The History of Telecommuting: Past & Present

The History of Telecommuting: Past & Present
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A study of the history of telecommuting reveals that working from home precedes work from office. In the middle ages, the norm of work was the putting out system, whereby artisans wo

rked in their homes to develop raw materials supplied by the merchant. The industrial revolution that led to the invention of large machinery and the establishment of factories to achieve economies of scale, resulted in a shift of the established pattern. Workers now commuted to the workplace rather than work traveling to the worker. Office and factory work replaced the work from home putting out system.

The modern day concept of telecommuting, known by many names such as e-commuting, e-work, telework, work from home, or working at home is a revival of the putting out system, and is a result of the development of technology, most notably, the Internet. Telecommuting employees do not commute to the office and rather use telecommunication links to receive, process, and submit work, and often enjoy flexibility in their work schedules.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


Credit for popularizing the modern form of telecommuting goes to Jack Niles, who coined the term “telecommuting” during his 1972 research on telecommuting-transportation trade offs at the University of Southern California. He took the lead to conduct the first formal tests of telecommuting in 1973 and 1974. Telecommuters successfully worked at a satellite office of an insurance company, connecting to the main office using dumb terminals connected to a downtown mainframe.

In the late 1980’s Alvin Toffler’s image of the “electronic cottage” popularized the use of computers as a space-flexible work tool. His works contributed to the social construction of workplace technology and contributed to making telecommuting popular.

Government Initiative

Modern day telecommuting, however, received a fillip to counter the effects of the OPEC oil embargo of the late 1970s. In 1979, Frank Schiff, Vice President of the Committee for Economic Development coined the term “flexiplace” and published his article “Working at Home Can Save Gasoline.” Many federal agencies such as the GSA, Air Force, EPA, Army, Department of Labor, and others started experimenting with flexiwork, and these experiments later culminated in the President’s Council on Management Improvement commissioning a government-wide telework pilot project for federal agencies in 1989.

In 1985, Patrika Mokhtarian, transportation planner of the Southern California Association of Governments established a telecommuting task force in the City of Los Angeles. In 1987, this evolved into the Telecommuting Advisory Council, and later became the precursor to the International Telework Association and Council (ITAC).

During this time, Europe witnessed a mushrooming of telecenters, or neighborhood hubs with reliable communication facilities from where employees could connect to their office. The California Department of Transportation and US Federal Highway Association followed along and funded the Neighborhood Telecenter project in 1992 to establish 15 telecenters in California. Further developments in technology that made computers and Internet access affordable, simple, and easily available in individual homes, however, made such telecenters obsolete, and they have since declined in popularity.

Clean Air Act 1990

Implications of 1990 Clean Air Act

The Clean Air Act of 1990 and its 1996 amendments led to establishment of the National Telework Initiative aimed at reducing carbon dioxide and ground-level ozone levels by 25%. This is a landmark in the history of telecommuting, for it mandated all businesses employing more than 100 people to reduce employee commute time by 25% through ways such as car-pooling, public transportation incentives, condensed workweeks, or telecommuting. Most companies choose telecommuting, for not only did it deliver on the desired benefits, but it also remained the most practical and popular solution among all options.

An appropriations bill enacted by the US Congress in 2004 threatened to withhold money from agencies that failed to provide telecommuting options to all eligible employees.

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The Private Sector

The private sector tested telecommuting long before the implication of the 1990 Clean Air Act. In 1981, J C Penny became the first employer to hire home based call center agents to take catalog orders. Gill Gordon of Gill Gordon Associates took the lead to promote telecommuting in the early 1980s. He hosted the first national conference on telecommuting in 1982, and established a national newsletter devoted to telecommuting issues in 1984.

Credit for taking the initiative to expand telework in the private sector in the aftermath of the Clean Air Act goes to AT&T. In 1994, AT&T held the first corporate nationwide Employee Telecommuting Day to spread word about the benefits of telecommuting. The success of this endeavor led AT&T to establish Telecommute America, now known as Telework America, in collaboration with the US Environment Protection Agency, General Service Administration, Department of Transportation, Department of Commerce, and other agencies. Following AT&T’s lead, many private companies began to embrace telecommuting, and soon started to report substantial savings and improved productivity. By 1997, more than 11 million Americans became teleworkers.

Telecommuting established itself by the late 1990’s and the major challenge that remained was the lack of respectability toward teleworkers. In the 2000s, as telework steadily gained in popularity, teleworkers have gained a new identity and enjoy newfound respectability. Telecommuting statistics show that telecommuting is here to stay, and that number of telecommuters is steadily on the rise to the extent that it might soon regain its medieval position as the de facto work arrangement.