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The Original Hybrid Workers Can Teach Us How to Do It Right

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.

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