Telecommunications and the Location of Work

From New Telecom Quarterly, Fourth Quarter, 1994

by John S. Niles

Modifying activity locations so that coworkers can be geographically separated is a growing objective of telecommunications applications. Telecommuting -- working at home or in the vicinity of home instead of commuting to an office -- is the leading example. Distributed work is a more general description of physically-separated coworkers. Distributed work includes work group members scattered across multiple office locations, as well as people working with network tools from field locations such as customer sites and vehicles. In turn, distributed work is just one component of electronic commerce, a recent name for the conduct of business over computer networks. Electronic commerce also encompasses electronic data interchange (EDI) and online service kiosks.

A New Federal Study

A recent report from the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) provides important insights into the research and development needed in applied information technology to make distributed work possible under more circumstances. At the same time, the report illustrates that the variables and relationships in optimizing the balance between physical proximity and isolation in human economic relationships are not yet understood, as will be discussed later.

The NRC report, Research Recommendations to Facilitate Distributed Work, is one more indication of surging interest and utilization in distributed work practices in the United States.1 Employers are increasing their employees' use of telecommuting and other kinds of distributed work for a wide variety of objectives, including cost reduction, workforce attraction and retention, customer focus, and forcing cultural change. According to surveys, most office workers profess to liking the idea of working at home or nearer to their homes, at least on some of their work days. Almost nine million Americans practice work-at-home telecommuting according to a 1994 survey by LINK Resources. Typical telecommuting means staying home to work no more than one or two days out of five.

The telecommunications and computer industries are now finding that distributed work is a driver of growth in the purchase of equipment and services. Marketing campaigns for products aimed at residence-located offices have emerged in the past several years from U S WEST, Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, Sprint, and AT&T. Looking at both its own operating efficiency and its interest in promoting telecommunications usage among its customers, AT&T held a nationwide work-at-home telecommuting day for its U.S. employees on September 20, 1994. About 25,000 workers participated -- 10% of its U.S. workforce.2

Economic development activists appreciate the possibilities afforded by distributed work for job creation and land development in their regions. There are now many examples of telemarketing and data processing back-office operations that are thousands of miles from the main operations of the companies they support. For local exchange carriers, state governments have occasionally provided regulatory relief based upon the prospect of enhanced telecommunications infrastructure facilitating rural development.

State and local government agencies are beginning to see distributed work, especially telecommuting, as a way of relieving the pressure on crowded roads in morning and afternoon peak commuting periods, as well as making themselves more competitive employers. While there are reasons to be pessimistic about urban traffic congestion moderating in the information age, distributed work does provide individuals who can do it with an opportunity to avoid participating in gridlock.3

The NRC report reviewed here is one sign out of many of U.S. federal government interest in distributed work. In the outer ring of suburbs around Washington, D.C., the U.S. General Services Administration is spearheading the establishment of telework centers to let federal employees work closer to their homes. The government reports covering the Clinton-Gore National Information Infrastructure initiative are full of references to remote work activities, including distance learning and telemedicine as well as telecommuting.

Indeed, the report I'll review here is just one of a series of U.S. government-sponsored reports on telecommuting and remote work. In addition to the NRC report, the Department of Transportation has published a report on transportation implications of telecommuting, and the Department of Energy has published two reports in 1994, one on telecommuting and a second on the broader implications of telecommunications on travel.

The NRC report is itself the product of a year-long collaboration among a dozen geographically distributed members of a distinguished special committee of researchers and practitioners selected and convened by the NRC Computer Science and Telecommunications Board at the request of the U.S. Department of Energy. The committee members are listed in Table 1.

Table 1: The People who Wrote the National Research Council Report, Research Recommendations to Facilitate Distributed Work

Robert Kraut (Chair)

Carnegie Mellon University

Kathleen Christensen

City University of New York

Clement Cole

Locus Computing Corporation

Fred Goldstein

Digital Equipment Corporation

Gil Gordon

Gil Gordon Associates

G. Anthony Gorry

Rice University

Irene Grief

Lotus Development Corporation

Patricia Mokhtarian

University of California at Davis

Lisa Neal

EDS Center for Advanced Research

Lawrence Rowe

University of California at Berkeley

Christopher Schmandt

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Mischa Schwartz

Columbia University

Summary of the NRC Report

The committee's task was to recommend research into relevant computing and communications technologies that could enable higher levels of distributed work. The committee claims to have examined the technological issues within a broad social context. They provide their explicit attention to this context in the first 10 pages of the 50-page report, which comprise Chapter One. Covering what they call "representative concerns," they describe some of the impacts of distributed work on transportation and land use, social isolation, management and personnel issues, and infrastructure funding, and mention many others. They conclude that the overall societal consequences of distributed work practices are not yet completely clear, but they also note that the treatment of these consequences is not within the scope of the study. At the same time, they point their readers to other reports that do cover these issues, and stress the importance of dealing with social issues and public policies that bear on distributed work. There will be more on the broader context later in this article.

Chapter Two describes current uses, benefits, limitations, potential enhancements, and opportunities for expansion of distributed work. The chapter is organized by the technologies that support distributed work:

One highlight in this chapter is the previously-unpublished survey which found that doing paid work at home is the best predictor of having a computer at home.

Chapter Three points out the group processes most likely to be affected by the distribution of work across space and time and discusses basic functions that must be supported for distributed work to be conducted effectively. In an outstanding insight, the committee notes three basic strategies for information technology overcoming physical separation:

  1. Reducing interdependence among distributed group members. This can be done by assigning remote workers to tasks that do not require interaction with coworkers.

  2. Reproducing at a distance the informality of the processes supported by physical proximity. The continuous video connections established by Xerox between the employee lounges in its California and Oregon labs is an example.4

  3. Formalizing at a distance the processes normally supported by proximity-based informal communications. Routine periodic teleconferencing and electronic document sharing are methods that follow this strategy.

Chapter Four covers the technical barriers to distributed work. The first barrier is complexity-of-use. The committee asserts, "today, to effectively engage in distributed work or telecommuting, one must absorb a large amount of technical detail and have access to an array of equipment."

The second barrier is the cost of technology. The committee states, "if telecommuting and other forms of distributed work are to increase, lower-cost communications devices and services will be needed."

Finally, there are communications infrastructure barriers. The report notes, "almost nothing has been done in the area of multiparty, multimedia technologies." The committee highlights three enabling technologies for effective multimedia communication among users distributed in time and space:

  1. A high-speed, broadband, wired communications infrastructure to handle diverse multimedia traffic.

  2. A wireless networking environment capable of handling multimedia traffic.

  3. Multimedia communication protocols appropriate over wide areas and involving multiple parties in heterogeneous computing environments, i.e., multimedia, multiparty protocols.

The committee also points to a need to integrate wired and wireless environments.

NRC Recommendations

Following from the findings and analyses in the early chapters, the heart of the report is the recommendations on technology in the concluding chapter. The authors' recommendations necessarily cut across both infrastructure and applications research.

With regard to infrastructure, the committee recommends that telecommunications research be conducted to advance the functionality and ease-of-use in two distinct aspects of distributed work: mobile work at limited (wireless) bandwidths and multipoint, multimedia distributed work at abundant (wired) bandwidths. A complete list of the goals they advocate for infrastructure research are listed in Table 2. Their emphasis on developing technical means of letting users easily cope with moving frequently among a wide variety of telecommunications environments wisely recognizes the diversity of networks that will result from the U.S. model of increasingly deregulated, decentralized network growth.

Table 2: Goals for Infrastructure Research that Facilitate Distributed Work, as Recommended by the NRC

  • To support distributed work in limited bandwidth environments

  • Increasing the bandwidth of mobile devices by using multiple channels or transmission technologies.

  • Developing network protocols that specifically facilitate mobile addresses.

  • Better allocating varying bandwidth among multiple media (image, text, audio, and signaling).

  • Better accommodating the competing service demands and network traffic generated by multiple, simultaneous users.

  • Maintaining the functionality of communications that originate in a high-bandwidth environment but must be delivered in lower-bandwidth environments.

  • Managing the real-time tracking and transfer of users moving between and among wireless and wired environments.

  • Developing computer processes and programs that can migrate across a network as a user moves.

  • Facilitating computer file synchronization following periods of work when a network connection is not available.

  • To support multipoint, multimedia distributed work at high bandwidths

  • Setting service quality standards for a representative variety of application areas. The report notes: "Currently, the impacts of conditions such as latency, jitter, buffering, and synchronization of high-quality, interactive audio, image, and video are not fully understood. For example, the amount of video jitter that is acceptable for distance learning may be figuratively and literally deadly in a telemedicine application."

  • Better predicting and controlling various types of simultaneous communications traffic to ensure the required quality of services for both point-to-point and multipoint sessions.

  • Determining how to charge for distributed patters of resource consumption on complex networks that have varying bandwidth across different sections.

  • Finding out how to establish -- quickly and easily without involving technicians -- better multimedia communications sessions among multiple, remote parties.

In applications research, the committee recommends focusing on research-oriented field trials of distributed work in areas of national or commercial interest such as rural health care, collaborative design of complex systems, or maintenance of deployed equipment. Furthermore, other, more generic research should be conducted to expand the capacity for distributed work beyond people with considerable technical proficiency. The committee notes that the technical intricacies of file formats, translation utilities, diskette formats, data densities, and multiple versions of the same software are all reasonably manageable within a single, physically-contiguous organization with ample technical support. However, they can quickly become very limiting within a geographically distributed work group using heterogeneous hardware, software, and communications media. The committee's complete list of recommendations for applications research is listed in Table 3.

Table 3: Goals for Applications Research that Facilitate Distributed Work, as Recommended by the NRC

  • Improving the capability to search for and share unstructured information.

  • Developing techniques for forming and sustaining distributed groups.

  • Extending information retrieval techniques so that users can search all relevant and available databases, not just previously known and selected databases.

  • Developing portable, extensible tool kits for building distributed remote control systems and their user interfaces.

  • Developing tools that actively encourage information sharing.

  • Bridging the gap between synchronous and asynchronous communications to facilitate both prior input and follow-up to group work sessions.

  • Improving and extending the user interface to the telephone network and services.

  • Improving audio processing technology.

  • Reducing the human support needed for complex networks used by distributed workers.

  • Improving the quality and reducing the cost of computer input and output devices, particulary for browsing, annotating, retaining, and communicating the context of information.

  • Improving the reliability of communications and computing systems to reduce the change of telecommuters becoming isolated due to system failures.

Of all these recommendations, the one I would highlight is the one on finding ways to more effectively use pre- and post-meeting communications to add value to the communications generated at the meeting (in-person or teleconference) itself. In other words, work effectiveness would be enhanced if we knew how to capture and share more effectively the "buzz" that is generated before and after a good meeting or workshop.

The Larger Social Context

Despite the quick disposition of broader issues in the first chapter, the report throughout carries a definite social and policy stance on distributed work. This stance is reflected in the report's two-part conclusion that "the nation would be well served by enhancing workers' capabilities to engage in distributed work and by carefully considering its wider adoption in order to increase locational flexibility, provide expanded employment opportunities, and make better use of our physical transportation resources." (Emphasis added.) While this conclusion is ostensibly sensible and pleasing to technology enthusiasts such as myself, the phrasing echoes several questionable judgments expressed in the report about the dynamics of technology, social change, and achieving desirable societal outcomes.

The first such judgment is the characterization of information technology as a neutral, facilitating force in the economic and social change represented by distributed work. The claim is that information technology is not a cause of change, but that it is only "an enabler of, or constraint on, change." This point is made early in the report, and finds its way to the executive summary. This idea is neatly summed up via the split in the conclusion just quoted between improving technology to facilitate distributed work and then also being careful about using it.

The reason that the committee wants to make this distinction is that "confusing an enabler of change with a motivation for change is likely to lead to overstating the potential impacts of the enabler, which does not alone guarantee that change will occur." And until technologies are recognized by users as successful and helpful, this is true. Indeed, it is easy for a company to build and try to sell a technology application that people find no compelling use for.

But understandable, affordable, useful technology is a direct motivator of change in all domains, not just distributed work. The availability of a seemingly helpful tool that is publicized by early adopters who like it can cause that tool to be widely used. The use of the tool causes new perceptions about what is possible. Activity patterns then change. Ordinary voice telephones, the automobile, and the television are familiar cases of this: They have shaped society worldwide. In information technology, the availability of new communications channels like facsimile and electronic mail causes changes in who people communicate with and how often. The ease-of-use and unique characteristics of these technologies, such as speed and asynchronicity, motivate new communication transactions. To claim that fax and e-mail only facilitate communications and not cause communications is to deny the now common experience of the overloaded fax machine and the overflowing e-mail in-box, even while the phone continues to ring.

The dynamic of people and organizations seeking advantage in an intensely competitive economy means that information technology is going to be aggressively used for new business objectives. This is another source of social change. For example, the standard for availability and responsiveness of customer service personnel is likely to migrate to a level determined by the capabilities of available technology, like paging and wireless pocket phones, since competitors will take full advantage of these technologies. A new company that makes its service people available to customers 24 hours per day has a competitive advantage over an incumbent market leader that does not. (But note that what's good for customers is not necessarily what's good for workers.)

What people do with technology does make a difference. Good policies and practices are important and make for a better outcome than otherwise. But the use of a cost-effective technology does not wait for the development of good policies and practices that minimize adverse side effects. The use of technology goes forward based on people doing the best they can. Across an entire society such as in the United States, the deployment of technology in combination with the average user's response to it is a powerful source of change.

In fact, the NRC report itself later contradicts its earlier claim of technology not being a cause of change. In the Chapter Two section on the potential for increased distributed work, the committee says that distributed work, including telecommuting, is almost certain to increase in the next decade. Reason number one: If you wire it, they will come! Indeed, to repeat my view, the spread of broadband and wireless telecommunications will cause a higher level of distributed work.

Unfortunately, massive increases in the capability of technology can lead to societal changes that overshoot the boundaries of what is beneficial. Consider the implications of this astonishing example of distributed work from the report: "Advanced technology currently allows more time in the field for General Electric Company service staff. A GE service technician returns home at the end of each day and uses a laptop computer and modem to obtain assignments for the next day, order parts necessary to replenish inventory, and order whatever special equipment may be needed for the next day's calls. While the technician sleeps, the van, still sitting in his or her driveway, is restocked, saving a trip to a parts depot and allowing for more repair time the following day...."

In typical telecommuting agreements signed by employees, telecommuters are required to set up a home office that is subject to inspection by their employer. Here, we have an example of field service technicians who need to live in neighborhoods where they can park a truck in a driveway that is accessible after hours to another truck. In this example, as in work-at-home telecommuting, information technology is pushing society toward a point where the characteristics and location of one's residence are emerging as criteria for employment, as opposed to the old standard of showing up each day on time and fit for work at the employer's location. This is a really big social change and part of a trend toward employer involvement in employee lives that is not totally good news.5

Policy decisions to promote and expand powerful technological capability -- such as ubiquitous wireless voice and data telecommunications -- cannot be considered separately from possible damaging uses of the capability. And the negative aspects of social change are not independent of the characteristics of the technology that causes the change. It is erroneous to think that the good outcomes of technology deployment are naturally obtainable and the bad outcomes easily avoidable no matter how the path of technology development happens to unfold.

The Role of Telecommunications Technology

Thinking that information technology is a mere facilitator, rather than a cause, of distributed work, and that positive outcomes in distributed work will be the result of good intentions applied in many alternative future scenarios of expanding telecommunications yields another fallacy: Lack of telecommunications infrastructure deployment is the main roadblock to increases in the use of distributed work.

In the NRC report, telecommunications capability comes across as a kind of fuel for distributed work where more is better. In the words of the report, the foremost broad public policy issue associated with the expansion of distributed work is "the question of the amount of private and public support for the infrastructure that is likely to be needed to provide the enhanced communications services required for distributed work."

But if there is a dynamic of social change causation in technology expansion, do we really understand what we are causing to happen? Is the human and organizational ability to make smart use of information technology constrained by a lack of technological capability? Or is technology a rapidly-expanding frontier behind which people choose from a growing abundance of tools to solve problems and exploit opportunities?

The report comes across as muddled on this point. There is an interesting, extended example in Chapter Two of a mythical teleworker named Richard who is trying hard to work anywhere, anytime, but stumbles on various technical glitches. Examples include a lack of integration between his computer and his fax machine, and the lack of synchronization of the files in his desktop computer and in his laptop. On the one hand, those of us who share Richard's familiar problems can feel his pain. On the other hand, Richard (and his committee of creators) seem unaware of many products and services now available in the technology marketplace that would cut through his problems. Any current issue of Communications Week or Network World shows that he is a dream prospect for hundreds if not thousands of companies with new products. If we generalize that there is a process of problem-finding and problem-solving that goes along with organizational and personal innovation, and that there is a competitive entrepreneurial dynamic that comes up with solutions, we have to ask, what makes us think that pushing on the supply of telecommunications bandwidth any more than it is being pushed already by the private sector race to build the "information highway" would possibly make this process work better?

In an environment of rapidly-developing technology, it is inevitable that there will be teleworking Ralphs and Rachels who are ahead of the technology deployment curve in their immediate needs, just as there will be a number of Sams and Sallys who are behind the curve. Is the present state of affairs -- where the pressure from leading-edge technology users pushes up against technological limits -- such a bad place to be? Deployment may be slowed somewhat to the degree that providers and users need time to learn exactly how powerful new capabilities yield benefits before selling and buying communications services begin in earnest. Still, bandwidth expansion, introduction of new network attachments, and deployment of new telecommunications services are very rapidly driven by the forces of technological push and market demand pull.6 Bandwidth growth, integrated communications tools, and other telecommunications capability enhancement is a nicely moving brushfire on which we do not need to spray either gasoline or water.

Balanced Proximity and Isolation

The issue we do face in a modern economy is understanding more clearly the values that need to be pursued in balancing proximity and isolation in human affairs. Human interaction when people are physically proximate has a characteristic quality of interactive information transfer that is intrinsically difficult to duplicate via telecommunications. Physical proximity with coworkers in a building provides very different perception-shaping characteristics than any foreseeable kind of remote telecommunications connection, including holographic virtual reality. In contrast, the overall thrust of the report's recommendations is that duplicating the functionality of human physical proximity when people are remote from each other is a technical problem that will eventually succumb to research-based applications of high bandwidth telecommunications. This is arguable. The better problem definition is how to find the right mix of telecommunications and proximity for the mission at hand.7

The report notes, "The informal methods that people in organizations have for sharing information, coordinating tasks, learning new skills, recruiting members, and sustaining group activities cannot be applied easily in distributed settings." While we need to get together to do these things, the thrust of the report is that we need to develop and use technology to do these things even while we are geographically apart.

My own view is that we need to focus on the comparative advantage of proximity and of isolation. Swept up in the growing power of high-bandwidth communications, we fail to grasp and fully appreciate the existing power of physical proximity in work. In Beyond Telecommuting, I make the point that:

Physical proximity of workers in an office usually yields a high level of casual, serendipitous, spontaneous, nonintrusive communications among office staff. Communications between people who are nearby can be more easily synchronized to times when all parties are mentally ready to focus on the communications. The process of synchronization is much easier in an environment where people can see each other peripherally. Staff located in separate places must be much more intentional in their efforts to communicate.8

Physical proximity in a work setting and the accompanying face-to-face synchronous communications also provide a sharper focus of attention. Well-designed office buildings strive to provide environments conducive to focusing completely on the organization's business. Face-to-face communications also make persuasive statements of concern and commitment to those present: I could be communicating with anybody, anywhere, but I am standing in front of you, giving my full attention to listening and reacting to what you say.

Meeting the goals of the comprehensive technical research agenda recommended in the NRC Distributed Work report is likely to be easy compared with the task of influencing organizations and communities toward more beneficial combinations of remoteness and proximity in distributed work. If indeed the characteristics of information technology are causal factors in reaching a beneficial balance, then tuning the NRC's recommended research goals toward achieving such balanced configurations needs to be the next priority for distributed work.

To obtain the NRC report Research Recommendations to Facilitate Distributed Work, contact the National Academy Press in Washington, D.C. at (800) 624-6242. As of press time, single copies are $25.00 plus $4.00 shipping and handling. The NRC is also planning to make the full text of the report available soon for public downloading from the Internet at or -- Ed.

1 National Research Council, Research Recommendations to Facilitate Distributed Work (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1994).
2 G. Gordon, "AT&T Holds National Telecommuting Day for Employees," Telecommuting Review, Vol. 11, No. 10 (October 1994):5.
3 J. S. Niles, "Telecommunications Won't Eliminate Traffic Congestion," New Telecom Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 4 (November 1993):19-23.
4 U.S. Department of Transportation, Transportation Implications of Telecommuting (April 1993); U.S. Department of Energy Office of Policy, Planning, and Program Evaluation, Energy, Emissions, and Social Consequences of Telecommuting (June 1994); and U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Research, Office of Scientific Computing, Beyond Telecommuting: A New Paradigm for the Relationship Between Telecommunications and Travel (September 1994).
5 S. A. Bly, S. R. Harrison, and S. Irwin, "Media Spaces: Bringing People Together in a Video, Audio, and Computing Environment," Communications of the ACM, Vol. 36 (January 1993):28-47.
6 "If You Light Up on Sunday, Don't Come in on Monday: How Companies Are Attempting to Clamp Down on the After-Hours Activities of Employees," Business Week (August 26, 1991):68-72.
7 L. K. Vanston, "Technological Substitution in Telecom Equipment," New Telecom Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1 (February 1994):48-53.
8 J. Hollan and S. Stronetta, "Beyond Being There," Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI '92 Conference Proceedings, pp. 119-25.
9 U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Research, Office of Scientific Computing, Beyond Telecommuting, pp. 2-14.


              Last modified, February 07, 2011