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Telecommuting: A Better Tomorrow As Seen Through Yesterday’s Vision?

As someone who has telecommuted for more than a decade, as well as someone who considered researching telecommuting for his master’s thesis more than two decades ago, I’m hopeful that  the new telecommuting conversations that have emerged will lead to action. Though, I’m also hesitant to believe that change is upon us.

About one in four Americans already works from home at least some of the time. For those who work almost exclusively from home, the number has increased from 0.7% in 1980 to 3% of the workforce in 2017. While increased enthusiasm around telecommuting seems prevalent and hopeful, some skepticism around the speed of change is warranted, as can be seen through these five bits of trivia regarding the chronological journey of telecommuting in America.

1. TELECOMMUTING ORIGINATED AS A WORD RELATED TO THE IDEA OF SAVING ENERGY AND FUEL.

Jack Nilles – considered the “father of telecommuting” and credited with coining the term – and his colleagues, F. Roy Carlson, Jr., Paul Gray, and Gerhard J. Hanneman, were arguing in favor of energy conservation in the early 1970s. As they wrote in Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff (1976), “A 1% reduction in commuting would save enough fuel energy to supply the residential electricity needs of a medium-sized city.” Nilles attributed the concept of telecommuting to Sam Clawson, based on Clawson’s paper, “Is Transportation Obsolete?” (delivered at the 1970 Conference of American Institute of Planners).

2. THE ECONOMIST PREDICTED AN INCREASE IN “BRAINWORKERS” AND TELECOMMUTERDOM.

To celebrate America’s bicentennial, The Economist produced a five-installment series called America’s Third Century, written by Norman Macrae. The first four installments included concern over stagnation of industry; the stranglehold of bureaucracy over decisions by individuals; the likelihood of an increasingly aging population, growth in mass-killing power, and the danger that new knowledge would spiral out of control; and inefficiencies in government. Specifically, in the second installment, Macrae discussed the possibility of confederations of entrepreneurs, an idea seemingly not far removed from the current gig economy – and based on pioneering businessman John Diebold’s ideas. In the fifth and final installment, Macrae suggested that, eventually, when production reached a point of proper automation, 60% of American breadwinners would be “brainworkers,” those who work in professions that primarily require thinking as the tool for solving problems. The correlation to telecommuting exists in that the mind is a portable tool, rather than a stationary machine. Ultimately, Macrae saw workers telecommuting from home, following a transition in which workers telecommuted through neighborhood centers. He also predicted the creation of computer-augmented “confravision” for use in place of face-to-face meetings. A couple of things to keep in mind about these predictions: First, the bicentennial occurred in 1976 – 44 years ago. Second, the popular use of the Internet can be traced to various timepoints, but generally speaking, the widespread use of the World Wide Web didn’t emerge until 1993!

3. FUTURIST ALVIN TOFFLER WROTE ABOUT TELECOMMUTING, CONSIDERING ITS POSITIVE COMMUNITY EFFECTS.

Alvin Toffler, American businessman and futurist, wrote about the electronic cottage in his 1980 book, The Third Wave. Referencing the historical and economic concept of cottage industries – work done at home that results in production-for-trade – Toffler viewed the electronic cottage as a way to potentially strengthen people’s bonds to their community. The electronic cottage, in this sense, is working from home to produce goods or services through the use of computers, an element that was missing in original cottage industries. In Toffler’s vision of telecommuting, workers would be more likely stay in their geographical locations than relocate for a job. As a result, their participation in non-work organizations, such as churches and political groups, would increase, due to a lower level of transience and its associated psychological factors. Toffler even cites the German concept of Gemeinschaft, or community and the warm fuzzy feelings associated with the notion of community. In conjunction with increased community engagement, Toffler surmised that the electronic cottage could be a way to immerse kids in work in a way that bolsters their understanding of a career, as it would be more observable in a home-based structure. That is to say, something similar to Bring Your Child to Work Day, in Toffler’s mind, would occur on most days, because the work would be done at home.

4. THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT ESTABLISHED AN OFFICIAL DEFINITION OF TELEWORK, BUT ONLY RELATIVELY RECENTLY.

Consistent with other 1970s activities related to telecommuting, Congress had authorized the Federal Employees Flexible and Compressed Work Schedules Act of 1978. Through this public law, federal agencies were allowed to experiment with flexible work schedules and compressed workweeks. Parts of the experiment later led elected officials such as Geraldine Ferraro (the first woman to run for the United States vice presidency), Ted Stevens, and Frank Wolf to become involved in advancing legislation for telecommuting.

However, it wasn’t until the Treasury, Postal Service and General Government Appropriations Act of 1991 that Congress approved funds for flexible work arrangements for the first time, provided that a department participated in the Federal Flexiplace Project and that the head of said department certified that safeguards against private misuse were in place.

Nearly 20 years later, The official definition of “telework” was finally found in the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010: “The term ‘telework’ or ‘teleworking’ refers to a work flexibility arrangement under which an employee performs the duties and responsibilities of such employee’s position, and other authorized activities, from an approved worksite other than the location from which the employee would otherwise work.”

5. COMMUTES TO WORK AREN’T MAGICALLY GETTING SHORTER.

In 1980, the average commute time to work was 21.7 minutes, and 28.5% of workers had a commute of 30 minutes or more. In 1990, the average commute time to work was 22.4 minutes, and 30.5% of workers had a commute of 30 minutes or more. By 2018, the average commute to work had reached 27.1 minutes, with 39% of workers commuting 30 minutes or more. (Remember, these people had to get home, too!) One can imagine that a telecommuter’s travel time to work is, in most cases, much less than 27.1 minutes.

So, I’m hopeful that we will see a more permanent move towards telecommuting for many more organizations and workers, as I think there are impactful benefits from the practice. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to hear several trusted colleagues suggest that they believe the change will occur.  Counterbalancing this optimism is my skepticism from personally hearing this conversation repeat over the last 20 years. In addition to my optimistic colleagues, I’ve heard others who are eager to return to an on-site based world. I’ll be interested in read the tricentennial history and predictions on how far we’ve come on telecommuting and what the future holds. I’m hopeful the story is one of even greater progress than the last 50 years.


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