of telework so the results could be more widely reported. Karma, in the form of David Fleming of the State of California, whose problem was to reduce demand for office space in Sacramento. As a result we came up with another, broader test of telecommuting involving many state departments. The results by 1990 were at least as good as those of our original insurance company group. The project won a citation for innovation in 1991 from the Council of State Governments
The 1990s and 2000s
We repeated that success with a project for the City of Los Angeles, headed by Wally Siembab, in the early 1990s. Another success and the word was finally getting around both in the United States and around the world. The states of Washington and Arizona had their own projects. But throughout this entire period there was still major C-suite resistance to telecommuting in particular and telework in general. My partner Laila and I spent much of the 1990s trying to spread the word in Europe and Australia. Throughout this time and later I kept wondering what would it take to get executives’ attention to the point where they would give a thumbs-up to telework.
On New Year’s Day 2000 the Financial Times published an interview with me about telecommuting on its front page. I thought that maybe this might turn the tide of interest in telecommuting. But apparently that interview wasn’t a big enough stick to get the world’s attention.
Fast forward twenty years and the stick was born: Covid-19 forced the world to de-congregate. The traditional office was no longer an option. Overnight millions of office workers were forced to work from home or not work at all. Millions of offices emptied for indefinite periods. Globally. Telework/telecommuting morphed into titles such as distant or remote or hybrid working. Yet the global test of teleworking is mostly a success today.
Next, the not-so-good news
The sudden burst of acceptance of telework has had some negative effects. Many of them are specifically a result of the suddenness. My original hope was that the adoption process would be slow enough to allow many things to adapt comfortably.
Central business districts
The mass exodus from central city offices is still reverberating. CEOs brought up in the industrial tradition are demanding that their staff return to the office full time now that the danger of Covid has dwindled. Their staff are resisting that siren call. We are now mostly in the period of negotiation about the exact (or rough) number of days weekly for the staff’s in-office appearance.
For example, a report in Bloomberg on 25 September 2022 says:
Blocks of decades-old office towers sit partially empty, in an awkward position: too outdated to attract tenants seeking the latest amenities, too new to be demolished or converted for another purpose.
Office occupancy nationwide was a little more than 50% in mid-September 2022. There is a corresponding drop in all the auxiliary businesses that depended on the presence of those now-missing office workers. For those businesses telework can be a catastrophe.
If this change had happened over period of years, as I had hoped, then the displacement would have been much smoother. As it is, the trend still appears to be that teleworkers will spend roughly half their days going to offices; still, it means a major reduction of car use and air pollution.
As we discovered in the California telecommuting project, when telecommuter households move they tend either to move to someplace at about the same distance from their “central” office or to become teleworkers by moving to a town farther away so their routine commuting diminishes or may even quit. Today there is a trend toward that latter form of telework. Some teleworkers moved out our their state entirely while keeping their former jobs.
While all this may be bad news for big cities, it may also be a significant benefit to smaller communities, some of which, like St. George, Utah, are already having growing pains as a result of the sudden turn of events. Meanwhile, the migration continues.
Reinventing the wheels
One of my initial concerns as Covid arrived was the thought that most of the newly instant force of teleworkers hadn’t a clue as to how to do it successfully. Fortunately the majority of them adapted and made it through the next two years relatively unscathed. We’ve been preaching successful telework management methods for years (I wrote two books on that topic) but it seems that most organizations decided to figure them out for themselves. Surely this delayed the success of many organizations. It may still be a problem for many more, witness the number of online “experts” on the internet.
So, after 49 years it appears that telework is here to stay, whatever it’s called lately. It has been almost five decades of learning, experimentation, testing, revising and expanding, abetted by an infinitesimal virus that definitely was not part of our initial planning.
Its contribution to reducing global warming continues.