Pandemic rapidly accelerated virtualization, decentralization of knowledge work

The viral pandemic that closed down centralized commuter offices (CCOs) in the first quarter of this year accelerated a trend toward working outside of the CCO. The trend had been slowly growing in the previous decade or so, allowing knowledge workers to work in their residential communities during some or all of the work week.

The pandemic and the lockdowns instituted by state and local governments demonstrated to knowledge organizations that they could conduct their business without a CCO. Prior to the pandemic, the question was to what extent could their staffs work outside of the CCO and specifically how many days of the work week and which days. That forced organizations to adapt in how they communicate and collaborate, make decisions and coordinate and complete project using digital information and communications technology as the medium for those fundamental activities of knowledge work, replacing the analog mode of the cube farm.

Freed of the time sucking and often stressful daily commute to the CCO, knowledge workers have seen the quality of their lives improve, having more time for exercise, sleep, home cooked meals and family. For knowledge organizations, now that they’ve seen they can function without a CCO as their workplaces, they are beginning to address the larger question of the future role of their offices.

The issue is shifting from teleworking to virtualization. Organizations that were already partially virtual at the start of the pandemic with staff working only part of the week in the CCO and then shifting to the full work week with the pandemic are now examining whether to go fully virtual and dispense with the CCO altogether.

Others that were less further along on the trend line at the start of the year with staff only occasionally teleworking outside of the CCO are considering expanding telework while retaining the CCO. As they expand teleworking and their cultures and management practices adjust, over time these organizations could also begin to question whether it makes sense for them to virtualize and begin to migrate out of the CCO, realizing significant cost savings.

Confronting a large budget deficit ahead of the start of the fiscal year that began July 1, California Gov. Gavin Newsom called out the potential savings in his proposed fiscal year 2020-21 budget:

Historically, state government has been slow to adopt modernizations in the workplace. But the COVID-19 pandemic has forced a massive experiment in telework and allowed state managers, led by the Government Operations Agency, to rethink business processes.

This transformation will allow for expanded long-term telework strategies, increased modernization and delivery of government services online, reconfigured office space, reduced leased space, and when possible, flexible work schedules for employees.

The virtualization and consequent decentralization of knowledge work out of CCOs will have major implications in the decades following the 2020 viral pandemic that will reshape modern economies relative to labor markets, land use and real estate and transportation.

Metro areas developed like solar systems with CCOs as the stars at their centers with housing development and transportation systems orbiting around them. Their gravitational influence was weakening before 2020, diminished by information and communications technology that made them less relevant. Information and communications technology became the medium of knowledge work, allowing information to be processed and communicated virtually anywhere. No longer is it necessary to move the knowledge worker daily in motor vehicles to a set location during fixed time frames to accomplish that.

The pandemic hit like a huge gravitational wave, rippling through metro area “solar systems,” disrupting the gravitational tug of the CCO and scattering knowledge workers onto their own trajectories. Knowledge workers residing in the outer exurban regions of their solar systems were suddenly freed of the long super commute daily orbit to the solar center and back home again.

Some knowledge workers and their organizations realize than can exist in other “solar systems” — less densely populated smaller metros and towns free of commute congestion and where the pace of life is slower and the cost of living lower.

Looking back, the 2020 viral pandemic will be seen as a major event providing a tremendous boost for the rapid reformation of modern society.

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