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January 1998

Commentary by Jack Nilles            

 

Thoughts on the Future of Telecommuting

 

Jack Nilles

Reporters often ask me why everyone isn't telecommuting yet. Maybe it's the society we live in, but there seem to be many people who are really into instant gratification. After all, since they heard about telecommuting more than a year ago -- and it seems to be a good idea -- then everyone should have caught on by now and started to do it.

 

Right?

 

It's not quite that simple.  Telecommuting is a good idea; it's a great idea for many people at least some of the time. It's not so great for others. More importantly, in terms of its practical implications, it is a way of working that most people in developed countries haven't known for more than one hundred years.

 

You see, most of us (three out of five working Americans) have office jobs. Most offices are, in effect, information factories. As everyone "knows," the information workers all have to report to the information factory in order to do their work. That's the way we've always done it. It is very difficult to get managers of organizations to think about working in other ways. As a consequence, the freeways are clogged every day around the world, mostly with people driving (alone) between their homes and the information factories.

 

Twenty-five years ago we demonstrated that telecommuting works, using a real company as a guinea pig. It works not only for the telecommuters, but for their bosses and the companies they work for. There were significant and positive bottom-line results even in those days, with what is now considered primitive technology. But I learned at the time that positive bottom-line results aren't enough. A crucial extra ingredient to make telecommuting work is an attitude shift.

 

Specifically, the all too common adversarial relationship between manager and managed has to change. A relationship of trust has to exist between the two. This trust is not a gift from heaven. It must be developed on the basis of mutual respect and quality communication. This takes some work. It also takes some discipline on the part of both parties. It can be a scary prospect in turbulent times. Consequently, there is often significant resistance to the prospect of performing this change.

 

Nevertheless, when people finally take that step, it usually turns out quite well indeed for all parties concerned. Still, this resistance to change, to uncertainty, to a relationship of trust, is the primary barrier to the expansion of telecommuting.

 

So what does this portend for the future?  Our first tests of telecommuting, in 1973 and '74, involved perhaps two dozen people. Now there are probably 15 million telecommuters in the United States alone, with about half that many in the rest of the world. By the end of the year 2000, I expect that there will be more than 23 million telecommuters in the United States. There are several reasons for this:
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First, because of vast changes in information technology, the idea of people working cooperatively via telecommunications networks has become fairly commonplace.

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Second, although the population has increased in the last 25 years, the capacity of our roads has not followed suit (one runs out of land not to mention the multi-megabucks per mile of new freeway after a while). Hence, traffic congestion is causing ever greater economic burdens, as well as air pollution.

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Third, most young families have two earners and considerable stress between job and family demands; I have never had a problem recruiting potential telecommuters.

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Fourth, the growth of the US economy has been such that there are often more jobs available than skilled workers to fill them.

 

All of these pressures act to increase the acceptance of telework, and particularly telecommuting, by management. While much of the growth of telecommuting over the past decade has been in small to medium-sized companies, I expect that the Fortune 1000 companies will experience significant growth in the number of their telecommuting employees over the next decade.

 

Furthermore, the very information technology that enables telecommuting also allows new kinds of organizations to form. Among these are small to medium-sized companies with global reach. Look for many more diverse forms of telework enabled organizations in the next few years. It should be an interesting and rewarding time indeed.

 

Jack Nilles
JALA International Inc.

Copyright © 1998 - Jack Nilles 

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