Rethinking knowledge work

Bosses acknowledge that remote workers don’t suffer from productivity problems. Research has found telecommuters who can work outside normal office hours and don’t have to spend time commuting often are more productive than their cubicle-bound counterparts. Rather, managers want their teams within view and are willing to trade some efficiency for the serendipity that office-based conversations might yield.

Source: Working From Home? The Boss Wants You Back in the Office

Although information and communications technology (ICT) has eliminated the need to commute to an centralized, commuter office (CCO) every work day, many organizations stubbornly cling to the old paradigm out of habit even as peak hour traffic congestion grows and makes it less practical and inaccessible.

Diane Mulcahy notes executive and human resources professionals contend the CCO supports team-building, culture and collaboration. That’s likely true. But it comes at a terrible personal cost to staff member wellness and work satisfaction, not to mention the cost of maintaining CCOs. It’s not a good and sustainable tradeoff and it’s time to acknowledge that circumstance.

Silicon Valley ICT companies adhere to the CCO model, building huge, high dollar corporate campuses and busing staff there daily from San Francisco over jammed freeways. In the larger scheme, to solve this problem requires rethinking knowledge work. To what extent does it have to be done face to face and what can be done without staff being co-located? If team members must be in close daily proximity over the course of a project, a brainstorming session or an agile sprint, might that be done on a temporary basis with team members housed in close proximity so they don’t have to commute? In this framework, the CCO is replaced by a conference or meeting facility, with knowledge workers spending most of their time working in their communities in home offices or satellite or co-working spaces.

The solution to traffic congestion has to come from the demand side since adding more freeway lanes or smart vehicles isn’t the answer. That will require knowledge and information economy organizations to rethink how they manage and allocate resources.

Renewed exurban growth doesn’t necessarily mean long commutes

The reasons for growth can be varied, according to Frey and other demographers. Jobs in booming cities can draw new residents to nearby small towns, where quiet streets and good schools can be especially appealing to millennials ready to raise children. In some states, urban gentrification has pushed the poor and immigrants further into outlying towns, where housing is less expensive.The growth may portend a renewed interest in faraway suburbs, which was tamped down during the recession, Frey said.“The more successful parts of the country may be poised to experience a renewed ‘exurbanization’ as the economy picks up,” Frey said, referring to people who choose to live in rural areas while commuting into the city for work. The trend could lead to continued growth of small towns in states like Colorado, Oregon and Utah.

Source: While Most Small Towns Languish, Some Flourish

This item takes a surprisingly circa 1990 retro view of exurbanization. The virtualization of knowledge-based organizations and the broader deployment of advanced Internet protocol-based telecommunications infrastructure are factors that didn’t exist much then, making a long commute essential for most exurbanites. That’s not necessarily the case in 2017 and will increasingly be less so in the future.

One Thing Silicon Valley Can’t Seem to Fix – The New York Times

The built environment of the Valley does not reflect the innovation that’s driving the region’s stratospheric growth; it looks instead like the 1950s. Looking at aerial views of midcentury campuses like the Eero Saarinen-designed Bell Labs next to contemporary ones like Apple, it’s nearly impossible to tell the midcentury structures from the 21st-century ones. Designing job centers this way contributes mightily to the region’s ever-worsening traffic. If you found yourself stuck on Highway 101 between San Francisco and San Jose, you’d really see what Silicon Valley looks like for many. Building campuses on isolated suburban tracts guarantees long commutes, and this is one of the worst in the country.

Source: One Thing Silicon Valley Can’t Seem to Fix – The New York Times

Kudos to Allison Arieff of The New York Times for raising this issue as I have many times in this space. I’ve also noted the irony that Silicon Valley’s legendary information and communications technology (ICT) innovation has effectively obsoleted the 1950s centralized, commute-in office (CCO), yet the region remains mired in commute traffic.

As Silicon Valley tech pioneer Bill Davidow pointed out in his 2011 book Overconnected, those office complexes came about because the “killer app” of the 1950s was a combination of pavement (freeways), cheap gasoline and the automobile that made it possible to work in another location far from home. Now ICT allows knowledge work to be done anywhere, eliminating the need to move bodies over highways every work day to CCOs. That’s a real killer app for our time to slay commute traffic congestion — in Silicon Valley and other metro areas.

Time for NYC organizations to go virtual as daily commuting becomes increasingly impractical and obsolete

NEW YORK — A massive two-month repair project will launch Monday at the country’s busiest train station, temporarily exacerbating the daily commuting struggle during what New York’s governor has predicted will be a “summer of hell.” But it’s only a stopgap measure against a root problem it won’t solve: that one of the world’s great cities increasingly seems unable to effectively transport its workforce. At Penn Station, crowds of commuters fuming at frequent afternoon delays already wedge into narrow stairways down to the tracks, all for the privilege of standing in the aisles of packed trains for a 45-minute ride home. In the mornings, it can take 10 minutes just to climb a flight of stairs to the concourse.

Source: Expectations low, NYC commuters brace for a ‘summer of hell’ – The Washington Post

The Industrial Age pattern of the daily commute to the downtown office is growing increasingly impractical and obsolete in a post-Industrial age when information and communications technology (ICT) is obviating the need for concentrations of centralized, commute-in offices like New York City’s.

Poll shows voter support for $3 bridge toll hike

With constant gridlock turning freeways into parking lots, BART trains packed to the gills and mounting concerns about how to accommodate continued growth in the region, more than half of prospective voters said they’d be willing to pay up to $3 more in bridge tolls to ease congestion, according to a new poll.Commissioned by the region’s two largest business boosters, the Bay Area Council and Silicon Valley Leadership Group, along with the transportation policy think-tank, SPUR, the poll surveyed more than 9,000 residents, 85 percent of whom said they felt traffic is worse this year than it was last year. Roughly three quarters, of 74 percent, said they’d be willing to pay more to cross the Bay Area’s seven state-owned bridges if that money is invested in “big regional projects” that ease traffic and improve mass transit.

Source: Poll shows voter support for $3 bridge toll hike

Raising bridge tolls is based on the erroneous assumption that commuting is a discretionary activity and thus economically penalizing it will get drivers off jammed highways. It’s not. For commuters, commuting is part of their jobs. They are merely conforming to an outdated cultural expectation that knowledge workers show up every day at the office. This “solution” dates back to the 1980s when Bay Area traffic congestion began getting out of control. Transportation planners suggested at the time that market-based approaches such as higher tolls during peak hours would help alleviate it.

Bay Area employer organizations can have the greatest impact on reducing commute hour traffic congestion by reducing the role of the centralized, commute-in office. That can be done by leveraging information and communications technology — much of it innovated in the Bay Area — to enable knowledge workers to work in communities where they live instead of driving daily to work.

The centralized commuter office as tech corporate edifice

It is not the only technology company erecting a shrine to itself. Apple’s employees have just begun moving into their new headquarters in Cupertino, some 70 kilometres away, which was conceived by the firm’s late founder, Steve Jobs. The four-storey, circular building looks like the dial of an iPod (or a doughnut) and is the same size as the Pentagon. At a price tag of around $5bn, it will be the most expensive corporate headquarters ever constructed. Throughout San Francisco and Silicon Valley, cash-rich technology firms have built or are erecting bold, futuristic headquarters that convey their brands to employees and customers.

Source: Technology firms and the office of the future

This is richly ironic. These tech firms have decentralized knowledge work and obsoleted the daily commute to the office with hardware, software and apps that make performing knowledge work location independent. Yet they continue to build gleaming office complexes as corporate edifices that communicate economic power and success like their 20th century Industrial Age predecessors. Consequently, it’s no coincidence that the San Francisco-Silicon Valley area needlessly suffers from a 20th century malady — horrible commute traffic congestion — that grows worse in the 21st.

Dealing with the Sprawl Devil

In the last seven years alone, 600,000 new residents have settled in the region. Alameda is the fastest growing of Bay Area counties. Here, 120,000 people found elbow room—and in many cases, vast suburban lawns, swimming pools, and multicar garages—between 2010 and 2015. The county is now home to more than 1.6 million people. Contra Costa County’s population jumped from 1 million to almost 1.1 million in the same five-year period. The city and county of San Francisco also grew, from 800,000 people in 2010 to about 870,000 today. But most of this population growth is taking place in suburban areas far from major centers of employment, according to a report released by the California Department of Finance in early May.

The suburban growth is driving traffic congestion to crisis levels as residents commute hours each day to and from work on the Bay Area’s overburdened roadways. Traffic is increasingly cited in polls as one of the top reasons that locals want to leave the area. While many towns and cities combat traffic by improving transit systems and supporting housing projects near bus and train stations, traffic is getting worse—and the housing boom in the remote suburbs is directly reversing progress by introducing tens of thousands more people into communities that can only be easily accessed by automobiles. “Sprawl creates traffic,” Devalcourt noted. “It’s designed to accommodate driving.”

Source: Dealing with the Sprawl Devil

The San Francisco Bay Area Paradox I’ve frequently referenced on this blog continues to build.  The region — an Information and Communications Technology innovator — remains mired in a 20th century, post World War II Industrial Age mindset and the consequent paralysis of ever growing commute traffic congestion. Much of it generated by knowledge workers unnecessarily commuting to centralized office spaces elsewhere in the sprawling region when ICT makes it possible to work in the communities where they live.

Trump administration Infrastructure Initiative would fund efforts to reduce metro rush hour traffic

The Trump administration’s 2018 Infrastructure Initiative contained within the administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposes work be performed outside of commute-in offices and during regular business hours in order to reduce traffic congestion in American metro areas. This was among a half dozen proposals will be pursued by the administration as part of the Infrastructure Initiative laid out in this fact sheet:

Incentivize Innovative Approaches to Congestion Mitigation. The Urban Partnership Agreement Program – and its successor, the Congestion Reduction Demonstration Program – provided competitive grants to urbanized areas that were willing to institute a suite of solutions to congestion, including congestion pricing, enhanced transit services, increased telecommuting and flex scheduling, and deployment of advanced technology. Similar programs could provide valuable incentives for localities to think outside of the box in solving long-standing congestion challenges. (Emphasis added)

The advanced technology that can do the most to decentralize knowledge work and commute-driven traffic congestion is advanced telecommunications technology that enables knowledge workers to work in their communities rather than commuting daily to a remote office, generating unnecessary transportation demand that is taking a toll on the nation’s aging roads and highways. The administration should fund the rapid deployment of fiber optic telecommunications infrastructure to homes and community co-working spaces in order to achieve this objective.

The continuing commuting paradox of the S.F. Bay Area, stuck in the 20th Century

Eighty percent of jobs in the Bay Area are concentrated in suburban fringes with little access to regional rail, and three-quarters of Bay Area workers drive alone to work as a result, the study’s authors note.The report highlights a seeming irony: Despite pioneering innovations in their products and work spaces, they house their lava lamps and free cafes in suburban corporate campuses with seas of parking lots. It’s a form of office that took shape in the middle of the 20th century. Google, Apple and Facebook’s offices are all more than 3 miles from the nearest rail station.This isn’t going to be good for the companies’ economic vitality in the long run, said Allison Arieff, SPUR’s editorial director. “Something’s gotta give.”

Source: Study calls on big tech companies to move closer to transit – San Francisco Chronicle

The paradox of the San Francisco Bay Area continues. The Chronicle’s Nicholas Cheng points out the irony of companies that innovated information and communications technology (ICT) advances that have made the centralized, commute-in office spaces of the previous century all but obsolete, yet continue to cling to the outdated pattern. And as SPUR’s Allison Arieff says, the current state of affairs is unsustainable. There is only so much real estate, highway lanes, parking spaces and public transit capacity to work with. ICT provides far more capacity to move the products of knowledge and information work than transportation infrastructure can to move bodies every work day.

Report Summary: “State of the American Workplace,” Gallup – 1 Million for Work Flexibility

“Working remotely is also increasing across most industries that Gallup has studied,” the report says. “The finance, insurance and real estate industries experienced the greatest surge in time spent working remotely, followed by the transportation, manufacturing or construction, and retail industries. The community and social services; science, engineering, and architecture; and education, training, and library industries are on the other end of this trend: While employees in these fields still spend time working remotely, a smaller percentage are doing so today compared with a few years ago.” The Gallup data shows clear benefits to flexibility, with employee engagement rising when workers spend at least some time working remotely. The optimal engagement boost comes when workers are off-site for 60 percent to 80 percent of their time—in other words, three or four days out of the typical workweek.“ This pattern emphasizes that remote working has the greatest returns on engagement when employees maintain some degree of balance: working remotely most of the time but still getting face time with managers and coworkers,” the report says.

Source: Report Summary: “State of the American Workplace,” Gallup – 1 Million for Work Flexibility

The finding that the optimum work engagement occurs when most work is done outside of the traditional centralized, commute-in office (CCO) reinforces the view of those like Alison Maitland and Peter Thomson, authors of Future Work: Changing Organizational Culture for The New World of Work. They see the CCO evolving from daily workplace to meeting place. I interviewed Maitland and Thomson in this podcast produced in late 2015.