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Telework & Telecommuting: Common Terms and Definitions

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Telework (and Telecommuting)

Telework (and Telecommuting) are working practices made feasible by:

  • The reducing cost and increasing performance of computers and telecommunications;
  • The ready availability of tools and services that support Open Electronic Networking (including the open Internet);
  • Increasing willingness by employers, employees and self employed people to explore innovative ways to achieve business and personal goals.

Telework is made attractive by:

  • Increasing pressure on industry to reduce costs while improving levels of customer service;
  • Increasing concern about the environment and especially the impact of roads and cars;
  • The development of a networked economy, in which telework and teletrade will play central roles;
  • The shift from “paid employment” to “work opportunities”, with a rise in self employment and part time employment, and increasing dependence on entrepreneurs, very small firms and “micro enterprises”..

An understanding of telework is now essential to the strategies of enterprises and the careers of individuals.

A definition of “telework”

The common element across all aspects of telework is

the use of computers and telecommunications to change the accepted geography of work.

The most commonly encountered terms are explained below.

The term “telework” is often interpreted by the media and people generally to mean “home based teleworking” (see below), but this is misleading. Telework can have many forms and characteristics, as shown by the other terms explained below. “Telecommuting” is a term most widely used in the USA, while “telework” is the expression most commonly used in Europe.

Home-based telework, telecommuting

Working at home instead of commuting to an office. This applies to

Employed teleworkers/telecommuters
The individual’s contract of employment includes the home as a place of work as well as (or instead of) the employer’s premises.


Self employed or freelance teleworkers/telecommuters
The individual chooses or prefers to work at home. Generally, self employed people will “follow the market” – if the employer wants them “on site” they’ll work on site.


Informal or even illicit teleworkers/telecommuters
The individual and his or her immediate management see the benefits of teleworking and adopt the practice, although with no “corporate” approval and sometimes in the face of corporate policies that are opposed to teleworking. In the UK our research shows that informal teleworking is more common than formally supported programmes.


Entrepreneurial teleworkers
Its always been commonplace for people starting in business for the first time to work from home until they can afford the overheads of a “proper” office. Now, an increasing proportion of entrepreneurs have the confidence to reject the idea of a formal office and continue to grow their businesses on a networked basis, with all staff working as best suits them as individuals.

Where “telework” and “telecommuter” came from

The term “telecommuting” was coined by Jack Nilles, who has played a key rôle in promoting these concepts in the USA, and was popularised by futurist Francis Kinsman in his book The Telecommuters (John Wiley & Sons, 1987). The term “telework” has been popularised in Europe through its use by the European Commission, which has sponsored considerable research in this field, particularly into the use of telework as a means to develop economic activity and create work opportunities in rural areas or places with economic problems.

Jack Nilles also coined the delightful expression “the edifice complex” – the idea that we have to have an impressive office building in order to demonstrate our worth and prestige. If it were not for the edifice complex, more of use would work from home.

Teleworker, telecommuter

Generally interpreted to mean someone who works at home all or part of the time. Can also mean someone who commutes a short distance to (say) a telecentre (see below) instead of travelling to a more distant office. The media paint pictures of an idyllic rural lifestyle, but teleworkers may be in the city, the suburbs or the countryside and may “telework” only a few days a month, commuting with non-teleworkers on other days.

Flexible Working

This is an employer-centred concept that encompasses a wide spectrum of new working practices, including flexible working hours as well as flexibility of work location, flexible contracts of employment etc. Home based telework is often one element of a “flexible working company”, but the overall concept includes significant rethinking of the whole employment policy and its consequences.

An example of flexible working linked with home based or nomadic teleworking is the idea of “hot desks”. Instead of each employee who’s “based” at a particular office having a personally “owned” desk, employees who happen to be there on a particular day use any available desk on that day. Each desk has the standard “office systems” – PC or computer terminal and phone. The employee may have a “personal” carousel in which his or her “personal” files etc are stored, and this is wheeled to the desk and kept there while the employee is around. Since many desks in conventional offices are only occupied for as little as 20% of the working day, the savings in office overheads can be dramatic. One IBM office in New York State has actually fulfilled the 80-20 rule – it supports 800 people with just 200 desks.

IBM and Digital have both embraced these philosophies extensively, driven by the particularly aggressive nature of competition in the computer industry, by their established track record of embracing novel and progressive management methods, and by the need for intensive focus on productivity in an industry whose products consistently demonstrate between 20%-30% price performance improvements year on year.


Traditionally, each business function gathered its staff together at one location – the finance department might be in one town, customer support operations in another. But computers and telecommunications now enable any team to work well together regardless of whether they are in the same office, the same town or even the same country.

“Telecentres” reflect this thinking. Each employee travels to the office that’s most convenient to him or her – either the closest or the one that’s easiest to reach by public transport for example. The “team” works together through electronic networking.

Telecentres may be company owned or the company may take desk space in a multi-company telecentre.

When an employee changes jobs, there’s no question of relocation, only the lines on the organisation structure change. When an employee leaves or is promoted or has another form of career move, the company can replace him or her with the most suitable person, regardless of geography.

The benefits are obvious. Development of networks of well equipped and well managed telecentres would greatly accelerate take up of telework methods, but the property industry is somewhat slow to catch on to technology based change.


A special class of telecentre, named because of its origins in rural villages. The telecottage movement started in Scandinavia and has now spread to many other parts of Europe – for example there are thriving telecottages in Ireland, France, England, Wales and Scotland. Telecottages may be converted country cottages, redundant farm buildings or parts of school premises – or they may be conventional office buildings.

The original focus of telecottages was to

bring tec
hnology and relevant skills to people in remote villages who lack opportunities to gain these skills by working for “hitech” employers, who have generally clustered in and around urban centres.

Most telecottages still have this as an important part of their rôle – they provide training in the basics of PCs, word processing, spreadsheets, desk top publishing and, more recently, email and electronic networking. For those with their own PCs etc, the telecottage provides access to more expensive equipment – for example a high quality printer.

Telecottages also aim to play a part in economic regeneration, by helping local people to find work that uses these skills, either for local companies or on a telework basis for distant employers. In many cases they have introduced the technology to local companies as well as inviduals.

There is also often a “social” rôle, providing local home-based people with the basis for a network of contacts and somewhere to “meet round the coffee machine” as people do in a conventional office setting.

Many telecottages operate on a somewhat fragile basis financially, being dependent on a combination of grants and supported training. To date the market has been difficult for people “selling services at a distance”, coupled with the fact that many telecottage managers have only limited commercial experience and marketing skills.

Concentrative teleworking

All the examples so far have been about “distributed” teleworking – work that previously would have been done at a “central” office is “distributed” to homes, to telecentres, to telecottages. The technology also enables the reverse process, and in some types of work this can be very effective. An example of concentrative telework was provided by Dell, who brought together customer support operations from several European countries and concentrated them in centres in Ireland and the UK. American Express have taken a similar route.

If I’m based in Barcelona and need some kind of service, my main concern is how quickly the phone is answered and how effectively the service is provided, I’m not in the least concerned about where the person answering the phone happens to be. As technology leverages the productivity of network-delivered services, economies of scale, plus variations in local cost, make it sensible to question the conventional idea of placing service personnel “close to market”. With today’s telecommunications, “close” is wherever there’s a phone link!

Offshore telework

MTA coined this term during our 1992-1993 Study of Telework, Teletrade and Open Electronic Networking for the UK Department of Trade & Industry. We were concerned to dispell the illusion that telework is an effective remedy for the problems of economically depressed regions, and the equally dangerous illusion that telework is all about the country cottage and roses-round-the-door lifestyles. “Offshore telework” is about shifting jobs away from your own region, town or country.

Telework and the technology that supports it are neutral – they neither create job opportunities nor destroy them. What they do is to present opportunities – its up to us what we make of them.

Many countries are waking up to the economic opportunities presented by teletrade – software production being attracted to India, systems maintenance and data management work attracted to the Philipinnes, customer services work attracted to the West Indies. Offshore telework is not just about moving work to lower cost economies, however. Our 1993 report to the UK government showed that work opportunities will arise where there’s the right combination of costs, skills and entrepreneurship.


This concept is an extension of the telecottage and is very much about lifestyles and preferences. The idea is to develop a whole community that’s highly geared to the future work and lifestyles environment of the networked economy – the whole village is “wired” and each home is fully equipped with an internal network connected to the village network and through broad band communications to the “global village”. This is thought to be attractive to certain kinds of self-determining and successful people, who want to combine a rural lifestyle with excellent access to the “information highways”.

A televillage is being developed near Crickhowell in Wales and the idea is being discussed in other environmentally attractive areas such as the Highlands and Islands region of Scotland. Several such projects are at various stages of development in North America.

Nomadic teleworking

‘Nomadic’ workers are those whose primary work activity entails considerable necessary travel and for whom their ‘place of work’ is ‘wherever they happen to be’. Salespeople and service engineers are examples. It also includes many executives, who with notebook PC and mobile telephone, want to use all the facilities that technology can offer, such as voice and fax mailboxes, messaging services, and remote access.

Nomadic teleworkers usually have at least some office facilities at home, but their main concern is to have ready access to good facilities “on the road”. Their needs are gradually being recognised by airports, airlines, hotel chains etc, for example through the provision of “networker friendly” hotel rooms with easily accessible jack points for modems.

Source: eto.org.uk

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