Technology

Oil prices, “telecommuting” and working near home

by Paul Carder on January 19, 2016

by @paulcarder

Whilst reading for my next PhD task, an old reference just popped up…the origin of the term “telecommuting” (Nilles, 1975). Full references in my footnote.

Jack M. Nilles was the Director of Interdisciplinary Program Development (I like that already… 40 years later, still very much in need of these guys!), Office of Academic Administration and Research at USC, Los Angeles.

In his 1975 paper, he says: “Our research at the University of Southern California (USC) included an investigation of the technologies required for “telecommuting.” A telecommuting network has computational and telecommunications components which enable employees of large organizations to work in offices close to (but generally not in) their homes, rather than commute long distances to a central office.”

This is often referred to as the first mention of “telecommuting”. But perhaps more interestingly, note the part which most people who reference this four decades later omit:

“…offices close to (but generally not in) their homes…”

Sometime later, that part was lost, and people started to put telecommuting together with working at home. Why? – well largely because, in effect, we all “telecommute” today, all the time. In 1975, if you needed to work with someone, then you (or they) had to travel to get together. Or use the telephone.

Reading the footnotes to Jack Nilles’ paper, at the time it was mostly about the oil price, following as it did shortly after the 1973-4 oil crisis (OPEC embargo)…and way before most people had heard of “sustainability”. Nilles base in Los Angeles is still slave to the car today, but in those days there really was no choice other than commuting – to drive to your office, work all day, and drive home.

In 2016, who would have thought we would see the oil price tumbling? But we all have a far more pressing reason to find a cure for commuting: sustainability, of course. And we really do have the choice – in fact many options – to work in different places, using a whole variety of technologies. How long does it take for this message to permeate the seemingly impervious corporate cultures where people must be ‘seen’ to be assumed to be working?

Just one last nugget… nearly missed in the footnotes, Nilles writes: “Some major national corporations already have video conferencing networks connecting regional offices”. …in 1975! And beneath, he lists the first reference to the “video telephone” (Dickson & Bowers, 1973). Really? Wow!

So why can I still walk around most offices and not find corporate video conferencing or video phones? …just those old plastic desk phones. Even though, almost everyone has video conferencing in their pocket on their iThingy. Possibly not connected to the corporate network though…ho hum.

I guess these things just take time, right? …or is it something else?

 

References:

Nilles, J. M. (1975). Telecommunications and organizational decentralization. Communications, IEEE Transactions on, 23(10), 1142-1147.

Dickson, E. M., & Bowers, R. (1973). The video telephone, a new era in telecommunications: a preliminary technology assessment. Program on Science, Technology and Society, Cornell University.

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(by @paulcarder co-founder @occupiers)

London’s Financial Times reported this morning, “The worst London Underground strike in more than a decade saw millions of Londoners struggle to get to work”. It is chaos, here in the UK capital – the top global city in PwC’s Cities of Opportunity ranking. It is a sorry state of affairs, as in a scene reminiscent of 1970s union-crippled Britain, the “workers” representatives couldn’t agree with “the management”.

“Workers” and “management”…we thought we had overcome that particular divide in business and society, didn’t we? But, some people have a vested interest in keeping it very much alive. In the large, industrialized, unionized industries such as transport, it lives on.

Only last year, UNITE union leader Len McCluskey addressed his supporters in Liverpool as “sisters and brothers” like some mid-20th century socialist (which, of course, he is). This, despite UNITE’s website claiming “Unite is the union for the 21st century meeting the great challenges facing working people in the 21st century”. Oh, we laughed…or would, if it was at all funny. Which, if you were in the queues forming as early as 06.30 this morning, would be far from humorous.

Of course, as we all know, one of the “great challenges facing working people in the 21st century” is their journey to and from “work” – their commute. Unless they happen to be working for an organization which has embraced agile working. Those employees, freelancers, consultants and service providers, are smiling ever-so-slightly smugly today in and around London.

I was only explaining to my eldest daughter, 16, at the weekend, how very many ways we have to communicate (and even meet ‘virtually’) today. Many at no cost, or very little cost – certainly in comparison to the rising cost (and pollution) of travel. When I was her age, we had to either travel to meet, or use the telephone. Even mobile phones were large, heavy and very expensive. Only 1980’s “yuppies” had “mobile” phones – remember these 8 technologies in the 80s 🙂

I don’t know what you use, but I have a smartphone, email, LinkedIn messaging, Twitter DM, skype (for video calls), BlueJeans and GoToMeeting for sharing presentation slides and other materials. I don’t really need to go anywhere. I do, because I like meeting people…but mostly, I don’t have to do that.

So, “sisters and brothers” (whether “worker” or “management” – all together now), lets all spread the word that agile working is the answer to this daily commuting hell. And it is sensible corporate mitigation of the risk of various (and regular) disruptions, whether transport-related, security threats, inclement weather, or whatever.

Every “worker” should, if their job allows, have the opportunity to ‘go agile’ as and when their normal daily routine is disrupted. But, organizations need to plan for this, and give their people the tools to ‘go agile’.

You can’t suddenly ‘go agile’ at 06.30 whilst standing in the queue for the Underground….

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