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.

So back then you considered it telecommuting, but the idea was to have people go to a satellite office?

Yeah, because the technology for working at home wasn’t there.

Did you envision that eventually it would be telecommuting from the home office?

Yes, that was always one of the main goals. And then the personal computers came upon the scene that was sort of the eureka moment. The problem with a dumb terminal is you still have to have basically your office there with all your reference materials and all that stuff. Whereas with a PC, you can have your office wherever the PC is, because most of the references materials and the software that you need are built into the PC, so now you’re freed from much of the need to be connected to a mainframe somewhere else and now all that’s happening is you’re transferring changes to something rather than the whole content all the time. And that really made a substantial difference in where you can telecommute from.

Do you think things have been progressing with companies supporting telework or telecommuting as you expected?

It was slower than I expected at first, because I underestimated the magnitude of inertia in those companies and in particular the reluctance of midlevel managers to change the way things are done, and that has been the primary barrier to expansion ever since and it still is.

Why is that there? It’s it just the fear of, if I can’t see you, you’re probably not working?

Most people are relatively clueless about the human-interaction aspects and supervision techniques and so forth required to be good managers. And so the fallback position is, well, if they’re all in the office and I can walk around and see them – the management by walking around system – then I can tell if they’re goofing off and do something. We started to invest in a new management system that says, look, management requires coming to some agreement with your employees as to what it is they’re supposed to be doing and what tools they need to do it and what skills they have to have in order to make it happen. And if you do this properly, you decide among yourselves what’s supposed to happen and where they’re supposed to go and what the output is supposed to look like, what the success criteria are, quality factors, etc., then your job as a manager, once you’ve got all this agreement and you know they can do it and you know they have the tools to do it, is to get out of their way. If you do that, it’s now their responsibility to produce because they’ve agreed with you that this is what’s needed and here’s where they should be going. So you’re headed in the same direction. It doesn’t make any difference to you where they are when they do it. And that’s a hard message to get through to people, but it works. And that’s basically the key to successful telecommuting. Where you see programs that have failed, it’s because either they didn’t understand that and they didn’t train the people, particularly the managers, or there were some technological problems. The other part of this is if they're going to work remotely, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got the technology so that remote access is as transparent as possible, that it’s no harder to communicate with each other than if they were in the office next door.

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