Father of telecommuting Jack Nilles says security, managing remote workers remain big hurdles

Nilles talks about rocket science, the growth of telecommuting and major challenges facing that community

Father of telecommuting Jack Nilles says security, managing remote workers remain big hurdles.

The question was, Is this possible? When I started thinking about this, the issue was you had to have some flexible communication point that goes to the worker at home or nearby, rather than having everything concentrated in a downtown office. In 1973, I started a program at USC with a grant from the National Science Foundation. USC had lots of contacts in the business world, so we arranged with an insurance company to test this thing out. The insurance company couldn’t care less about this crazy idea I had of substituting telecommunications for transportation. What they were interested in was reducing the turnover rate of their employees, which was running at about one-third. They had to hire new employees every year, most of whom were data-entry workers. And their facilities in downtown L.A. were getting too expensive and were costing too much and they wanted to look for better real estate somewhere else. So I said, “Look, why don’t you set up some offices near where your prospective employees live?” It solved several problems, one is at the time it would be too expensive if people needed computers to have them work from home because essentially the technology of the day was dumb terminals that were hooked up with a 300 baud modem to a mainframe someplace and you’re paying message rate phone bills, so the phone bills would far outweigh the savings you’d get from having them do this. But if you have the employees walk or bicycle or take local buses to a local office, we call them satellite offices, they could use a minicomputer locally as a concentrator and do all the data-entry stuff into the local machine, which would download or upload to the mainframe downtown a couple times a day or overnight. That solved the problem. So they said, “OK, we’ll try it.” And it worked.

Productivity of those employees went up 18%, the turnover rate went to zero and facilities costs were much lower, and everything worked fine. During this whole period, we were calling this project the Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff Project, and when I tried to explain to people what we were doing, I’d reel out that name, and their eyes would start to glaze over. So I said, 'Well I’ve got to think of a catchy name for it for marketing purposes.' So, we were talking about telecommunications and commuting and possibly with computers, so why don’t we lump that together and call it telecommuting. It appears to have taken hold. So we proved it was successful. As a matter of fact, I’m in the process of reissuing the book we wrote about it that was published in 1976. So 30 years later, you’ll be able to download that book for historical purposes from Amazon.

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