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.

Zillow survey suggests housing preferences could be upended in a post-pandemic America, leading to major questions about the future of dense metro cores

SEATTLE, May 13, 2020 /PRNewswire/ — Where people choose to live has traditionally been tied to where they work, a dynamic that through the past decade spurred extreme home value growth and an affordability crisis in coastal job centers. But the post-pandemic recovery could mitigate or even produce the opposite effect and drive a boom in secondary cities and exurbs, prompted not by a fear of density but by a seismic shift toward remote work.

Source: http://zillow.mediaroom.com/2020-05-13-A-Rise-in-Remote-Work-Could-Lead-to-a-New-Suburban-Boom#Closed

This is consistent with a long tern trend I discuss in my recently published eBook Last Rush Hour: The Decentralization of Knowledge Work in the Twenty-First Century. Before the maturation of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) that enables knowledge workers to work from most anywhere with good Internet connectivity, the length of the commute to the office was a paramount consideration in terms of where people chose to live. ICT has reduced its importance since it shrinks time and distance. The personal computer is the automobile of the information economy and the Internet is the highway.

The current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and social distancing out of centralized commuter offices (CCOs) demonstrated to knowledge workers and their their organizations it’s no longer necessary to commute every workday to a CCO.

We’ll see varying degrees of migration out of CCOs in the coming years. Some will continue to be used part of the week or as meeting spaces for larger gatherings. Other organizations will opt to go fully virtual and shut down their offices.

Pandemic previews, hastens arrival of the last rush hour

The social distancing brought on by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic offers a preview of the benefit of decentralizing knowledge work and will hasten the arrival of the last rush hour. Prior to the pandemic, only a small but growing percentage of knowledge workers spent most of the week working outside of centralized, commute-in offices (CCOs). With the closure of offices to slow the infectious disease outbreak, many more are now forced to do so. They may have grudgingly accepted daily and often long commutes as part of the job. Working outside of a CCO demonstrates they can still get their work done without the daily commute. Instead of turning a car key to start their workdays, they turn on the lights and their computers.

The reduction in commuting is also demonstrating how the automobile-oriented transportation infrastructure built up in starting in the mid-20th century is supposed to function per its original design. In metro areas, that infrastructure is overloaded with cars well beyond that specification, rendering it an inefficient means of getting people to CCOs. Over the decades, more highway lanes are added and public transit funding increased in the hope of improving transportation efficiency. But the effort and billions of dollars spent has largely been futile. The rush hour congestion remains and for too many, it takes too damn long to get to the CCO and back home again.

Freeing up personal time otherwise sacrificed to the commute brings into sharper focus the cost of daily commuting to CCOs. Working in the same space with co-workers has its benefits. Some info tech companies see it as essential to creativity, allowing for the spontaneous sharing of ideas. Having other workers around helps spark that, they believe. It likely does but with a tradeoff that’s not adequately recognized. In congested metro areas and their high cost of housing, bridging the distance daily between knowledge workers’ homes and the CCO with mid-20th century technology comes with a big price. There’s personal time lost every workday that could be used exercising, spending more time with family and friends as well as money spent on transportation, business attire and meals outside the home.

When that cost is suddenly removed from the picture and the savings realized as during the current pandemic, the benefits are also brought into clear focus – as clear as the previously fouled air in these metro areas now. Knowledge workers are learning they can share ideas and be creative without being co-located in CCOs thanks to 21st century information and communications technology.

5 reasons why ‘no office’ is better than ‘some office’ | Paul Miller | LinkedIn

Two weeks ago I was given a tour around the iconic new London headquarters of a large financial services company. They had considered many aspects of the shared working areas, pop-up meeting spaces, quiet areas and how to subtly influence better collaborative working. There is just one problem for this company – and for almost every other large organisation I know that is investing in ‘future workplaces’. No matter how many comfy lounges you have and how good the coffee, workers are voting with their feet and leaving offices.

Source: 5 reasons why ‘no office’ is better than ‘some office’ | Paul Miller | LinkedIn

Just recently came across this thoughtful post by Paul Miller, CEO and founder of the Digital Workplace Group. While many observers of the changing world of knowledge work still see a place for a centralized, commute-in office (CCO), refurbished as a comfortable space to meet up with colleagues and collaborate some part of the work week, Miller sees it as no longer serving a useful purpose.

He even goes as far as to predict the CCO will in the 21st century become an obsolete white elephant. Citing his own company’s experience, Miller argues that organizations that try to adopt a virtual work culture but retain the CCO will suffer an identity crisis of sorts and related in group/out group adverse organizational dynamics.

Conversation with Kate Lister, President, Global Workplace Analytics

Global Workplace Analytics conducts independent research and consults on emerging workplace issues and opportunities, specializing in making the management case for workplace flexibility, well-being programs, mobile work, activity-based work settings, and other agile workplace strategies.

In this podcast, Kate Lister shares her observations on how the world of knowledge work is has evolved and continues to change under the growing influence of information and communications technology that’s dispersing it out of traditional 8-5, Monday through Friday centralized commuter office (CCO) settings. Lister also discusses how this trend lowers real estate and human resource costs for employer organizations.

While UK organizations are in the lead, a tipping point has not yet been reached and won’t until more knowledge workers demand change, according to Lister, and employers realize it is far easier to recruit and retain engaged employees by adopting agile work policies. Lister predicts that by 2020, 25 to 33 percent of knowledge workers will be working outside of CCOs as offices function more as meeting and collaboration spaces rather than full time workplaces.

Is your economic development opportunity commuting out of town EVERYDAY? | Michael Shear | LinkedIn

We know there is a huge cost to getting people to work everyday: to the individual, the community and, to some extent, the employer. The costs are vehicles, gas, roads, pollution and time.

Is there a way to provide local job access to these commuters? Is there a model that would appeal to employers to have networked facilities in these communities. The costs of sending bits of information is minuscule relative to moving bodies. If you knew what companies/government agencies where hiring people from your community, might they work to examine how securely networked offices could create wins for communities, employees and employers alike.

Source: Is your economic development opportunity commuting out of town EVERYDAY? | Michael Shear | LinkedIn

Much of the push back directed at the decentralization of knowledge work out of centralized commuter offices (CCOs) due to the proliferation and maturation of information and communications technology is that CCOs provide an essential venue for daily collaboration. However, Shear — as do I in my recent book Last Rush Hour: The Decentralization of Knowledge Work in the Twenty-First Century point out that daily, face to face collaboration comes at great cost. That cost isn’t adequately taken into account by the “CCOs are necessary to enable collaboration” adherents. In other words, the argument goes, we must endure the time suck and personal costs of daily commuting in order to collaborate.

I don’t buy that argument and I imagine neither does Shear. As he notes, with today’s level of ICT that allows thought work to be conducted most anywhere with decent Internet service, it’s far less costly to use ICT to collaborate by moving ideas and not the bodies attached to the brains that generate them. Shear proposes in order to facilitate that, communities can create shared office distributed work facilities that would allow knowledge workers to work in their own communities rather than trekking daily — often in congested rush hour traffic — to a CCO in another.

How Silicon Valley Made Big City Housing The Cause of and Solution To Inequality (In 9 Visuals) | Gregory Ferenstein | LinkedIn

The alternative (California’s current solution) is commuting, as tech companies and their tens of thousands of employees are scattered throughout the peninsula, forced to find shelter anywhere they can. The Bay Area suffers from one of the worst commutes in the country. For decades, Silicon Valley’s suburbs have refused to accommodate high-rise apartments for tech workers and their massive campuses, which have slowly been pushed up north, from San Jose to San Francisco.

Source: How Silicon Valley Made Big City Housing The Cause of and Solution To Inequality (In 9 Visuals) | Gregory Ferenstein | LinkedIn

This article proposes the construction of high density, hi-rise housing in the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley to alleviate the high cost of shuttling people to and from their homes and centralized commuter offices (CCOs). The problem is it’s based on Industrial Age thinking updated for the 21st century that promotes the false notion that knowledge and creative workers needs to be physically co-located daily in order to collaborate and be productive.

Is that really true? Couldn’t they easily use the information and communications technologies these Bay Area companies innovate to collaborate without the commute by moving bytes, not their bodies? That way people could skip the commute and work in home offices or co-working spaces in their communities. That’s an obvious and much lower cost solution to the traffic congestion that’s strangling the Bay Area. Colleagues could still get together for team building and in-person collaboration. But as needed and on their own schedules and not 8-5, Monday through Friday.

It’s official: Working from home is the worst

“If it’s just about you banging out emails or writing a report, sure, you can do that wherever,” Waber said. “But the vast majority of stuff we do at work today—teamwork, not individual work—that is the stuff that really measurably suffers.” For big companies, that decline in productivity can be worth millions of dollars a year.

In a 2012 poll, 62% of employees said they found telecommuting to be socially isolating. And “jobs where individuals are most likely to be telecommuting involve sitting in front of a computer,” Allen said, so it makes sense that people working from home would get less exercise than those who have to commute.

Source: It’s official: Working from home is the worst

For many if not most knowledge workers, that is exactly what they do most of the day: sitting in front of a computer and writing documents and emails. And in many workplaces, they are expected to do that with minimal interaction with others, which is viewed as socializing and break time in the tradition of the water cooler — not working. The cultural ethic is nose to the grindstone in the style of the Industrial Age assembly line.

Tolan is certainly correct that in organizations that encourage collaboration, being face to face is ideal. But as Tolan suggests, most knowledge organizations do not operate as full time focus groups or think tanks. Constant co-located and spontaneous interaction among their members isn’t an organizational expectation. Tolan is also right in pointing out that not all knowledge workers have a suitable home office environment. A growing industry is stepping up to address this need with shared co-working office space in communities where knowledge workers live.

In addition, Tolan ignores the enormous business and personal cost to both knowledge organizations and their constituents to maintain what I term in my book Last Rush Hour: The Decentralization of Knowledge Work in the Twenty First Century as centralized commuter offices (CCOs) that involve hours of wasted time spent each week traveling between home and office, often entailing significant distance and time. CCOs are unnecessary with today’s information and communications technology that is rendering the Industrial Age daily commute trip obsolete.