Electronic Technology Creates the Possibility of Telecommuting

Developments in electronic office equipment installed in people’s homes enabled business employees to work at home as telecommuters. Employees were initially interested in the greater flexibility of working at home, and employers benefited from increased productivity.

Summary of Event

In the early 1980’s, key improvements were made in both the power and the affordability of electronic office equipment. These developments enabled many business employees to work all or part of the week at their places of residence. The personal computer was the centerpiece of the modern gadgetry. With a modem, a printer, a fax machine, a telephone with special features, and, a few years later, a small copy machine, a home-based white-collar worker could put together a “virtual office” with links to the company office to enable transfer of information in either direction. Telecommuting
Computing, applied;telecommuting
Personal computers;telecommuting
[kw]Electronic Technology Creates the Possibility of Telecommuting (1980’s)
[kw]Technology Creates the Possibility of Telecommuting, Electronic (1980’s)
[kw]Telecommuting, Electronic Technology Creates the Possibility of (1980’s)
Computing, applied;telecommuting
Personal computers;telecommuting
[g]North America;1980’s: Electronic Technology Creates the Possibility of Telecommuting[03820]
[g]United States;1980’s: Electronic Technology Creates the Possibility of Telecommuting[03820]
[c]Business and labor;1980’s: Electronic Technology Creates the Possibility of Telecommuting[03820]
[c]Computers and computer science;1980’s: Electronic Technology Creates the Possibility of Telecommuting[03820]
[c]Communications and media;1980’s: Electronic Technology Creates the Possibility of Telecommuting[03820]
Toffler, Alvin
Miller, Thomas W.
Mokhtarian, Patricia Lyon
Nilles, Jack M.

The term “telecommuters” was adopted for home-based workers connected to their employers by electronic equipment. The pioneers of such work practices were a few isolated individuals with unusual levels of specialized technological expertise who set up arrangements of their own design. In the early 1980’s, the technology became accessible to large numbers of typical businesspeople. By 1984, about two hundred companies had made some experiments with telecommuting, and about thirty had set up programs.

Companies with employees working at home were initially concerned about productivity. Soon, however, some insurance companies, such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of South Carolina, were able to report improvements in output when workers stayed at home. Employees were initially interested in flexibility in the ways of combining work and home obligations. Many other advantages of telecommuting were gradually recognized, and futurists surmised that the way work is done in society could be transformed.

Technical developments in home-installed electronic equipment connected to equipment at the corporate office offered new possibilities in the flexibility of working arrangements. These developments included portable telephones and other devices that allowed workers to contact employers when on the road, held up in traffic, or on commuter trains. By the early 1990’s, fax machines that could be used in cars were on the market. In most cases, the equipment for telecommuters was provided by employers. There were some individuals, however, whose enthusiasm to set up home-working arrangements led them to buy their own equipment.

Telecommuting has made possible a revolution in lifestyles for many workers.


With a personal computer at home, a worker can produce letters, reports, budgets, sales projections, forecasts, and other documents in exactly the same way as in the corporate office. Necessary data could arrive in the home via modem, and finished documents could go back the same way. The machine at home, together with its software, needed to be compatible with that at the office. For some years, there were problems of information exchange between Apple Apple Computer and International Business Machines (IBM) IBM computer systems and between personal computers and mainframes. Translatability and conversion features were built into the systems as manufacturers recognized that users were increasingly linking machines.

When a modem is used in conjunction with a computer, access to data stored elsewhere becomes possible, and a conduit for communication is established. This makes available a whole range of information and business support services, including electronic mail (e-mail) service. These capacities reduce the isolation that would otherwise be the condition of workers at home.

Worker mobility increased still more with the advent of laptop computers. These small machines, which are powered by rechargeable batteries, are light enough to be carried around, and many are as powerful as desktop personal computers.

Improvements in computer printer technology also benefited telecommuters. Many printer manufacturers offered several versions of their products, intended for various levels of use and different levels of quality. Printers for home use need not be different from those attached to computers in offices, but users could realize cost savings by purchasing printers for home offices that were designed for less strenuous or exacting work than might be needed in the business environment.

The facsimile, or fax, machine established itself as an indispensable piece of office equipment. The word “fax” quickly became part of the English language, as both a noun and a verb. A fax machine sends a copy of a document to another fax machine by sending data over telephone lines. Increasing use of these machines helped lower their cost and made them affordable for home offices, allowing workers to reach a large proportion of the business world without leaving home.

Developments in telephone technology Telephone technology are often mentioned in the context of telecommuting. Workers conducting routine claims processing for an insurance company, for example, may need nothing more than basic telephone service. Others may need a line separate from their personal telephone, together with message or voice mail systems. Still others may need cellular telephones, which can be taken on the road. Cellular telephones made long commutes more productive and allowed offices to keep in touch with traveling employees.

People who switched to working at home could get some benefits from advanced technology even without purchasing equipment. For documents not suitable for fax or modem delivery, and for people without these devices, improved services of the U.S. Postal Service, United Parcel Service, and Federal Express were available. In addition, many copy shops and private mailbox businesses began offering fax service to customers.

For a time, the major weakness in the telecommuter office was the lack of a copier. Home-based workers in the 1980’s regularly used the services of local copy centers as a useful supplement to the home office. This was expensive in terms of time, if not in charges for copies. Copy machines were large, heavy, and expensive, and so not suitable for use in the home. Responding to the needs of home-based workers, manufacturers began producing inexpensive desktop copiers. With this addition, home offices took on the characteristics of corporate offices.


Telecommuting has had effects on individuals who work at home, their employers, and society as a whole. Telecommuters spend less time, or no time, traveling to and from work. This reduces both the unproductive use of time and expenditures for gasoline and vehicle maintenance. Telecommuters also enjoy flexibility in organizing their work, being less constrained by office hours. In the case of parents, the chance to work at home permits combining paid work and child-care responsibilities. Many parents found it possible to look after children while putting in a normal day’s work. In some cases, parents from different families shared child-minding duties while maintaining, among themselves, the required attention to computer terminals.

Parents who decide to stay home to provide child care can ease their transition back to the office by finding employment as telecommuters or in other home-based work. Telecommuting offers a solution to the conflicting pressures of work and family. Telecommuting also enables a gradual return to work for convalescents not yet ready for a five-day-a-week rigor. Persons rendered immobile through an injury such as a broken hip or a permanent disability can be productive even though unable to travel to work. Telecommuting thus offered new possibilities for disadvantaged workers.

The drawbacks of telecommuting primarily flow from the isolation of being at home. Many employees who have known the ways of the office become acutely aware of what they are missing when they stay at home: the informal communication and social interaction of the office. Some worry that their reduced visibility will limit their promotion prospects. The value of face-to-face contact as part of the communication that supports work activities is missed when working at home. These concerns are mitigated when the employee goes to the office for part of the working week.

Motivation can be affected in either direction by telecommuting. Those who need the stimulation of rapport with others will be less motivated at home. Others may enjoy the feeling of enhanced competence when they discover that they can find a way to meet a challenge without recourse to the help of the worker at the next desk. Although human oversight is diminished, home-based workers can still be given production goals. Some computer software allows monitoring of the amount of work performed.

The situation for disabled workers is delicate and complex. Special efforts to use new home-based technology to bring housebound people into the workforce can either liberate them from the feeling of being unproductive or reinforce their sense of isolation. Companies may decide that it is less expensive to keep a worker at home than to redesign the office to meet his or her needs.

Regarding the impact on companies, a primary concern is the productivity of employees working at home. Without acceptable productivity, no company is likely to permit telecommuting. The verdict from diverse companies is that responsible and mature employees generally show an increase in productivity when working from home. Companies that had instituted telecommuting programs by the 1990’s included those in banking, insurance, publishing, business services, computers, catalog retailing, and stock brokerage. All found that telecommuting had the potential to increase productivity.

There are legitimate concerns regarding whether a person working at home will be distracted by various elements of the home environment and thus deflected from work. The office itself has distractions, however, and many workers find it easier to concentrate and keep on task at home. Although not everyone may be temperamentally suited to working at home, many people are more productive. The company office can maintain links and can telephone or fax a telecommuter to keep a check. At the other extreme, some people increase the length of their workday because there is no longer a point in the day when they leave the work environment. Their work is in their homes and may be difficult to ignore.

Aside from gains in worker productivity, companies benefit through economies in office space, parking, and other overhead expenses. More subtle effects include enhancement of communicative skills of managers, since more precision is needed to convey instructions to people who are not physically present; development of different methods of project management to allow workers who do not physically meet to bring parts of a project together; and development of judicious schemes of goals and rewards for people working outside the office. All these gains can translate into better use of traditional, office-based employees.

Some companies with telecommuting employees are faced with problems of monitoring and security. In most cases, the requirement that work be done to specification and by a certain deadline are the only control criteria necessary. In some cases, a business might be worried about home employees using company equipment for freelance work or about the use of proprietary information by employees who could undertake work for competitor companies or sell information.

The impact of telecommuting on society as a whole is potentially enormous, as it reduces the distinctions between work and home. Tax law has had to adapt to workers who are neither office-based nor self-employed, or who work part of each week at an office outside the home. At the local level, laws that restrict use of the home for commercial purposes were challenged.

Another consideration for society is the matter of pollution and fuel consumption resulting from the familiar types of commuting. As travel becomes more expensive, inconvenient, and time-consuming, the benefits of telecommuting increase. Telecommuting reduces the burdens on those forced to travel and on society in general by reducing traffic congestion and pollution.

Regarding questions of distributive economics, the impact of telecommuting may well include both bad and good. Organized labor has warned of the increasing use of employees who, because they are dispersed, are unlikely to become part of a collective unit that protects their interests. Labor unions warn of home-based sweatshop labor. On the positive side, there is evidence that in Great Britain, home-based workers’ pay is better than average. It is conceivable that the hiring of home-based people in low-income neighborhoods by companies in the suburbs could be encouraged as a public policy for reducing geographic disparities in income.

The technology that supports telecommuting has both liberating and isolating tendencies. Its long-term impact will depend on how business and workers choose to act on the possibilities that the technology creates. Telecommuting
Computing, applied;telecommuting
Personal computers;telecommuting

Further Reading

  • Arden, Lynie. The Work-at-Home Sourcebook. 9th ed. Boulder, Colo.: Live Oak, 2005. Gives practical information about many aspects of telecommuting and other home-based work. Indicates the kinds of work that lend themselves to home work and includes directories of companies that have telecommuting programs. Helpful for anyone searching for a telecommuting job or other home-based employment.
  • Bernardino, Adriana. Telecommuting: Modeling the Employer’s and the Employee’s Decision-Making Process. New York: Garland, 1996. Originally presented as the author’s thesis, this work develops a system to examine the level of adoption of telecommuting. Includes a cost-benefit analysis of telecommuting.
  • Best, Fred. “Technology and the Changing World of Work.” The Futurist 18 (April, 1984): 61-66. Deals with the many issues associated with working at home, including skill requirements, displacement of workers, and management of decentralized systems. Includes speculation about a future home-based economy.
  • Hamilton, Carol-Ann. “Telecommuting.” Personnel Journal 66 (April, 1987): 90-111. A guide for setting up telecommuting programs in a company. Recognizes various factors affecting employees, including security, employee benefits, career development, equipment, and insurance. Useful for companies considering a telecommuting program.
  • Kanarek, Lisa. Organizing Your Home Office for Success: Expert Strategies That Can Work for You. 2d ed. Dallas: Blakely Press, 1998. A practical guide to organizing the office at home. Includes material on choosing the location for the office, filing systems, planning, time management, handling information, and choosing printers. Contains useful lists of suppliers of equipment.
  • Kinsman, Francis. The Telecommuters. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1987. A study of telecommuting in Great Britain. Describes specific company schemes in detail and reports high productivity and good earnings among telecommuters.
  • Wolfgram, Tammara H. “Working at Home: The Growth of Cottage Industry.” The Futurist 18 (June, 1984): 31-34. Offers a perspective about the future of work. The trend toward work at home is noted. States that some issues need to be faced, including the changing of laws that restrict home-based work.

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