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?



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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