A year after the coronavirus sparked an extraordinary exodus of workers from office buildings, what had seemed like a short-term inconvenience is now clearly becoming a permanent and tectonic shift in how and where people work. Employers and employees have both embraced the advantages of remote work, including lower office costs and greater flexibility for employees, especially those with families. Beyond New York, some of the country’s largest cities have yet to see a substantial return of employees, even where there have been less stringent government-imposed lockdowns, and some companies have announced that they are not going to have all workers come back all the time.
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“We believe that we’re on top of the next change, which is the Distributed Age, where people can be more valuable in how they work, which doesn’t really matter where you spend your time,” said Alexander Westerdahl, the vice president of human resources at Spotify, the Stockholm-based streaming music giant that has 6,500 employees worldwide.
Work, too, has been transformed. Suddenly, hundreds of millions of people around the world had to figure out how to get things done without going into the office. It turns out that for many white-collar jobs, this is not just possible; it comes with a variety of upsides. Commutes, to take one example, are unhealthy—they waste time and potentially increase our sedentary time, which is associated with many adverse health outcomes, and perhaps worst of all, driving is among the most dangerous activities we undertake each day. The competition to try to avoid long commutes distorts property values and can worsen inequality, as those with money pay extra to live near centers of work, while other residents can no longer afford to live there.
Post-Covid for example, a Brooklyn or Queens resident who previously commuted to Manhattan may opt to work several days a week in a shared space within a 10-minute walk from home. Some large employers are already experimenting with satellite offices in the suburbs of cities in which they already have a downtown headquarters. The main office will remain important for most companies, but fewer employees will be expected to be there all day, every day…Offices will need spaces for specific tasks like focused work, team brainstorming, client presentations and employee training. And they will need to be more focused on individuals, even if these people work for a large company.
These predictions are spot on. In the coming years, knowledge work will be done in a variety of settings instead of a centralized, commute in office — a trend that began to pick up steam in the decade leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Working from home (WFH) that got a giant boost due to pandemic public health measures to tamp down indoor gathering and support social distancing will continue. It will likely be most prominent in less densely developed exurban and rural areas where walking or cycling to a shared neighborhood office space is less practical. Homes in these areas with dedicated office space and served by fiber-delivered advanced telecommunications services will be in demand.
In more densely developed urban and suburban neighborhoods, shared office spaces within reasonable walking and cycling distance should prove popular once vaccines have developed herd immunity against SARS-CoV-2, particularly among households lacking dedicated office space or whose makeups aren’t ideal for WFH.
Traditional office spaces will remain relevant, but repurposed from regular daily workplaces to support the group activities that Dror Poleg lists in his article. These workspaces can be equipped with smart presentation rooms that can’t easily be emulated for interactive large group activities — at least not yet — with online real time platforms like Zoom. For smaller organizations with smaller office space footprints, conference facilities can support these functions. Finally, these co-located activities don’t have to occur on a set basis but only when the need presents such as kicking off a strategy or project or working through a challenge that requires a focused, group effort.
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.
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.
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.
But now, as the pandemic eases its grip, companies are considering not just how to safely bring back employees, but whether all of them need to come back at all. They were forced by the crisis to figure out how to function productively with workers operating from home — and realized unexpectedly that it was not all bad. If that’s the case, they are now wondering whether it’s worth continuing to spend as much money on Manhattan’s exorbitant commercial rents. They are also mindful that public health considerations might make the packed workplaces of the recent past less viable.
“Is it really necessary?” said Diane M. Ramirez, the chief executive of Halstead, the real estate company, which has more than a thousand agents in the New York region. “I’m thinking long and hard about it. Looking forward, are people going to want to crowd into offices?”
Once the dust settles, and companies make their decisions, New York City could face a real estate reckoning.
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.
From crowdsourced shuttle buses to companies offering rides to lure top talent, here are concepts used in some cities that could one day help your morning commute.
This is applying state of the art technology to the Industrial Age practice of transporting knowledge workers to offices rather than utilizing information and communications technologies of the Information Age to decentralize knowledge work, bringing it to communities where people live.
It may look like progress. But in fact it’s regressive and reflects a 1950s mindset wherein knowledge work can only be performed in centralized, commute in offices. It does little to relieve the daily time suck of the commute. It’s time to put the Industrial Age in the past and truly evolve.
The biggest challenges facing metro regions are transportation and traffic congestion, accessible well-paying employment opportunities and affordable housing. In the world of knowledge organizations, a closely related challenge is determining to what extent staff members will work in the centralized, commute-in office and which are “remote” workers who perform their job duties outside of the office, typically working from home.
Michael Shear of Strategic Office Networks LLC has a solution that addresses all of these for knowledge organizations and regional transportation planners: transitioning away from the centralized, commute-in office of the Industrial Age economy to a more decentralized structure that utilizes today’s advanced information and communications technologies (ICT) to bring the work to communities where knowledge workers live. Those technologies link Enterprise Centers® that serve as community-based workplaces for as little as a few dozen to several hundred employees working for major employers located throughout a metropolitan or regional area. These centers are the building blocks of what Shear terms Distributed Metropolitan Design®.
I interviewed Shear for the Last Rush Hour podcast in December 2015. Listen here.
Key to Shear’s concept is reframing how we think about transportation. With today’s robust ICT capabilities that make it possible to work from most anywhere and traffic congestion crippling many metro areas, the issue is no longer how to most efficiently transport knowledge workers to centralized commuter offices. It’s now about access to a workplace that meets the needs of both the worker and the employer organization.
Traditional transportation initiatives encourage commuters to use public transportation or carpool in specially designated highway lanes. Transportation planners plan more expressway lanes to accommodate the continued growth in commute transportation demand. That remedy has hit the wall as metro areas continue to struggle with commute congestion, particularly as knowledge workers are forced to select housing far from their offices that they can afford, adding to commute transportation demand. Meanwhile, highly compensated workers bid up the cost of housing in central metro areas, fostering a severe housing affordability crisis such as currently afflicting California.
Shear’s concept recognizes that organizations have substantial investments in existing office space. They often can’t quickly transition to an office-less virtual organization. Nor are many workers ready or able to work from a home office or wherever else they choose. Much of this reality drives the debate over the pros and cons of “remote” work and “telework.” With a distributed organizational structure, these terms become far less relevant. When staff need to be co-located for team meetings and project sprints requiring intense collaboration that can be accomplished in settings outside of dedicated central offices. Shear also argues that the most prevalent form of “casual” telework — where only some knowledge workers work from home a day or two per week or more infrequently — cannot make a significant impact on transportation demand and metro area congestion.
A primary challenge for Shear’s concept is determining the right size for the Enterprise Centers®. They provide supported office space in residential communities and must be sensitive to the character of those communities. They must be large enough to be economically efficient but can’t grow too large because they will then generate substantial commute trips from non-locals and objections from nearby residents, effectively becoming the big commute-in cube farms and sprawling parking lots they would replace. Their size would likely be a function of the housing density of the neighborhoods in which they are located. Larger facilities would serve higher density areas where knowledge workers live within walking or bicycling distance with smaller ones most suited to lower density neighborhoods and reached by those modes of transportation or short trips by automobile or public transportation.
In the 1960s, the creators of the television cartoon series The Jetsons envisioned in the 21st century, we’d be jetting daily to the office, whooshing through the stratosphere in personal aircraft between residential and office buildings in a mere few minutes.
Another vision of the future 37 years into the century is decidedly different. There are no personal flying vehicles to speed the commute. Instead, people are still commuting by car to offices distant from their homes just as they did in the latter half of the 20th century when automobiles, highways and cheap fuel made it possible to live far from one’s place of employment, giving rise to the suburban and exurban boom.
In 2037, the suburbs are still booming and moving farther away from centralized metro commuter offices than at the start of the new century. But the commute vehicles are automated and self-driving. They have essentially become personal, employee financed rolling office cubicles — an extension of the cubicle of the centralized, commute in office building where knowledge workers spend two or more hours each workday getting to and from more distant work and home locations. But are they truly necessary? Especially as information and communications technology available now and likely to advance rapidly in the near term makes it possible to perform knowledge work from anywhere as predicted by science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke soon after The Jetsons first television season aired?