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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

By , Network World
May 15, 2007 02:53 PM ET
Jack Nilles

Network World - Jack Nilles was designing space vehicles and communications systems for the U.S. Air Force and NASA when he began thinking about how telecommunications could replace energy-depleting and time-consuming daily work commutes. He coined the term telecommuting and telework in the early 1970s while working at the University of Southern California on projects aimed at eliminating rush-hour drives by letting employees work closer to home – or at home – via telecommunications links.

The author of several books, Nilles today is the head of JALA International, a management consulting firm he founded dedicated to promoting the use of telework. Network World freelancer Jennifer Mears spoke with Nilles recently to ask Nilles, known as “the father of telecommuting and telework,” why he started looking at telecommuting, what he thinks of its progress so far and where he sees the trend heading. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

You coined the terms telecommuting and telework in 1973. From a technology perspective, the world was a very different place then. How were you defining those terms? What were you looking at?

The basic definition is still pretty much the same. The way I got into this – in my days as a rocket scientist – was I was spending time trying to figure out how to move some of this outer-space technology to inner space, and I was talking to an urban planner once, and he said to me, “If you guys can put a man on the moon.” And I said, “Yeah, we did that.” “Why can't you do something about traffic? Why can’t you get people to work at home or close by instead of clogging up the freeways and giving us all this trouble designing highways?” And I thought, “Yeah, that’s an interesting idea.” So I started thinking about the fundamental problem here, which is why do we have all this traffic, and I did some analysis of what’s happening, and it turns out that a good part of it is people commuting to and from work. If you look at the nature of the workforce, it turns out that at that time about 40% were what we’re calling knowledge workers or information workers. So the next question is, What do they do as information workers? Well, they commute to the office and they get on the phone and they talk to somebody somewhere else. So what’s the point? Why do they have to get in a car and drive someplace to do this? Why don’t we try and figure out how to substitute something for that commute to and from work everyday and see whether it’s effective or not.

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