Frequently Asked Questions

Some Common—and Not So Common— Telework/Telecommuting Questions
and Jack Nilles's Answers and Comments

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Table of Contents

  1. Teleworking, telecommuting, what's the difference?
  2. What are the barriers to successful teleworking/telecommuting?
  3. How do I get a job as a telecommuter/teleworker?
  4. Why were there 18 million regular US teleworkers and at least 10 million in the rest of the world in Y2K?
  5. Why will teleworking be a core feature of the global economy in 2010?
  6. What's an evanescent organization -- and why should I care?
  7. Why will teleworking change the structure of cities?
  8. Some other comments

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Teleworking, telecommuting, what's the difference?

Here are my definitions (since I coined the two terms in 1973, I get some priority to decide):

Teleworking: ANY form of substitution of information technologies (such as telecommunications and computers) for work-related travel.

Telecommuting: moving the work to the workers instead of moving the workers to work; periodic work out of the principal office, one or more days per week either at home or in a telework center. The emphasis here is on reduction or elimination of the daily commute to and from the workplace.

Telecommuting is a form of teleworking; all telecommuters are teleworkers but not all teleworkers are telecommuters. We concentrated on telecommuting in the early years of our research because that was where all the leverage was: getting people out of their cars during rush hours. Also, in my definition, telecommuters are generally employees of some organization, as contrasted to people with home-based businesses. Again, the distinction is that, absent telecommuting, these people would be going to a work place somewhere else.

The term teleworking, on the other hand, includes such variations as home-based businesses that use telecommunications to work with their customers, as well as those who may commute every day to some traditional location but use information technologies to deal mostly with people in other cities, states, or countries. The number of teleworkers in the world is also growing, possibly even at a faster rate than the number of telecommuters. The immense growth of the Internet, assuming that it survives the expansion problems, is a major factor in this.

Finally, teleworking is the preferred term in Europe where, until recently, there was no accepted word for commuting. So, in Europe we have télétravail, Telearbeit, telelavoro, teletrabajo, telepraca, and telearbet (telework in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Polish and Swedish, respectively), but only télépendulaire, Telependlung and telependla (telecommuting in French, German, and Swedish) as far as I know.

For more gory details on the definitions, visit our What's Telework? page.

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What are the barriers to successful teleworking/telecommuting?

It's like the old real estate adage: location, location, location. The primary barriers to telecommuting or teleworking are management, management, management. I am often asked: "If telecommuting's so great, why isn't everyone doing it?" The most frequent reason is that their bosses don't want them to do it.

The reason that managers are loathe to adopt telecommuting is simple: it's scary to be in the position of managing people you can't see, if you depend on managing by walking around. So, the first step in starting telecommuting in an organization is to convince management�particularly mid-level managers�that telecommuting is in their best interests as well as those of the telecommuters. My most recent book, Managing Telework, goes into the gory details of how to do this.

Secondly, telecommuting isn't just something you decide to do one day and start doing the next. Successful telecommuting requires some careful planning, some attention to technology, to liability and other legal issues, selection of telecommuters and telemanagers (not everyone can do it), and training. Telecommuting and teleworking involve cultural change in most organizations. That takes time�and persistence.

None of these barriers is insurmountable. We have surmounted them many times. But they do not fall overnight. Typically, it can take two years to get a telecommuting program started in a large organization, and another year or three to go from the demonstration phase to the first stages of roll-out to the rest of the company. Smaller companies can move faster.

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How do I get a job as a telecommuter/teleworker?

You don't. You get a job to produce some useful output for an employer, with rewards to you commensurate with the results. At present, many potential employers do not want to risk working with an employee who doesn't have considerable "face time" with them. That means that, unless you have skills so prized—and scarce—that the employer is willing to live with that uncertainty about your performance, you must spend some time in the employer's offices before being allowed to telework. As technology improves, desktop video conferencing for example, and as employers become better accustomed to teleworking situations, that bias will relax. But right now the chances are that you'll have to find an employer within reasonable commuting distance to get started.

By the way, most employers of telecommuters are small- to medium-sized businesses. Unfortunately, we don't keep a list of them. However, information intensive companies: banks, insurance, high tech developers, law firms, software companies, etc., may be the earlier adopters of teleworking.

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Why were there 18 million regular US teleworkers and at least 10 million in the rest of the world by the end of 2000?

The word about telework is getting around. In fact, the growth of telework, worldwide, is generally following what statisticians call a logistic or epidemic curve. This is an s-shaped curve that starts with fairly small annual growth, then grows approximately exponentially for a while, then begins to slow down, and finally nears some maximum value, beyond which it will grow no further. This later part happens when all the live teleworkers who are ever going to telework are doing it.

Now, to relate all of that to where we are now and where we are going, Tom Miller, of FIND/SVP said that we had about 9.1 million telecommuters in the US in 1995 and more than 13 million early in 1997. In 1970, when I first started looking into what we now call telecommuting, we had maybe a couple of thousand telecommuters. By 1980, there were about 100 thousand telecommuters in the US, according to my forecasts (no one was actually asking such survey questions at the time). In 1990 the number had risen to about 2.4 million, according to my forecasts, and about 3.4 million, according to Tom Miller's surveys of US households. Tom's number for 1994 was 9.1 million, my forecast was for 7.8 million. My forecast for 1996 was 12.7 million with the number almost doubling, to 24.7 million in the year 2000. For that to happen requires an average annual growth rate of the number of telecommuters of just over 18%. In 2000 we did our own survey, for the International Telework Association and Council (with funding from AT&T). We found that the earlier numbers included teleworkers that I don't consider to be regular teleworkers; hence my estimate for year-end 2000 was at least 18 million regular teleworkers, with possibly 24 million teleworkers if the less-regular category is included. Click here to see our forecast for the US

All of this is not inevitable, of course. It's just that, if you believe that history can teach us anything, then there is a reasonable chance that one of five Americans will be telecommuting in five years. By the way, those numbers relate just to telecommuting. They exclude other forms of teleworking, such as teleworking cross-country from your traditional downtown office.

I have spent considerable time over the past decade looking into teleworking around the rest of the world. I estimate that the US is five to ten years ahead of most other countries, except Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and perhaps the UK and Germany, in development of teleworking. Most of the action is in Europe, where the European Commission and France Telecomm have been very active in promoting teleworking. There is also some teleworking going on in Asia, particularly India and the Philippines. BUT the growth rates in the rest of the world may be higher than those in the US so the balance of teleworkers could change significantly in the next two decades.

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Why will teleworking be a core feature of the global economy in 2010?

Telework is much more than a cyber-hula-hoop. The reason it is expanding the way it is derives from the fact that it appears to benefit all concerned: employers, teleworkers, and the communities in which they live. Increasing global competition, coupled with the toppling of telecommunications regulatory barriers, is producing more awareness that many forms of work are independent of the locations of either the worker or the employer. As the costs of transport (read telecommunications) become small relative to the cost of labor, then there is a great incentive/temptation to look beyond one's own back yard for the necessary expertise. My company, for example, engages in research projects with colleagues in several other countries around the world. Much of our working communication is on the Internet, although we do have occasional face-to-face meetings in Europe, the US, or Asia.

This kind of interaction can only grow; it is one of the main reasons for the explosive growth of the Internet. The result is that, once some of the information security issues are resolved, telework will grow far beyond the constraints of telecommuting. Even small companies like ours can be multinational with today's technology.

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What's an evanescent organization�and why should I care?

This is a term I coined in the late-'70s to describe the kind of organization that is strictly ad hoc; it vanishes. That is, it forms in response to a specific challenge, addresses the challenge and then evaporates once the issues have been resolved. This is not to say that the people in the organization are vaporized; they simply form other combinations in response to changing conditions.

A good example of this is an organization I heard about in 1992, at a conference in Sophia Antipolis, France. One of the participants in the conference was a fellow who phoned in his story (clearly a teleworker): He ran a research organization that comprised himself, as the project leader, and a varying cast of researchers from around the world. His technique was quite simple. He spent several hours daily surfing the Internet and building a database of who was doing what research around the world. He also tracked those who had specific research needs. When searches of his database of researchers matched expressed corporate or government research needs, he acted as broker and project manager to connect the concerned parties, negotiate the terms, and complete the needed research task. After a project was completed, the researchers and the company employing them went their several ways, leaving only the core individual of this evanescent organization. All of this from a small village in the Maritime Alps.

Obviously, this individual is a quintessential entrepreneur. Not all of us are. But, in this time of disemployment euphemisms like down- and right-sizing, it may be worth your while to consider some of the alternatives to traditional organization forms. You don't necessarily have to throw away your experience and expertise just because your local employer doesn't want it at the moment. Your future employer(s) could be anywhere.

Equally obviously, I've left out many of the details, like how to set rates, multinational contract negotiation, who owns what information, many legal issues, and the like. Many of these issues have not been resolved, so they tend to get approached on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, there are interesting opportunities here.

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Why will teleworking change the structure of cities?

My initial interest in telecommuting came from a question addressed to me when I was still a rocket scientist, looking for ways to apply all of that high technology to the real world. In 1970 a regional planner said to me: "If you people can put man on the moon, why can't you do something about traffic?" That got me to thinking about why we have all these traffic problems�commuting; why we have commuting�to get to work; how we get there�mostly in our passengerless (except for the driver) cars; and why we have to get there�most of us to sit at desks, talk on the phone, send faxes, and have too many unproductive meetings. All of my work on telecommuting and teleworking stems from that conversation.

There is abundant evidence that big cities are dysfunctional, largely because of automobile-related factors. Sickle cell anemia is painful and kills because of traffic jams caused by too-rigid corpuscles in the bloodstream. Most of our cities have the equivalent of sickle cell anemia�: too many cars and limited roads (unless we eliminate all of the intervening buildings). The whole focus of our early research on telecommuting was to look at practical ways of reducing urban anemia by getting cars off the road during commute times, when many (now most) of us fundamentally didn't need to go where we were going. The results are beginning to show.

a couple of years ago, a funicular called "Angel's Flight" was brought back into service in downtown Los Angeles after more than 40 years in mothballs. Angel's Flight is probably the shortest railroad in the world, about 300 meters long. Its original purpose was to carry pedestrians up a hill from the downtown business district to their homes at the top of the steep hill. The reason that Angel's Flight was scrapped in the '50s was that nobody lived there anymore; like most big cities, the downtown area had become office-only, dead at night. Now, because of a return of housing to the area, Angel's Flight became viable again—until an accident closed it once more. I can't prove that telecommuting played an important part in this resurrection, but I suspect that it did have an influence.

The point of this is that, while teleworking allows the physical mobility of people to decrease in some sense, it increases the mobility of organizations. Organizations are not limited to employ only people who live within easy(?) commuting distance�and vice versa. This affords a whole new set of choices to be made about the relationship between where one's employer is located, where one works, and where one lives. One of the possibilities is that older cities may lose their anemia and have fully functional downtowns again. Bedroom communities may become entire communities, where people live, work, and play in the same general location. Whatever the final outcomes, the structure of cities will change as a consequence of increased teleworking.

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Some other comments

Comment 1: If as many people were telecommuting as were capable of it, the winter 1996/97 blizzards wouldn't have fazed most businesses and government operations. Multi-millions, possibly billions of dollars would have been saved.

Phone lines have a major advantage over freeways: natural disasters generally don't bother them; at least, not for long. In the traditional California magnitude 6 or greater earthquake, some roads go away for months or years; the phone lines tend to be out for fractions of an hour or less. These factoids become important when one's business depends largely on people communicating with each other (or with computers) over phone lines. The majority of businesses in the US are of this sort.

So, consider this situation: a X (put in your own term here: blizzard, fire, earthquake, hurricane) prevents your employees from commuting to work for Y days. Their average salary plus benefits is Z dollars per day. Therefore, you are losing YZ dollars as a result of the X. If, on the other hand, just half of those employees were capable of, and equipped to be, telecommuting, your loss would be less than YZ/2 because they not only would continue working for those Y days, but they would also likely be more productive than when they are in the good old office.

Now, I have not done the arithmetic on the blizzards of 2003-2004, but I suspect that at least a million information workers, potential telecommuters, were idled at least one day sometime during the winter. At a conservative average salary-plus-benefits of $150 per day, that's 150 million simoleons down the tubes. That's almost real money!

Comment 2: Every other American worker is a potential telecommuter.

The US workforce can be grouped into four main categories: agriculture, industry/manufacturing, service, and information. The Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics only use the first three, lumping information in with service. If we define the information sector as comprising those who make substantial portions of their income by creating, manipulating, transforming, and/or transmitting information, or operating information machines (such as computers) then about 60% of the US workforce fits that category. And the fraction is slowly growing.

The main candidates for telecommuting are information workers. After all, as information technology (telecommunications and computers) becomes better and more pervasive, ever more jobs depend on it. However, some information jobs currently are not suited to any form of telecommuting. These include actors, some salespeople, and some teachers, for example. But I estimate that about 80% of the information work force could telecommute�and certainly telework�at least some of the time. That works out to almost half of the total work force; every other American worker.

Of course, right now the number of US telecommuters constitutes slightly more than 12% of the workforce (18% if you're more liberal in your definition). So there's plenty of room for expansion.

Comment 3: Telecommuters can do it anywhere.

The central point of teleworking and telecommuting is that, for many of us, much of our work is independent of where we are when we do it. We are location-independent. The first step, telecommuting, is a recognition of the fact that you don't necessarily have to drive to the office every day in order to work effectively. For an increasing number of us, teleworking means that "the office" may not even be within driving, or same-day flying, distance. As global telecommunications technology develops even further in the next few years, no place on earth will be more than a phone call away.

This is not necessarily unadulterated good news. The most frequent problem we have with telecommuters is not getting them to start working (as their supervisors fear at first), it's getting them to stop. Burgeoning information technology may force us to learn a new social trait: being gracefully inaccessible; getting on with the rest of our lives.

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