Monday, October 24, 2022

“Companies Turning Cool to Telecommuting Trend,” reads the front-page headline of the Los Angeles Times. No, this wasn’t yesterday. It was on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, 28 December, 2000. The news story is that telecommuting, once thought to be the wave of the future, had become a fading trend. Is that today’s story as well?

Not according to Jack Nilles, who coined the term “telecommuting” in 1973 and is still an avid promoter of the concept on Twitter and his website JALA. Almost fifty years ago, Nilles could see that the technology was available. With a computer and a phone, he insisted, many jobs could be done from a remote location or even from home. What an ideal solution for an environment like Los Angeles, with its longstanding problems of traffic, air pollution, long commutes, and heavy consumption of fossil fuels.

The Northridge Earthquake gave the idea a boost. Los Angeles County set up a pilot telecommuting project in the Antelope Valley in 1993, but only after the Northridge Earthquake cut off freeway access and damaged office buildings did businesses begin to clamor to lease space. In the rush for remote work space, telecommuting centers were set up at Cal State Northridge and the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds.

After a period of popularity in the nineties, telecommuting faded away for almost two decades.

The term “telecommuting” peaked in the 1990’s, then had a comeback during the pandemic. (Los Angeles Times archival search)

The idea of working from home came up in other ways, in things like home and apartment building projects with work spaces incorporated into the design. Still, back in the early 2000’s, I knew a lot of work-from-home sceptics. By this time home computers and the internet had developed enough to allow the average home to set up a more sophisticated workspace. Technology fans like my husband felt like working remotely was just around the corner and they could hardly wait. But we had friends who felt that it would never be practical. You would lose all control, some said. How would you know what people were really doing?

By 2003 we were able to design a functional workspace in our loft

When I was in IT, we went through a period where we were allowed to work from home one day a week. I saved my report writing for those Wednesdays. It was perfect. Reports required me to determine how pieces of data were referenced in the system and write a program that would pull that data for a time period and create a neat, easy-to-read report. It not only required uninterrupted concentration, but production was easy to quantify.

The pandemic enabled people to work from home on an unprecedented scale. For a while, the sceptics didn’t have much of a choice. If Jack Nilles has a nemesis, it must be Barry Diller. Early in 2020, I remember seeing an interview with Diller, chairman and senior executive at Expedia, where he was asked whether working from home would continue after the pandemic. He was sure it would not and mentioned Expedia’s new headquarters in Seattle. Today I wondered whether he had changed his mind, so I looked him up. Just last month, he announced in a forum that work from home was “stupid” and “a crock,” adding, “I don’t think this ESG movement has amounted to much.”

But when he talks about the demise ESG (Environment, Social, and Governance standards), Diller seems to be expressing optimism about the future of business travel rather than the benefits of telecommuting.

The debate has been renewed, but its basis has changed. Articles abound discussing the pros and cons of WFH or working from home, but they are centered around the work experience itself. According to a recent Bloomberg article about 15 % of the workforce works remotely and 30% are on a hybrid plan. The individual benefits by having more time in the day for leisure, family, and sleep. The McKinsey study, also referenced below, emphasizes the flexibility of working at home and claims 87 % of workers who are offered remote or hybrid work, take it. Discussion seems to center around the need to collaborate and socialize, the feeling of engagement between worker and supervisor, the preferences and convenience of all parties involved.

What happened to the environmental argument– the one that said telecommuting or WFH would reduce traffic, the use of fossil fuels, and pollution? It seems to have gotten lost in all the emphasis on electric cars. But isn’t that just another way of commuting? I wonder what Jack Nilles would say. You might ask him.

Today’s Notable Headlines

“Americans Reclaim 60 Million Commuting Hours in Remote-Work Perk,” Bloomberg, Oct. 18, 2022. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-10-18/americans-reclaim-60-million-commuting-hours-in-remote-work-perk

“Americans are embracing flexible work—and they want more of it,” McKinsey & Co., June 23, 2022, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/real-estate/our-insights/americans-are-embracing-flexible-work-and-they-want-more-of-it

“Barry Diller Disparages Work From Home as ‘a Crock’,” Yahoo Finance, Sept. 20, 2022. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/barry-diller-disparages-home-crock-165516667.html

“Americans Reclaim 60 Million Commuting Hours in Remote-Work Perk,” Bloomberg, Oct. 18, 2022. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-10-18/americans-reclaim-60-million-commuting-hours-in-remote-work-perk

Additional Sources

“Companies Turning Cool to Telecommuting Trend,” Los Angeles Times, Ventura Edition, 28 Dec. 2000, from Los Angeles Times Archives.

JALA International, https://www.jala.com/index.php

Why am I doing this?

The coronavirus pandemic is a classic watershed historical event. People will be referring to “before the pandemic” or “after the pandemic” for decades to come. Since March 11, 2020, this blog has examined the modern pandemic experience, drawing on my background as a medical technologist, a historian, and an ordinary person living through an extraordinary world crisis. My sources, both primary and secondary, are documented with links for easy reference.

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