Elon Musk’s Futurist Bookshelf Needs Alvin Toffler

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Elon Musk sent out an email to Tesla employees last week informing them that “remote work is no longer acceptable.” He’s not alone: A growing number of companies have put workers on notice that the work-at-home habits born of the pandemic will no longer cut it.

But many employees are pushing back, arguing that they get more done at home. Some have won reprieves, or limited the number of days they’re required to come into the office. Others have simply quit, raising the question of whether remote work — which has long been called telecommuting — has finally arrived.

If so, a long-forgotten group of visionaries, futurists and urban planners who hatched the idea will finally be vindicated. Our contemporary embrace of remote work, it turns out, is less the product of the pandemic than it is the culmination of ideas born of a strange confluence of personalities and events a half century ago.

In 1963, an urban planner named Frederick Memmott published an article that imagined how certain activities that “presently require transportation might be adequately served by communications.” The workday commute was an obvious place to start. What if employees communicated with the office instead of commuting to it?

For the most part, no surprise, this remained a far-fetched idea. The technology simply wasn’t there. Though it was possible to hold conference calls by phone, the practice remained rare, particularly if it entailed expensive long-distance calls.

The closest thing to a tech-driven solution to Memmott’s proposition emerged from the Apollo moon-landing program, which relied on a government-funded teleconferencing network connecting far-flung groups of scientists, engineers, managers and contractors.

This system consisted of 11 different “Apollo Action Centers” located around the country. These large conference rooms, each linked to the others via speaker phones, could also transmit information at 50 kilobytes per second (current transmission speeds are nearly a thousand times faster).

Though these centers lacked videoconferencing technology, they could “share” overhead transparencies, or “viewgraphs,” using a technology akin to a fax machine. Top transmission speed was 40 seconds an image, though most took four minutes to transmit.

The system did not allow employees to work from home. But it offered clear evidence that substituting electronic communication for the movement of people paid dividends. One study found that every dollar spent on building and operating the teleconferencing system saved NASA $9.47 in travel and other expenses.

The implications of this experiment wouldn’t become relevant to a wider audience until the 1970s. The individual who arguably did the most to turn remote work into something realistic was the engineer Jack Nilles, who is generally credited with coining the word “telecommuting.”

A self-described “rocket scientist,” Nilles had worked for NASA and other government agencies in the 1960s before landing at the University of Southern California in 1970. He joined an interdisciplinary research team that eventually put the lessons of the space program into practice.

In their most famous experiment, Nilles and his team launched a pilot program with an insurance company that repurposed the Apollo Action Centers. Rather than have all the employees report to an office in the central business district, the program created a network of regional offices, with employees expected to “report to the center nearest their homes.”

Several years later, an assessment of the program came to many of the same conclusions that NASA did: Telecommuting saved money. It also reduced traffic congestion and energy use.

This last point might have attracted little notice the previous decade. But after OPEC launched the oil embargo in 1973, the US was desperate to reduce gas consumption, and Nilles had a solution. By decade’s end, telecommuting had become a popular buzzword in public-policy circles.

Moreover, several technical developments made the idea increasingly feasible. These included the advent of computer networks, with the forerunner of the Internet operational by 1971; the related rise of email; the growing use of the modulator/demodulator, or modem; and the advent of networked word-processing programs.

By the late 1970s, a small but growing cohort of white-collar employees worked from home on portable terminals linked to central offices. A manufacturer of these terminals — Digital Equipment Corporation, most prominently — launched work-at-home programs for employees. One company spokesperson confidently declared:

“As prices of computer hardware come down, it becomes ever more practical to install work equipment at home when desired.”

The futurist Alvin Toffler’s best-selling book, “The Third Wave,” published in 1980, pushed the idea into the mainstream. In characteristically breathless prose, Toffler hailed the rise of the “electronic cottage,” as workers harried by the long commutes dialed into the office from home.

All these developments seemed to suggest that everyone would soon be telecommuting, putting an end to pesky commutes. The arrival of the personal computer, which obviated the need for bringing home big bulky terminals from work, made it seem, as Toffler confidently predicted, that much of the nation’s workforce would never leave their electronic cottages.

Things turned out a bit differently. For starters, the end of the energy crisis undercut one of the primary reasons telecommuting had been so appealing in the first place. Critics of the practice also threw cold water on many companies’ plans. These included unions like the AFL-CIO, which argued that it was next to impossible to enforce wage laws and safety codes at home.

Far more significant opposition came from managers. Though telecommuting became more commonplace through the 1980s and 1990s, bosses were skeptical that workers would use their time effectively. Stories of their paying surprise visits to employees at home — only to find that they were running a daycare business on the side — made the rounds during this era.

Still, it was inevitable that telecommuting would become increasingly common with the advent of the Internet, and after 2000 it did. Before the pandemic, 51 million full-time workers — approximately a third of the nation’s workforce — reported telecommuting for at least part of their jobs. That said, the number working more than half the time from home was much smaller: 3% to 4%.

Perhaps the pandemic will finally turn remote work into a permanent reality. But the decades-long campaign to turn our homes into electronic cottages (or sweatshops, depending on your perspective) suggests that change will come slowly, if steadily. Recent research highlighting losses in productivity during the pandemic may also blunt enthusiasm. And the pendulum that has favored workers in the current tight job market is bound to swing back to the bosses’ side sooner or later, giving managers more power to set the rules.

In other words, managers eager to see a return to the office may well prevail, even as remote work becomes an integral, if modest, part of many jobs. This messy mix of in-person and remote work will disappoint the futurists among us. But it may well offer the best of both worlds.

More on Remote Work From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Are Workers More Productive at Home?: Justin Fox

• Return to the Office? Managers Shouldn’t Overstate the Benefits: Sarah Green Carmichael

• Five Days a Week in the Office? It’s Better for Everyone: Allison Schrager

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen Mihm, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, is coauthor of “Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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