History of Telecommuting: A revolutionary concept of the labor world

History of Telecommuting: A revolutionary concept of the labor world

In this post I will make a brief summary of the history of Telecommuting and I will mention some of the general advantages and disadvantages of it. I would like to start by tracing a difference with Telework, a similar concept that people use to confuse as synonyms.

The root of the confusion is the prefix pre, which means distance in Greek (telephone, telescope, telepathy… etc.). Now, telework is a more general concept than telecommuting: it means, “working from a distance”: it means to work from a different place than the facilities of the worker’s company. Telecommuting refers to the performance of work at a certain location (usually the worker’s home), in order to reducing commuting time. In other words: Telecommuting is a kind of telework, but telework is not necessarily telecommuting. So, the latter refers, in essence, of taking work to workers, instead of taking workers to work.

The concept was initially thought by the American physicist and engineer Jack Nilles in 1973. He built the idea after an interdisciplinary research program in 1972 at the University of Southern California. He and the researching team were looking for ways of increasing productivity and decreasing the negative impacts of working activities on the environment and people’s health. One of the main conclusion of the research was that transportation from home to offices, and other kind of working places, consumes a significant amount of time, money and energy that could be saved thanks to the modification of working activities in terms of location: decentralizing the operation of an enterprise. It implies a critical transformation of a company’s structure and brings several changes in the functionality of it (some positive, some adverse, depending on the type of company and the industry it belongs).

This concept was first applied on an insurance company, and the results of it were so constructive for the development of the organization that Nilles and his team looked for ways of implementing it in different kind of companies with the aim of bringing a positive impact in the American economy. In the beginning, the technology of communications consisted of telephone, telegraph, paper mail and satellite telecommunications. Internet already existed, but it was not the massive and complex network that we know in our times. In the next decade, with the massive production of cellphone and fax, and the use of intranets in big companies, telecommuting made gigantic steps, and some companies just turned into telecommuting-organizations in few years. During the 1990s and 2000s, Internet improvements just changed the whole picture and now is perfectly possible to work from home (or any other comfortable place) just by using a smartphone, a tablet or a laptop thanks to wireless technology.

Image courtesy of Ministerio TIC Colombia at Flickr.com
Image courtesy of Ministerio TIC Colombia at Flickr.com

The historical context of the creation of telecommuting was the oil crisis of the 1970s, in the very middle of the Cold War. The prices of oil and the economic crisis became a tremendous incentive for businessmen to search new ways for improving the working performance of their companies. For the first time in history, people started to think in the dangers of depending on non-renewable resources, like fossil fuels; and, also for the first time, information became the most valuable asset in the global market. Those were the two basic conditions for Telecommuting to come to life as reference point for restructuring several companies, not just in the US, but in different European and Asian countries.

There are basically four advantages of implementing telecommuting in a company. The first one, of course, is the cost savings it represents, both for the employer and the employee: facilities cost, energy, transportation and time for the employee who lives in a big city with dantesque traffic issues. The second one is the increased productivity derived from working from a comfortable place (of course, when the worker has enough discipline for not procrastinating on his / her working schedule). In third place, the retention of valuable employees increases, because the significant changes that usually makes them quit (they move to another city/country, pregnancy, medical conditions, etc.) don’t become an obstacle for them to continue working for the company. The fourth one, obviously, is that working from home make workers happier and the boundaries with the employer get stronger.

But it’s important to notice that every case is different, some jobs can only be done in person (doctors, mechanics, pilots, supervisors…) and sometimes there are disadvantages for this way of work. Managers has less oversight over their workers, employees may become less productive because of home distractions, the company culture gets harder to improve and take care of, isolation sometimes make workers less creative and depressive, etc.

Time moves faster each day and it brings faster changes. Working culture will certainly change and this kind of was to develop any profession will conquer the whole labor market in a distant future. Of course, those are easy predictions.

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