Jack Nilles: Telecommuting, Tradeoffs, Resistance, Incentives | Work 20XX Ep25

Jeff Frick
May 7, 2024
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Jack (John) M Nilles coined the term ‘Telecommuting’ when describing the trade-offs between using the phone and commuting. After the first 20 years of his career coordinating interdisciplinary technology teams in the development of top-secret optical systems for satellites and NASA, and spurred by a Santa Barbara urban planner's challenge, ‘If you can put a man on the moon, why don’t you do something about traffic?’

As the University of Southern California's first director for Interdisciplinary Research, he assembled various disciplines to study and validate Jack’s hypothesis that technology enabled tasks to be done in new ways, starting with trading telecommunications for commuting.

The development of the Policy on the Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff, 1974 Final Report (and book in 1976), was based on work with an insurance company, who wanted to reduce their ridiculously high turnover. This research is the basis for over 50 years of work invested in advancing distributed work in a world where ‘technology was never the issue; there were always more people who could do it than managers who would allow them to.’

Please join me in welcoming Jack Nilles to Work 20XX.

I was thrilled beyond belief when Jack accepted my invitation. Ninety-one years young, still actively blogging and posting on the topic, what a treat to hear the story of how all this got started.

Episode Transcript

Jack Nilles: Telecommuting, Tradeoffs, Resistance, Incentives | Work 20XX podcast with Jeff Frick, Ep25

English Transcript

Cold Open

When I was 15, I was the first or youngest member of the American Rocket Society. So I used to make my own too, sometimes with interesting results.

Jeff Frick:
Hey, welcome back everybody. Jeff Frick here, coming to you for another episode of Work 20XX. And this is a really special edition. I think we might have to put a little star on this one. You know, we've been talking about how Covid changed the world and the world moved to more hybrid working, distributed working. Well, our next guest, he's been working on this for long before Covid, all the way back to the early 1970s. And he discovered the benefits back then. Why it's taken us 50 years to try to acknowledge it is a whole different question, but we're really excited to welcome in, through the magic of the internet, all the way from Southern California. He's Jack Nilles, he coined the term telecommuting, founded telecommuting, and now he's got his own thing called JALA International that he still continues to participate in and publish and share his thoughts. So Jack, really, really appreciate you taking the time. Welcome to Work 20XX.

Jack Nilles:
Well, I'm glad to be here. It's good to talk to you too.

Jeff Frick:
You too. So let's jump back before we get into the telecommuting and get back to your early days, because I think there's some interesting things there that you participated in. You were doing top-secret work for the government, for the space program, through the contractors. And there's a couple of things about that that I think is interesting. One, you’ve talked about later is your multiple disciplinary approach when you're working on a top-secret project like that. I assume a lot of different subcontractors all have lots of different pieces. Nobody gets to see the whole thing together. And that was probably a pretty good experience in terms of working with a lot of different folks, with a little bit different objectives, and not maybe quite aligned ways of looking at the world. When you think back of that time, what were some of the lessons you learned in working with these multiple distributed organizations back in the 60s on the top-secret spy stuff you were working on?

Jack Nilles:
Well, it was, as you say, it was a problem of integrating the work of lots of different people and basically putting the pieces together so that they actually fit, you know, when you put this in a missile and launch it, it’s always nice if all the pieces work together. And so I spent, from my time in the Air Force in the starting 1954 and, into the aerospace industry after that. I was working with lots of different companies and trying to keep things together. What is now called Systems Engineering, but they didn't know what to call it then. They just said ‘Just keep the stuff working’. It’s called ‘Keep it from falling apart.’ Okay, I got used to getting stuck in the middle of this stuff I knew nothing about. But, I'm usually a fast learner, so I had to do a lot of fast learning over those years. And, in fact, at one point it got, you know, most of my stuff, in the later part of my aerospace career was, doing advanced design of optical reconnaissance satellites, and that's about all I can tell you about it.

Jeff Frick:
Right. Well, the one other piece of this chapter that I want to explore a little bit is the trade offs. I think what’s really interesting to me about aviation engineering, and I'm not an aviation engineer. I know just a little bit to be dangerous. But there's this constant trade offs, you know, between power versus drag and lift versus weight and I would imagine in the space program, when you're dealing with ounces and you know, the value of an ounce of payload is so extreme, especially back then, it really must have helped you to kind of distill what are the important things and really, you know, get to a position where you're comfortable making hard tradeoffs for the ultimate objective of the mission.

Jack Nilles:
Yeah, that's exactly right. You have to learn, you know, what's the least you can get by with and have it still work properly because weight is everything in the space business. And, I, you know, I expanded that later to think, well, it's not just in the space business case, there are things, energy is everything in the rest of the world, right? And, in the early 1970s. Well, around 1970 exactly let me back up a little, sure. Once in the midst of all this, when I was living in Los Angeles as a civilian working for The Aerospace Corporation, I got one of these calls from the Pentagon. Says, I want you to brief the Undersecretary of the Air Force tomorrow morning at 9:00 am. This is about 2:00 pm in the afternoon, the day before in Los Angeles. And where's the secretary? In the Pentagon. In the Pentagon. Okay. So I had to catch the moonlight special and I cannot sleep on airplanes, no matter what I try to. So I got on a midnight plane end up in DC, at you know 6:00 am in the morning had breakfast at the airport, called the Pentagon to make sure about the meetings. Oh, well, that one’s been postponed till 10:00 am. So, okay, I guess, I went to the Pentagon and had nothing to do. Waited until 10:00 am, and gave them a call, 'Okay, you ready?' 'No, it's been postponed to 2:00 pm.'So I had lunch in the Pentagon. Which is not a gourmet delight, so I got to 1:30 pm. The meeting has been canceled. So I never did get to brief the Undersecretary, who later became the head of National Reconnaissance Office in the Pentagon. On what we were doing, I got on the 5:30 pm plane, flew back to Los Angeles."

Now, in the building I was working in two floors up, there’s a general's office. The general had a closed-circuit color encrypted television system connecting directly to the Pentagon. You know, I could have done the briefing that way and saved all this stuff, but I wasn't a general, so I couldn't use it. So I thought, this is really dumb, right? You know, why are people spending all this time traveling back and forth basically for nothing? And that struck, this is in the mid-1960s and finally I said, you know, it kept fermenting in my head. In 1970 I started looking around for ways to transfer all this nifty space technology to the real world. And, I met an urban planner in Santa Barbara who said, if you guys can put man on the moon. And I said, yeah, because I helped them pick the cameras to map the moon so they could land at a place that didn’t have a lot of boulders in the way. He says ‘Why can't you do something about traffic?’ I thought, Whoa! Why not? So the idea took hold of me. How do I get rid of traffic? How do I make it go? And you start with basic principles again. "Why do we have traffic? Well, because there's cars moving around. And they get in each other's way. Yes, I realize that. But why are they moving around in the first place? Well, they're going to work and they're working, and then they come back home. And they take their cars. "And what are they doing when they go to work? Well, most people, or at least, you know, half of the people in the cars driving alone on the way to work and clogging the freeways, get to their office and they pick up their phone and talk to somebody somewhere else. I said, this is dumb. Why do you have to get in your car and go?" "In the middle of all this traffic, emitting carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, etc., etc., to call somebody who's somewhere? No, why don't you do that from home?

Okay, I tried to talk my company into doing some research on it, because I was secretary of the corporate planning committee, and I told them here's what we wanted. You know, here's what the thing we ought to do is test this out with some people, and I said and make sure it works properly. And they said, well, what would you need to make sure this is good, valid work? And I said, well, we’d have to hire a psychologist or two, maybe a sociologist, and probably a lawyer or two. And they said ‘Wait.’ Forget about it. We're engineers, we're metal benders. We don't deal with this kind of thing. And so hell, I got, you know, I got mad about that. So I'm complaining about it to a friend of mine at the University of Southern California. I said, you know, you have all the specialties I would need to find out if this works properly. But in my experience, universities aren't that well organized on getting them together, you know, they're under each in their own little silo. So I suddenly became USC's first, and as far as I know, only Director of Interdisciplinary Program Development, because my job was to get different schools of the university to work together on important programs that needed help from each one of them. But you had to have the whole works together in order to make it happen, right, right.

Jeff Frick:
Right, let me stop you for one minute, Jack, because there's a couple other things that people might not remember that were happening at that same time in the 70s. First of all, the pollution in the LA basin was horrific. Yes. This is before unleaded gas is before a lot of the clean legislation, so you know, not only was it the traffic jams, but the pollution was visible and horrible. And then the other thing that a lot of people today might not remember, is we had the oil crisis. I was not driving, but I was old enough to remember that mom had to plan to go get gas on an even day, or an odd day based on what your license plate number was. And there were there were lines, so you kind of had some of these external shocks, right around that same time. Did those have an influence on it or, you know, kind of accelerate the necessity or, you know, you talked about energy and you still talk about energy and sustainability and, oil and cars and stuff. It's a lot more than commute.

Jack Nilles:
Absolutely, absolutely. When I was still in the Air Force, I’d fly into LA and go into Burbank. And once I went into a store there. And the smog was, you know, it was choking. And I talked to a salesperson there and said, ‘Do you actually live in this stuff?’ Cause I live in Ohio. You know, it was cool air there. And she said, ‘Yes,’ and so you know, but you know as that was part of the impetus to get something done about this. We clearly had air pollution. It was clearly doing bad things to the world. And as I finally got into USC (University of Southern California) into this, it was just simultaneously the oil crisis. It was purely I, you know, I didn't arrange the oil crisis it was completely coincidental. But we got a grant from the National Science Foundation to do this research on what I called, ‘Development of Policy on the Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff.’

Jeff Frick:
You do it in such an engineering way, right. Again, it goes, it’s back to trade offs. And you saw a pretty clear opportunity just to swap phone calls for commute time. I want to back up again for people that are watching this. You know, this is before mobile phones, this is before email, this is before the internet. And, in the defense of the companies, you know, there used to be like one corporate number and it would go through the switchboard and they would route it to whomever needed to get it. And all the mail was in envelopes that came through the mail room every day. But what I found interesting getting ready for this is you. You’ve said a number of times that technology was never the barrier. Never. It was always people's willingness to actually try where there was an opportunity. And even in 1973, there was plenty of technology to enable, you know, an increasing amount of people to do more work, not from that central office.

Jack Nilles:
That's right. The first project we set up, I wanted to make sure it was a real-world situation, not just an academic exercise with students. So we set it up with a national insurance company who had divisional headquarters in L.A. And I asked what they were worried about, and they said, well, we have a big turnover problem. We have to hire basically a third of our workforce every year. And we'd really like to cut that down. And if you can help us, fine, you know, their problem was not something called a telecommuter. Their problem was turnover rate. We, I said we can help you severely reduce it. And by setting up some test projects and the test beds, there were what we called satellite offices scattered in at that point in the San Fernando Valley. The employees who worked for the company then did not have to get in their cars and clog up the freeway to get to downtown L.A. They could walk, ride their bicycle, take the bus, get to this local satellite center, do their work then, do typing, you know, data entry data into a mini-computer in that same building which collected all the information and transmitted it overnight over a wideband. What you know, T1 line they used to call it, it was about a, it's what we all have in our homes now, you know. into the company mainframe. Okay. So the technology, that technology was okay, you know, it was not good enough to have people work at home because the bandwidth required in the telephone system that gets into households were just not enough to get information across, so we always had, as this example shows, enough technology for people to do their work. Lots, lots of people.

Basically, there were always more people available who could do it than were allowed to do it by their management. And that's always been the case.

Jeff Frick:
So you do this seminal report in 1973. (Development of Policy on the Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff) You write a book about it in 1976. (The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff: Options for tomorrow) I think it's really the basis of a lot of the stuff that's come since. And you go and you talk to the head of the insurance company and you say, we're saving you money, everybody's happy. Turnover is down, engagement’s up, commuting is down. Nothing but happiness and roses. And they tell you.

Jack Nilles:
Why not? Well, we're a nonunion company. And we figured if we have people, you know, scattered around in these different places, the unions can come in and pick off the places one by one and the National Labor Relations Board says, you know, it's okay to do that. So before we know it, we'd be unionized. So we're not going to do it, you know, forget about it. A couple months later, I was talking with the strategic planner of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) and he said, he says, telecommuting is a terrible idea. And I said, Why? It's great. You know the people will love it, your union members will be enthusiastic about it and everything. No, no, no. You don’t understand, if they're scattered all over the countryside, how will we ever get them organized? Okay. Insurance company.

Well, because (they’ll) organize too easily. The unions. It's too hard to organize them. So based on this look into the future, I said, well, I'm going to have to find some other way to get this going. Much of the 1970s to get other departments of the federal government to put some money into broader experiments. And the usual answer was, 'Hey, I'd like you to do telecommuting because it, you know, reduces the need for transportation.' They said, 'No, no, no, no, no, that's not our mission. Our mission is to make automobiles more efficient and traffic signals more interconnected. So, it's certainly not having to do with anything to cut down the use of automobiles.' Talk to the Department of Energy. I can find ways to cut down energy use. No, no, no, from, you know, automobiles in particular. No, no, no, our mission is to make them more efficient, not to get rid of them. So in everything I presented for several years here the answer was, 'No, no, that’s not what we do. We do something else.'

Jeff Frick:
Right? Right. It's just so rare that you have an opportunity to change behavior and have so many benefits. It's like the ultimate triple bottom line. You get all these benefits for the company in terms of saving money. And this, that and the other. You get all these benefits for the employees in terms of flexibility and better mental health and physical health. And then you have all these benefits to society in terms of, you know, to have all these cars on the roads and, and it, you know unclogs the roads for the people that have to be there like trucks and stuff, delivering things. It's so odd to have something that hits on so many factors, but then so difficult for people to accept in terms of really rethinking and changing, changing their behavior. It's like, there's no trade offs it's like you win on both sides of the scale. Pretty rare.

Jack Nilles:
You know, the culture of the industrial revolution sticks. In 1800, nobody worked in big cities, in downtown big cities were a lot smaller, and there were shopkeepers and so forth and so on but most of the people lived in the countryside right. And it was not until we had big factories with really expensive equipment that we had to somehow attract the farm workers to come work and live in the city, to run the machines. Okay. And that has apparently drilled into everybody's heads since the mid-19th century. And certainly in the 20th. And here I am trying to tear it apart again. You know, I’m a danger to the system."

Jeff Frick:
Well, it's funny too. I know you know, Kate (Lister) well. I think you wrote the forward to her book, (Undress for Success: The Naked Truth about Making Money at Home) and I had her on, and she said the smart companies can use remote and distributed work to basically handle all kinds of problems. You got an employee engagement problem? Go, increase your remote work. You have, a TAM (problem, total available talent market) You know, you're not getting enough employees you need to get them from more geography than are available to drive to the office, go with remote work. I mean, you have sustainability commitments that you've made to the board. Go with remote work. So it's. And then the bizarre one is even like Nick Bloom from Stanford, you know his seminal piece of research, on remote work for the travel company (Ctrip) was not they wanted to save money on real estate and they figured people were goofing off. They just weren't sure if the goofing off, the loss of productivity more than exceeded the benefit of the cost savings on the real estate. And in fact, to your research, there were all kinds of benefits, you know, productivity goes up, not down. Time working goes up, usually not down. You know, people don't know how to stop work. It's a completely, orthogonal to what you think is going to happen.

Jack Nilles:
Yeah, our biggest problem was about, was just that. To get people to stop. You know, stop, relax, enjoy the family, go out and do something else. You know, get rid of the computer close it in the closet, lock it up. Right until tomorrow, all the management was always worried about productivity. Goofing off. People will just find their time doing something else instead and go down the tubes. None of that happened. None of it. In every time we tried it in 1984, we did have another project going with several fortune 100 companies. Maybe I said, now maybe we’ll get some big companies to do it. And they said, ‘Yeah, that was great’, and they had a good time, but you can't tell anybody about it. I says but why is this good? Yeah, it works It’s good. Yeah. Yeah, we know, but if we've got a way to get something done with very little upfront cost, you know, a little technology, some training of people, and productivity goes up and, retail costs or, our space costs go down and, inventiveness goes up. So why should we tell our competitors? So I, here I was back in the top secret business again.

Jeff Frick:

So then we fast forward a little bit more to 9/11. And then in the early 2000s, there's a rash of actually federal legislation that goes down for federal employers. Really around continuity, right, in case there's a natural disaster. You know, the Pentagon got shut down for a while to move more work as much as you can, you know, away from these central offices. And yet, you know, we still hear the cries of RTO (Return to Office) even within the federal government, even though they have their own regulations in place. And I have them all listed on the webpage, of trying to maximize people's time, not at the office. So it’s just this constant fight, fighting the tide."

Jack Nilles:
Wendell Joyce in the Commerce Department had a hell of a time just getting them started. Just the same way I did only all he was dealing with the federal government. Same resistance from managers. They didn't want to do this. They couldn't. They didn't trust their employees, basically. So they weren't sure they were going to do it until they were surprised when it actually happened? They did even better when the manager wasn't there. Wait a minute. Maybe this is getting rid of my job, right. So they've always had all this resistance is, and you know, (Nick) Bloom had a program going on in China I think (Ctrip) same thing there. You know, I've in the 1990s, my wife and I spent a lot of time commuting to Europe to explain to both industry and the governments there around how telework works and same, same thing. People tried it, the same problems. It was this is a human condition problem it is not company X’s and government Y’s job. It works for everybody. It is a culture change that takes a while to get going. And then, you know, all this time from the mid 70s on, I’d figure what is the magic trick I can use to get people's minds off the narrow route they've been traveling down for the last 100 years, and think about different ways of getting the same stuff done with less energy use with less air pollution, with less global warming. I wasn't talking about it as global warming in the ‘70s, but that's what it evolved into, what with the air pollution and it was. It was basically I found it was around a two year cycle I had of going in and talking to the CEO or somebody in upper management. I knew that the workers on the ground wouldn't have a problem with it. It’s the upper management, and then the middle management that you’ve got to convince to do it, to go through explaining things to them. Here's how it's done. Here's what you have to do to make it work. You have to look at the legal situation. Your policies and procedures, etc. You have to have the right technology. You have to have the bandwidth available at da da da da da and it takes about two years from my first visit, to the time they said ‘Oh, okay, let's try it’—two years. Wow. Just to try it. That was a cost ongoing two non-income years, right."

Jeff Frick:
Well, I'm curious you know as a scientist you've talked about when you did your multidisciplinary approach you had Annenberg was one of your participants. Right on the communication. I mean, just I wonder if you could share your thoughts. As you know, humans don't make logical decisions. You know, we make emotional decisions and the communication and the packaging and the selling of the message is almost, if not more important than the actual math or the logic or the rationale behind these things. And I wonder, as you've kind of been banging your head against the door for a long time, you know, how do you think about, the role of communications and the importance of communications when you're trying to help people get through, you know change, to get people to change their behavior?

Jack Nilles:
A major part of the training we gave people when they get into this both managers, I mean particularly managers, but also the tele-workers. Is specifically on communication is that we want you we have them write down and diagram or do something about who they talk to and what the subject was, you know, for a couple of weeks before any of this happens, write it down, draw a chart of it, and show all your all your communication methods, you know, and their connections and media are there. And now what we're going to do is make all the same communications happen. But using electronic media instead of your walking around and talking to them or driving someplace to do it. And we’re trying. That's the substitution. You know, we got to get you to keep thinking about the communication. Is it getting done? Is it getting done on time to the right people? And once they change their focus, it's all of a sudden whoa, oh yeah. This is you know, I see the lights going off again."

Jeff Frick:
So then Covid hits and suddenly within a few days time, like March 13th to March 16th, right around there. People are sent home. So suddenly companies are forced into this way of working. They haven't had any planning. They haven't had any preparation. They haven't had any training. And lo and behold, it actually works. So I mean, Covid did a lot of horrible and terrible things, and we don't want to discount that. But from what it did in terms of finally forcing people to acknowledge that this could work because they didn't have an option. Oh my goodness, what a light switch moment for you and the entire industry. Kate likes to say she was chasing the rock then suddenly it turned and started chasing her down the hill, in April 2020.

Jack Nilles:
That was my magic wand was Covid. You know, the way to fix this around is just have a good pandemic every now and then. This is not a way to do things, but it sure worked. We had, you know, several in the interim between 1970 and 2020 there are several disaster situations—earthquakes, fires, etc., etc., in which we once again demonstrated, ‘Hey, you can get your company back working together’ get your people working from home. The phone lines get repaired a lot faster than the freeways do in LA when there's a big earthquake, and they, they adapted it all right away, you know, for 2 or 3 months, but as my that experience gained, I said, you know, you gotta have 2 or 3 years of this working well before it really takes root. And that's what's happened now after Covid. It's 2 or 3 years, but the CEOs are still saying, I want everybody back in the office. You know, they're not gonna come back. It was long enough to take hold.

Jeff Frick:
Yeah. For behaviors to change. You know, the whole thing kind of reminds me of biking and biking as a substitution for cars and, you know, you've got Amsterdam that's been doing it for 40 years. And, and then actually, Paris has done quite a bit in the last ten. But you know, all these externalities, all these side benefits that come from, you know, quieter streets and, and less pedestrian deaths and, you know, kind of people getting back to their neighborhoods. And, you know, we all experienced kind of the quiet streets early Covid days. It's, but it's just so hard to change, people's behavior and their perceptions of this is the way we do it. Even though to your point, we didn't do it this way, really not that long ago.

Jack Nilles:
That's right, that's right. So we used to you know, do continuous cost benefit analysis on this stuff. And even with the stuff you could quantify. Like cost of telecommunications, costs of space, etc., etc., that benefit in almost any corporate situation we looked at. We could not possibly quantify all these other benefits like, well, we could quantify people are more relaxed, feel more creative. Their family life is better, except with teenagers. They dealt with it in the community, you know, all this stuff that has pervasive effects ultimately on the way people live and work together but, you know, I don't know. I don't know how to write down that so an accountant will appreciate it."

Jeff Frick:
Right, right. Well, I think you captured a lot of it in that one case study in terms of turnover. Right. Because if those things aren't working well, you know, that's one way to measure it. I want to shift gears a little bit, Jack, again back to your science hat and your tech hat and just get your thoughts on how the tech has changed. Because even though technology was not necessarily the barrier, like you said, it was the gray mass between the boss's ears. Technology has changed so dramatically. And you know, in the office's defense like I said, you used to have. There was a lot of stuff that was work that was there that you had to go get out of the file cabinet or, get your notes that the, that somebody left for you on a piece of paper in a little round plastic thing that sat on your desk top before voice mail. But as you look at technology and the advances of communication technology, we're still, kind of fighting this battle. But what gets you excited about the future and what, you know, this massive, kind of change in scale of compute that we now have for so, so less money than back in the day. And really what that's going to enable?

Jack Nilles:
Well, I mean, the basic dimension there is bandwidth, the wider bandwidth you have, the more varied the work you can do. At the beginning we had telephone bandwidth and you could do, you know, data entry kinds of things, but you certainly couldn't do, artwork or complex communications and so forth. So that required, you know some kind of face-to-face interaction or some. You had to go someplace else to do it because it took big expensive machinery. So as the bandwidth available increased, as, for example, when personal computers appeared on March 18th, 1981, the IBM PC was announced. You know, now the P.C. your office could be taken home because all the stuff you use in the office or a good part of it was in this box that you had in your house. Now it can be in your telephone. Right. So the cost of the technology keeps going down. The bandwidth, it’s available in terms of who you can communicate with effectively and how you can transfer data, how you can transmit feelings, even, continually expands. And as it expands, it increases the ability of people to work remotely in all sorts of situations that were completely impossible from an expense point of view, then, it was, you know 5, 10, ten decades ago, jeesh.

Jeff Frick:
It's amazing. There's a lot of, little memes out there that show, you know, like all the things that are on your desk, and they all slowly just get sucked up by your phone. From the kids' pictures to your contact database to calling people and mailing people and everything else. I want to shift gears and talk a little bit about the role of government and what, you know, kind of how you think about where the role the government is in this, both from kind of a carrot perspective as well as a stick perspective. And we saw, you know, in your early career, you know, huge investment in, in small electronics, you know, chasing Sputnik. And that drove a lot of development, which then created a lot of interesting technology that got, you know, put all over the place, like microprocessors. There’s incentives for, you know, buying EVs. So the government can really, you know, change things pretty significantly with either incentives or with penalties. What do you think the role of regulation is to keep of help move this thing along?"

Jack Nilles:
Well, there are various roles and, you know, the initial role in government for me was simply a grant from the National Science Foundation to do the research. But they wouldn't go further than that in applied research because NSF only did fundamental research on things. So I ran up against a roadblock in getting the more applied things, you know, because the departments that were involved in applied stuff didn't believe in this to begin with. So the, you know, the governments had to have to get turned around as well so they can, you know, FCC can change the rules on who has access to what source of information, how it's protected. Certainly the protection problem is a continuing issue. Security, you want to be able to communicate with anybody, but not accidentally with somebody else you don't want to get involved in this thing. So the legal background for this, the technological background that still needs to keep going so that we can we can interact with people safely and securely, and the secure part is still a major issue to be going on. And even now. Well, that's just that's worldwide that’s a problem. You know, or you go to China, There is no leakage outside. Well, except for the people who know how to do it. So government can at all levels get involved. Many, many local governments, have ordinances that prohibit people from working at home. One of the things I did with a project we had with the city of Los Angeles is get them to change their work codes so that people could, in fact, be working at home as long as they didn't have crowds of people coming to their door, that sort of thing, but you know restrictions like this impede people from living the way that they should be able to. In this new kind of a situation, it's one of these things where there's no big single pervasive rule that says if we make the following law. Everything's fixed. No, it's bits and pieces here. You have to nibble away at the restrictions on free and easy communications. You have to also nibble away at the issues of providing incentives for people to do this, which can mean, you know, zoning laws, income tax for the things you can deduct and things you cannot, that goes for the employer as well as the employee and so forth and so on. You know, I don't really have a whole big list of such things, but I do. There's all kinds of ways you can tweak the edges to make it more effectively, feasible for all sorts of people."

Jeff Frick:
Right. And then what. What are your kind of, your thoughts now where, you know, a year ago, it seemed like we'd kind of gotten through the Crucible. You know, everyone kind of adjusted and proved that this is okay, and we're moving forward. And then, like every August, like back to school, we have back to the office. You know, we have the RTO (Return to Office) Brian Elliot likes to call it RTO season return to office every August and it never works. So when you look forward 50 years crazy. You know, what gets you excited and then what gets you less excited and concerned specifically around this topic? And then more generally

Jack Nilles:
Yeah, This is gets off the subject a little bit. But the education system still needs a lot of work. We, after we did the, the telecommuting research, I did a technology assessment of the personal computer in 1978, one of the topics we focused on was education. And we basically came to the conclusion that, education is so fragmented, that it is hard to make a learning tool that is easily adaptable to each and every educational district because they have their own wants and needs. It's just that the economics don't work out for this. And the attitudes are still the same.

Jeff Frick:
Although as you're saying that, I'm thinking to myself, you know, this is the ubiquitous thing that every single kid has in their pocket. You know, maybe it's time that we, readjust the education system to work through the phone for a significant piece.

Jack Nilles:
Yeah. And, you know, we should make use of the technology, but don't get addicted to it. Is the other end of this thing, right. Getting the workers to stop working. You know, it works with whatever nifty electronic instrument you have to say, hey, this is really cool, but Stop. Do something else.

Jeff Frick:
And then what are you working on? Give us kind of the latest, which we're working on with with JALA and what's, you know, keeping you up and keeping you writing and keeping you engaged.

Jack Nilles:
I’m working mostly at a, you know, sort of the next macro level. Up from jobs to how do we get this method of examining the world, more broadly spread than it is right now. You know, how is it possible that we have factions in the United States of people basically at each other's throats? For what? Yeah. You know, why is this? How do we stop this sort of thing? I'm trying to get my hands around it. It's much, much more complicated than just trying to get a company to think about different ways to let its people work. So I said, you know, I'm used to getting in trouble. Now I’m doing it, only on my own hook. I don't have to need grants from anybody. I have enough income so I can just I can just I can harp at anybody about doing this properly regardless? Yeah. JALA is intentionally nonprofit now."

Jeff Frick:
You just wonder if, you know, the younger companies who kind of grew up this way in terms of both their management structure as well as they're just they're younger kids, they're more, digitally native. They're just more used to that, you know, as they begin to displace incumbents in particular industries, when they go to Wall Street and say, let's get out the balance sheet and the income statement, one’s going to have huge real estate expense. And one’s not and at some point, you know, do the financial analysts on Wall Street start saying you can't justify this expense anymore. Is that what's going to finally move it?

Jack Nilles:
One of my colleagues at USC was investing in and trying to develop the executive boardroom. Basically, the corporate headquarters would be this one place, you know, with 500 square feet where there would be executives would come in connected to everybody else everybody else around so hey, they know what's going on minute by minute. And that's clearly within the available technology now particularly as, artificial intelligence accompanied by artificial stupidity keeps growing. We're good at that. Just as well. But, the kids, you know, just don't have any problem with this. I'm still talking to a diminishing cadre of people as they age and fall off the cliff. Hey, I'm 91. What can I tell you?"

Jeff Frick:
Yeah. Still going strong, I love it. It's just sad that we're still having the same conversation that you validated 50 years ago with hard facts and science. And it just goes to show that people don't make... They don't make decisions based on logic. They make it based on emotion, which was always my hard time with economics. Like, these are beautiful curves, but that's not the way people work. You know?

Jack Nilles:
No, it's, the technology moves a lot faster than our brains do. So culture is basically the deciding speed of things here. The kids will adopt new things much faster, and the problem for us older folks is should we keep arguing with them or just get out of the way?

Jeff Frick:
Yeah, I think it's time to get out of the way. Well, Jack, I really appreciate all the work that you've put in this, over the last 50 years. You know, foundation for so many other people's, great work and exploring it. And it's so bizarre and weird to find something that has so many benefits on so many axes. Across the board. It's like the ultimate non engineering thing. There's very little trade offs and a whole lot of benefits on both sides.

Jack Nilles:
Well, I also went to a liberal arts college, which I blame everything on."

Jeff Frick:
That's right. But that's but you know it's funny now they're saying that's the way to go because ChatGPT is going to write all the code tomorrow. So, it's good to have that critical thinking and, and a little bit more, liberal arts background to think about these things and have that filter. Well, Jack, thank you very much for your time. I really appreciate it. 91 years young, you're kicking tail and appreciate that you’re still blogging all the time. So thanks a lot. And again, really a treat to catch up with you today."

Jack Nilles:
It was a pleasure.

Jeff Frick:
All right. He’s Jack, I'm Jeff, you're watching Work 20XX. Thanks for watching. Thanks for listening on the podcast. We'll catch you next time. Take care.

Cold Close
Great. Jack, that was terrific.
Thank you, thank you, thank you
All right, let's do this again sometime

Jack Nilles 

Father of Telecommuting
Former Director Interdisciplinary Research,
University of Southern California.


Author, Seminal Research Work on telecommuting, 1973
1974-Dec - Final Report
Development of Policy on the Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff, Final Report
Jack Nilles and Others, University of Southern California , Office of Interdisciplinary Program Development 

Seminal Book on telecommuting, 1976
The Telecommunication-Transportation tradeoff: options for tomorrow
Jack Nilles, Wiley Publishing

JALA Thoughtshttps://www.jalahq.com/

Jala International 

2023 50th Anniversary of the words Telework and Telecommuting 

Back to the Future: The Origin of 'Telework' with Jack (John) M Nilles in 1973 | Remotely One Podcast with Rick Haney and Kaleem Clarkson, Ep81 2024-May-01 YouTube - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReOgrEV87CU&ab_channel=RemotelyOne - Spotify - https://open.spotify.com/episode/1QbZHNfDRtyjvgXGX4hw0N?si=wybfZ4IZRJuNoJG7MZdvxQ&nd=1&dlsi=636eddb498b94cf7 - Transcript and Show notes - https://www.remotelyone.com/podcast/episode/back-future-origin-telework-jack-nilles-1973-ep-081 - or wherever you podcast  

A History of Telecommuting: Remote Work’s Evolution Explained 
Rachael Pasini, Virtual Vocations, 2018-Oct-01, Updated 2024-Feb

Sound Bytes: Paul Gray's Impact
Claremont Graduate University YouTube Channel, 2024-Jan-31

Top Benefits of Telecommuting That Prove It’s Here to Stay 
Cameron Johnson, Nextiva Blog, 2023-Dec-29

Benefits to Companies 
Decreased Operational Costs
Enhanced Sustainability 
Higher workplace productivity 
Greater access to Talent
Stronger Employee Engagement 

Benefits to employees 
Increased employee satisfaction 
Better work-life balance
Lack of daily commute
Improved accessibility 
Reduced everyday expenses 
Enhanced focus and productivity 

Journey Beyond the Webcam: The True Evolution of Remote Work
By Ways of Agile YouTube 


The compadre of telework | with Jack Niles
Workplace Geeks podcast. Ep04, 2022-Mar-25
Transcript and show notes - https://www.audiem.io/podcasts/the-compadre-of-telework
Spotify - https://open.spotify.com/episode/4gWhuyCnqelSberqNAHDZt?si=3e5b9cefa9cf4b

Jack Niles 
Archives of IT YouTube, 2022-Jul-08

Jack Nilles en Feria de TeletrabajoColumbia Digital YouTube, 2021-July-26

Why Remote Work Is So Hard—and How It Can Be Fixed: The challenges aren’t just technological. They’re managerial
By Cal Newport, The New Yorker, 2020-May-26

Jack Nilles tried to ignite a work-from-home trend 48 years ago. It’s finally here
by Ed Berthiaume, Lawrence News, 2020-April-17

Kids crash their parent’s teleconference call

ABC News YouTube Channel - 2017-Mar-10

What telecommuting looked like in 1973
by Vicky Gan and CityLab, The Atlantic 2015-Dec-03

What does telework really do to us?
By Jack Nilles, University of Southern California, World Transport Policy and Practice, 2014

Telecommuting is Good for You and Good for Business
Minute MBA by OnlineMBA YouTube, 2013-Mar-18

Fathers of Technology: 10 Men Who Invented and Innovated in Tech, 
Ricky Ribeiro, BizTech Magazine, 2012-June

Inc. magazine goes virtual: An interview with Jack Nilles
By Max Chafkin, mchafkin YouTube, 2010-Feb-16

Undress for Success: The Naked Truth about Making Money at Home
By Kate Lister, Tom Harnish, forward by Jack Nilles

The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff: Options for Tomorrow, 
Jack M Nilles, and F. Roy Carlson, Jr., Paul Gray and Gerhard J. Hanneman, BookSurge Publishing, 2007-May-31

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

Managing Telework: Strategies for Managing the Virtual Workforce 
Jack Nilles, Wiley Publishing, 1998, September 

Making Telecommuting Happen: A Guide for Telemanagers ad Telecommuters
By Jack Nilles, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1994-Jan-01


Telecommuting- An Alternative to Urban Transportation Congestion 
IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics, Vol. SMC-6, N. 2, February 1976

The Telecommunication-Transportation tradeoff: options for tomorrow
Jack Nilles, Wiley Publishing

One main theme of this book is that a substantial amount of telework can be accomplished effectively with only a telephone, paper and pencil as the relevant technologies.

Technology Rule One: If a certain form of information technology is available today, but costs twice as much as you think you can afford to pay, wait a couple of years; it will be down to your price threshold. If it currently costs ten times as much as you think you can afford, wait about seven years. 

Technology Rule Two: Always buy the best technology available to accomplish a certain job, even if it stretches your budget slightly. It is at least a partial guarantee that the technology will still be usable in three years. Don’t count on more than a three to five-year useful lifetime for computers or telecommunications interface equipment (such as modems), for other than very routine information tasks

Technology Rule Three: The absence of a particular technology, beyond the fundamentals, is rarely a reason (or excuse) not to telework. Almost everyone can telework at least part of the time without any form of “advanced” technology. However, improvements over the fundamentals may enable both significant qualitative and quantitative improvements in telework. 

Technology Rule Four: Given equal human and economic resources, the person who has the technology best suited for the job wins. If you are able to do the work faster, with higher quality, at lower cost, or with less strain than your competitor, then you have a competitive advantage. The key question: is the cost of the additional technology (including training) less than the value of the increased competitive advantage? If it is, then the expenditure could be warranted. 

Technology Rule Five: Telework generally decreases the start-up costs of adoption of a new technology; computer-based technologies in particular. 

Technology Rule Six is critical: The technology needed for full-scale successful telework is roughly the same as that required in the principal office—plus some more telecommunications. 

Technology Rule Seven: Telecommunications networks are the freeways of telework. 

Technology Rule Eight: There is no substitute for uniform company technology standards. 

This book is an expansion and revision of the final report for the project, entitled,
Development of Policy on the Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff, Final Report
NSF-RA-5-74-20 Dec 1974
Jack Nilles and Others, University of Southern California , Office of Interdisciplinary Program Development 

1972 - test with National Insurance company
9 month study, productivity up, health care costs down, infrastructure costs dropped

LA in Early 1970s


ChatGPT - Oil Crisis 

The gas crisis of the early 1970s, often referred to as the Oil Crisis, was a pivotal period marked by severe fuel shortages and economic turmoil. Here’s a quick summary with key dates:

October 1973: The crisis began when the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) declared an oil embargo against nations perceived as supporting Israel during the Yom Kippur War. This primarily included the United States, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

Fall 1973: The embargo caused oil prices to quadruple, leading to severe shortages and long lines at gas stations across the affected nations, most notably in the United States. The price of crude oil jumped from $3 per barrel to nearly $12 by the end of the embargo.

December 1973: To combat the crisis, the U.S. implemented several measures, including nationwide speed limits to conserve fuel and the introduction of daylight saving time to reduce electricity consumption.

March 1974: The embargo was lifted after approximately five months; however, the price of oil remained high, fostering a long-term shift in energy policies and economic practices in the Western world, and increased interest in alternative energy sources.

The 1970s oil crisis had a profound impact on global economies and geopolitics, prompting changes in energy policies and the exploration of alternative energy resources. It also influenced the automotive industry, accelerating the production of smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.

ChatGPT - Smog Situation in LA in the early 1970s

During the early 1970s, Los Angeles faced a severe smog crisis that became emblematic of urban air pollution problems in the United States. Here's a quick summary of the situation:

Background: Smog in Los Angeles had been a problem since the mid-20th century, primarily due to the city's growing population, its geographical basin setting which traps pollutants, and its reliance on automobiles. By the 1970s, the smog had become extremely severe, with frequent smog alerts affecting the health and daily lives of millions of residents.

Government Response: In response to the crisis, significant legislative and regulatory measures were implemented. The most notable among these was the establishment of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in 1967, which was empowered to set stricter emissions standards than federal levels.

Clean Air Act: The federal Clean Air Act of 1970 and its amendments set national air quality standards and required states to develop State Implementation Plans (SIPs) to meet these standards. California, led by CARB, adopted some of the strictest controls in the nation on industrial emissions and vehicle exhausts.

Technological and Regulatory Changes: Throughout the 1970s, new technologies were introduced, including the catalytic converter for cars (mandated for new cars in 1975), which significantly reduced emissions of harmful pollutants. Additionally, regulations on factories, power plants, and other sources of industrial pollution were tightened.

Outcomes: These measures gradually resulted in improvements in air quality, though progress was slow and smog remained a significant problem for years. The pioneering actions taken by California during this period set a precedent for environmental regulation in the United States and were influential in shaping air quality management practices nationwide.

The battle against smog in Los Angeles during the early 1970s marked a critical point in environmental policy, highlighting the need for stringent regulatory intervention to address air pollution issues. 


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Jeff Frick
Founder and Principal,
Menlo Creek Media

Jeff Frick has helped literally tens of thousands of executives share their stories. In his latest show, Work 20XX, Jeff is sharpening the focus on the future of work, and all that it entails.