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.
Pandemic social distancing restrictions served as an organizational change intervention, forcing knowledge industry organizations to reassess their cultures and beliefs about how work gets done. Pandemic restrictions virtually overnight switched off the gravity that pulls knowledge workers into a centralized, commute-in office workspace. As those restrictions are lifted amid mass immunization campaigns, knowledge organizations continue to confront these fundamental questions.
For most knowledge organizations, their cultures are strongly rooted in the belief work is being definitively performed when people are present in the office, reinforced by social connections made there and functions such as group lunches and celebrations. The organizational hierarchy is visually represented and reinforced in the office layout, with managers assigned corner and window offices and the rank and file in cubicles on the inside of the floor. A knowledge worker’s manager is clearly identified on the organizational chart. Clocks on the wall define when work is expected to be done.
A decade before the pandemic, author Dave Rolston in his 2013 book Four Dead Kings at Work predicted the death of these anchors that traditionally defined the boundaries of knowledge work in the Industrial Age: 1) One centralized workplace; 2) A single manager; 3) Performing a single defined job and pay grade; 4) At the same time each week.
The pandemic hastened their death requiring organizations to flex or abandon them. The elimination of the centralized office workplace and the erosion of the 8-5, Monday through Friday work time diminished the first and last of the kings, bookended by the daily commute. After more than year of foregoing commuting, knowledge workers have realized the enormous personal time burden it imposes, taking time away family, community, and health promoting behaviors such as adequate sleep, exercise and home cooked versus takeout and restaurant meals. Not to mention clothing and transportation costs.
This realization within knowledge organization has major implications for where knowledge workers will live in the coming decades and for traditional urban planning predicted on centralized settlement and development patterns forming sprawling metro areas requiring ever longer commutes.
California is known for its bad air quality and freeways packed with gasoline powered automobiles, particularly during commute times. And long distance “super commutes” spurred by its high housing costs. That is poised to quickly change over the next couple of decades.
Public health restrictions to control the SARS-CoV-2 viral contagion accelerated the trend of knowledge workers working from their homes some or all of the time rather than in a distant commute-in office building. Now California Gov. Gavin Newsom set in motion a plan to transition the state to electric vehicles over the next 15 years and ban the sale of new internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035.
Knowledge workers might still go to team meetings and other business functions but get there via electric vehicle or public transit on some days each month. This is major change and it’s happening relatively rapidly in a leader state.
What will COVID do to housing? Home builders, city planners and market watchers say the jury is out on whether the COVID-19 pandemic will in fact prompt deep long-term changes in Sacramento communities. Will more Sacramentans move to the suburbs or to the hills for elbow room, figuring they may no longer have to deal with a congested commute to downtown offices? Will home prices continue upward, making home ownership increasingly elusive for many? Is it time for home builders to chop up their open-floor plans and begin building sound-proofed offices and home gyms? Or will the COVID era fade by next spring if a successful vaccine arrives, sending state workers back to downtown offices, people back to fitness centers for their workouts and families and friends back out to restaurants, bars and clubs? “Is this just a 2020 thing, or a 2025 thing?” University of the Pacific economist Jeffrey Michael said.
It’s actually a 21st century thing. Information and communications technology advances are replacing the roads and highways of the 20th century when knowledge workers needed to commute daily to centralized, commuter offices (CCO). No more. They can begin their workday as soon as they get up and have a cup of coffee rather than an hour to two later after arriving at the office.
This is a long term trend. Public health infectious disease control measures put in place with with current pandemic accelerated it. The gravitational pull of the CCO was already weakening.
Working against the trend is a persistent belief that the best knowledge work requires knowledge workers to be in the same place every day — the office. Face to face communication is important since knowledge workers like other humans are social beings. Reinforcing those social connections however does not require a centralized workplace and the hassle and time suck of the daily commute since meetups can be most anywhere and anytime that’s convenient. What’s needed now as this story suggests are homes with dedicated office space. Also neighborhood co-working centers within walking or cycling distance. Performing knowledge work in the 21st century need not involve turning the key to a motor vehicle or boarding public transit as it did in the 20th.
Two factors have accelerated the State of California’s more than three decades in the making shift to virtual work:
- The 2019 installation of a chief executive who unlike his predecessors has lived most of his life during the information and communications technology (ICT) revolution that brought about personal computing devices and Internet-based advanced telecommunications.
- A global pandemic that made dense occupancy “cube farm” office environments decidedly risky for the spread of a novel communicable disease.
Without these factors, the state would have likely continued uninterrupted with its entrenched organizational culture where putting in hours at the office is regarded as both “work” and earning one’s future dollars in what’s become a rarity for most workers: a defined benefit pension plan with medical benefits. That culture has resisted virtual work for decades notwithstanding policy promulgated dating back to 1988 by both the Governor’s Office and the Legislature.
Management guru Peter Drucker is credited with the organizational behavior maxim that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It similarly makes a meal of public policy since culture is reinforced daily by group expectations and norms whereas policy merely exists in written form that’s meaningless without organizational buy in.
As The Sacramento Bee’s Wes Venteicher reports, Gov. Gavin Newsom has directed the 75 percent of state workers currently working outside of their state offices due to pandemic disease control measures put in place in March to continue to do so on either a full or part time basis as the state begins to reopen.
Going forward, Newsom’s revised budget summary for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2020 notes contagion control measures implemented by his administration “has forced a massive experiment in telework.” It directs state agencies to develop “expanded long-term telework strategies” and to “rethink business processes.”
A 1990 report on a state telework pilot project begun in 1985 recommended managers and staff be trained to think in terms of work results rather than work processes. That’s a huge challenge for an organization where the key process metric is time spent in the office. Standing present for duty in the office is also a component of the state’s preferred command and control management style. That way managers are prepared with a team standing ready in case someone higher up or very high up in the chain of command wants something pronto.
It’s unlikely more than three decades of fraught history with telework can be changed overnight, even by a global pandemic and the worst budget shortfall in the state’s history. Another challenge for the state is to put in place a robust and secure cloud-based IT infrastructure that can support virtual work on an ongoing basis given IT modernization has not been its historical strong suit.
One of the most favorable factors in this transition is the promotion of millennials into management roles. Unlike generations before them, they grew up with information and communications technologies. They know from experience they enable knowledge work and setting policy – the mainstay of government work – possible outside of the centralized, commute-in offices of their parents’ generation. As well as the traffic congestion and air pollution they generate that kicked off the state’s 1980s telework pilot project to help reduce it.
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.
Home-cooked lunches and no commuting while we deal with coronavirus can’t compensate for what’s lost in creativity.
The author of this New York Times column argues working from home has more downsides than working in an office. As social creatures we need contact with others and work colleagues. (This is why the current social isolation measures are difficult for many.) In the 20th century, knowledge workers lived relatively close to their offices. But in the latter half of the century, the automobile and cheap fuel and a desire for suburban living resulted in their living in communities separated from their offices.
By the 21st century, metro transportation systems became overwhelmed by all the automobile commuting – the preferred way of getting to the office. Pushed beyond their design specs, commutes got more congested and longer — and sucked more and more time out of the lives of commuters. Adding more traffic lanes only kicked the proverbial can. The commutes are growing even longer as housing costs close to offices put them out of reach and send workers to the outlying metro areas in search of more affordable housing. And another thing humans need as well as socialization: contact with nature. The “rush hour?” Three hour daily round-trip commutes are not unheard of anymore.
The 20th century daily commute to office model is headed for obsolescence. We won’t be able to achieve a balance – and reduce the environmental impact of daily commute trips – by adhering to the 20th century model and the tyranny of time and distance that comes with it. A new model of performing knowledge work is needed that leverages information and communications technology instead of transportation to allow knowledge workers to exchange ideas as easily as they might by bumping into each other at the office. While at the same time providing opportunity for socializing with colleagues in person from time to time.
In recent years, the traffic on this route, and on similar country thoroughfares throughout the Capital Region, has included folks who’ve moved from Sacramento into the surrounding countryside and still do daily business in the city. Transportation experts agree that while there are no studies confirming this, anecdotal evidence suggests urban expats, scattered to the countryside by high housing prices, empty-nest syndrome or a desire for a pastoral lifestyle, are helping clog local roads.
Like many metros, the Sacramento suffers from time and quality of life sucks caused by too many commuters relative to limited transportation system capacity. Especially as this article notes, GPS systems route commuters onto and clog secondary roads never intended to function as commute routes. The traditional remedies of building more highway lanes and mass transit take many years and dollars to bring on line. And the public and personal economics to support that don’t scale as well in smaller metros like Sacramento where many commuters live in the region’s less densely populated exurban and quasi-rural areas where housing is more affordable.
Clearly alternative solutions are needed. Given the many state government workers in the metro, the first would be to substitute information and communications technology for transportation. Get state and other knowledge workers out of their cars and create opportunities for them to work in their residential communities in telework centers or if they can, in their homes. The second is beefing up the region’s telecommunications infrastructure which is perhaps the worst in the state, replacing decades old aged copper telephone cable with fiber optic lines.
As much of the economy becomes more knowledge-based it continues to retain a key feature of the Industrial Age: geographic concentration in urban centers. That’s according to this piece recently appearing in Governing. Instead of a post-industrial economy, the economy is being rebooted as Industrial Age 2.0. As in ver. 1.0, work is centralized. Or clustered or agglomerated as it’s termed in the article. Less so in manufacturing plants but in office towers and sprawling info tech industry campuses requiring knowledge workers to show up there every workday just as in the industrial economy.
But that has distorted housing markets, driving up home prices and making nearby housing unaffordable for many. That in turn is expanding the geography of metro areas as knowledge workers seek more affordable housing in communities distant from the office towers and tech campuses in their centers. That drives a level of commuting to work metro areas’ 20th century transportation systems were not designed to handle, creating congested and unbearable “super commutes” that suck hours from each work day. Clustering and the agglomeration run up against fundamental limits. There is only so much residential real estate for knowledge workers to live on adjacent to the office towers and campuses. The law of supply and demand dictates only a limited amount will be affordable.
Analysts such as those cited in the Governing article contend the holy grail of the knowledge economy is the same as that of the offices and assembly lines of industrial economy: proximity. “You wouldn’t actually get the innovation if you took the people working on those things and spread them around the country,” Salim Furth, director of the Urbanity project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, told the publication. “We rely on face-to-face contact to come up with great innovation and changes.” Buy does that hold true most the time for most knowledge workers? Likely not. Knowledge work is both an individual and collaborative effort. And not all collaboration nor even the most productive must occur in same physical location. Lots of it can be done virtually using today’s information and communications technology.
The knowledge economy should evolve beyond Industrial Age Ver. 2.0 amid rising concern over the environmental impact of commute transportation demand, housing affordability and declining population health status (long commutes have a deleterious impact).
California Governor Gavin Newsom recently issued an executive order directing the state Department of Finance to create a Climate Investment Framework. The order notes that while the state has established an ambitious goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, emissions from automobiles and other forms of transportation remain a “stubborn driver” of emissions. The order further directs the State Transportation Agency to reduce transportation-based emissions by reducing vehicle miles traveled by bringing jobs and housing in closer proximity and to “encourage people to shift from cars to other modes of transportation.” The order also calls for the state to leverage its $700 billion pension investment portfolio and assets to advance California’s climate leadership.
Placing jobs and housing in closer proximity has historically proven to be difficult to achieve in California given local governments have much more direct jurisdiction over land use planning than the state. A better approach would be to leverage pension funds to support regional projects by local governments to build much needed modern fiber optic telecommunications infrastructure. Pension funds the patient capital needed for long term investments such as infrastructure. This strategy would reduce commute transportation demand by better connecting California communities and allowing office workers to more easily work from their homes and co-working centers instead of piling onto freeways daily and spewing vehicular emissions. It’s particularly timely as the state’s high housing prices in metro areas drive lengthening commutes as people seek affordable homes often located at the edges of metro areas and beyond. This is where advanced telecommunications infrastructure tends to be the weakest but provides the greatest benefit.