On July 17, 1963, Jack Nilles sat for hours in the corridors of the Pentagon, drinking cup after cup of sludgy coffee as he waited for a meeting that would never happen. Nilles, a rocket scientist for the US Air Force, had raced to Washington, DC, from his home in Los Angeles after being summoned at short notice the day before to deliver a briefing on the design of new reconnaissance satellites. As he sat there, he idly found himself pondering what millions of white-collar workers have thought since: I could have been more productive working from home.
“I had to get on this damn airplane, waste a night’s sleep and a day, for a nothing meeting—and then come back,” says the now 89-year-old Nilles. The general commander at the Aerospace Corporation used CCTV to connect with the Pentagon, but Nilles had no such luxury. So he decided to do something about it.
“Ordinarily, people in LA would drive to work to an office, downtown somewhere, but what if workers didn’t need to get in their cars to go to their job?” asked Nilles. “I had helped NASA put man on the moon, so why couldn’t I do something about LA’s horrible traffic issue? I thought: Working from home could replace the need to commute.” And so he began the world’s first large-scale experiment in hybrid working.
Nilles dubbed the concept “part-time telecommuting,” which mixed remote-working days with office-based days. Thanks to the pandemic, millions of present-day employees received a crash course in the type of work he trialed—according to the Office for National Statistics, almost 30 percent of employed people in the UK alone did some kind of remote work in 2020, compared to 12.4 percent in 2019—but now that restrictions are easing, we’re navigating a practice that Nilles and his contemporaries spearheaded in the early ’70s. After almost half a century, their concept is going mainstream. A survey by Future Forum, Slack’s research consortium, found that by November 2021, the number of global knowledge workers in a hybrid arrangement grew to 56 percent, up from 46 percent in May 2021.
Giving people more choice about where they work has always unsettled big business leaders. When Nilles first proposed research into hybrid work, his bosses at The Aerospace Corporation said: “‘Forget about it—we’re engineers, we’re metal benders, we don’t deal with touchy feely stuff,’” he recalls. Not to be cowed, he told a former colleague at the University of Southern California about his idea and was offered a job as a director in interdisciplinary program development at USC, coordinating a team of academics across various disciplines to research his hybrid working concept. “Nobody knew what it meant, which was good, because I could do whatever I wanted,” he laughs.
In 1973, with a grant from the National Science Foundation, Nilles gathered a team of scholars across multiple disciplines to test whether part-time telecommuting would be effective in an actual business organization, and see what impact it had on productivity and energy. Staff at the participating national insurance company spent a few days a week working from home using the telephone, and several days going to a specially established satellite office by bus, bike, or on foot. Their work was fed into a mini computer at the end of the day, and then at night, all data was transferred to the mainframe computer downtown.
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
Within nine months, the results were impossible to ignore—the staff turnover rate dropped from 35 percent to zero, productivity rose by 15 percent, and the company was saving money on training costs, expenses, and sick pay. If rolled out across the US, the company estimated it could cut expenditure by more than $5 million a year.
Word spread and other academics established similar projects with national businesses. Despite the undeniable benefits, employers were always the biggest sticking point. Often companies signed up to the programs, put everything in place, and when productivity began to rise and operational costs dropped, a new CEO would pull the plug. “It was particularly the C-suite, who were brought up in the industrial age and just didn’t take to this computer stuff—fortunately, they’re dying off,” says Nilles.
But it’s going to take a lot more than the extinction of office dinosaurs to solve 2022’s hybrid working woes, which are plagued by never-ending days and casual rudeness, to the in-office Zoom obsession and toxic new cliques. Still a nebulous term, “hybrid” might mean coming into the office most days, or only coming in once a quarter. In some companies, the combination could even be determined by each individual. Everyone’s interpretation is different.
As well as grappling with the meaning of hybrid work, some businesses are reluctant to invest in adapting their business practices. According to a recent survey from the Work Foundation and the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), two-thirds of managers (65 percent) in the UK haven’t received training on how to manage remote staff. And while 79 percent of global companies intend to make moderate to extensive hybrid work changes, according to data gathered by professional services giant EY, just 40 percent have actually told their staff about those plans. Despite its shortfalls, employees are fans, with 68 percent of global knowledge workers telling Future Forum that they prefer hybrid work. As hybrid working becomes the dominant way of working, the path to success was already laid out by early adopters decades ago.
Nilles recommends proposing a management by results structure, not by process—even if your supervisor hasn’t reached this point yet. “Lay out what you’ll do when working from home and the results they can expect, so be specific about a schedule and mileposts,” advises Nilles. “You’ll soon show them you will deliver better than before, because you don’t have them breathing down your neck the whole time.”
David Fleming, who worked with Nilles on the State of California Telecommuting Program, argues that no one should expect to nail a hybrid arrangement instantly. Fleming began his career as a right of way agent, working to obtain property rights from owners for use in government or private industries. A critical part of his work was providing different training sessions for “teleworkers” and “telemanagers.” He found that the only difference between a good telemanager and a good manager was training. “After that, we brought them together to discuss the quality, quantity and timeliness of the work done at home,” says 84-year-old Fleming. “It felt radical because some managers and supervisors had never had those discussions.”
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
He also established a telework leadership team with an executive who, according to Fleming, “had a vision to see part-time telecommuting going beyond just a pilot, as something that would reduce the demand of high-rise buildings and mitigate environmental effects of commuting.” While that’s a tall order for most, the basic principle prevails: Hiring a dedicated hybrid working senior role could make the transition, and necessary experimentation, more effective for everyone.
There needs to be a move away from one-size-fits-all approaches and managers must plan for employees to use the space and environment in different ways. “Gregarious people who love being around others will want to interrupt everyone else and talk,” explains Fleming. “That was me—I just wanted to make up for lost time.” Don’t presume office gossip will take a hit as hybrid working increases. “We found the part-time telecommuters knew more about the gossip than people in the office full time, just because they were being more active about finding out what was going on,” says Nilles. “They were becoming professional snoopers.”
While the grapevine thrives in a hybrid working environment, there’s no guarantee that forcing everyone to spend time together is a good idea. Early on in the program, a software development company, which had employees scattered all over the world, decided to hold an annual party in Denver. “Once all these people got together face-to-face, they realized they hated each other,” says Nilles. “They just couldn’t get along and the first get-together was their last. There’s no way of guaranteeing you will like your colleagues, even if you already work with them.”
“For those that were suddenly thrust into this two years ago, the hard part is finding the magic mix—the optimum ratio of being at home and in the office,” says Nilles. He expects the number of days people spend in the office to increase and productivity to remain steady. Offices must also change accordingly. “As we’ve been saying for the past 30 years, cubicles have to go and you need the office to be somewhere to interact with each other,” he says.
Our whiplash-inducing introduction to working from home shouldn’t be seen as an impediment to future hybrid working progress. Academic Joanne Pratt, whose interest in home working was piqued with the arrival of the IBM PC in 1981, had her very own case study to prove emergency switch ups don’t spell disaster. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake caused the collapse of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, making it impossible for a group of public utility employees to drive to the office.
“I thought—good grief—here’s a chance to see whether telecommuting really works,” she says. “I interviewed them before the collapse and after its repair, and over half continued to telecommute. The rest returned because they didn’t have the technology in place at home to continue, or the project finished and they moved onto something else—none stopped because it didn’t work.”
Pratt, whose cleaners vacuum around her as she conducts a Zoom call from her home in Santa Fe—“the joys of hybrid working!” she laughs—believes the approach can enrich lives. “Humans are changing all the time and this kind of flexibility enables our work to change with us,” she says. We should be measuring the quality of our lives, not just the quality of our jobs, and while hybrid working isn’t a perfect solution, it’s a flexible way to live in the future, she says.
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
The groundbreaking work of Nilles, Fleming, and Pratt has taken them around the world, advising governments and policymakers on embedding healthy and sustainable telecommuting models, all the while trialing it themselves. At every turn, they were met with resistance from the tops of organizations. Although they’re sad it took almost 50 years—and a pandemic—for hybrid working to catch on, they’re sanguine about the hesitancy. “Oftentimes, when we fear something and we see the other side of it, it becomes acceptable,” says Fleming. “We have to respect the fear felt by businesses and move through it slowly.”
More Great WIRED Stories📩 The latest on tech, science, and more: Get our newsletters!Driving while baked? Inside the high-tech quest to find outYou (might) need a patent for that woolly mammothSony's AI drives a race car like a champHow to sell your old smartwatch or fitness trackerInside the lab where Intel tries to hack its own chips👁️ Explore AI like never before with our new database🏃🏽♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team’s picks for the best fitness trackers, running gear (including shoes and socks), and best headphones