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.

Silicon Valley renders itself obsolete

Out of habit, inertia, or just a plain fear of change, many white-collar workplaces have avoided allowing employees to regularly work from home — but that may soon change. Plenty of so-called knowledge workers are finding that they can comfortably do their job from just about anywhere they have a wifi connection and their laptop. Large majorities of workers in the consulting & research (85%), insurance (84%), advertising and marketing (73%), finance and financial services (70%), legal (68%) industries have been doing their jobs remotely as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, according to the NBC|SurveyMonkey data. Among these same workers, most report wanting to either work from home all the time even when it is safe to return to the office, or at least wanting to work from home more often than previously.

Source: How Silicon Valley work-from-home ‘forever’ will hit every worker

Silicon Valley as a centralized work location has essentially rendered itself obsolete. In its early days, it was all about location. It had fertile mix of engineering talent, proximity to Stanford University and the larger San Francisco Bay Area as well as plenty of space for microchip and computer manufacturing plants run by household names such as Intel, Hewlett Packard and Apple Computer.

People and place combined to make Silicon Valley what it is. Or was. Now the world changing information and communications technologies it innovated as this article points out allow knowledge work to be done most anywhere, regardless of location. Even Silicon Valley.

And not a moment too soon as high housing costs and long commutes over congested freeways have made it a less desirable place to work. But Silicon Valley certainly deserves kudos. Its products have helped shrink the time and distance burden of daily commuting, benefiting knowledge workers wherever they make their homes.

Knowledge economy should evolve beyond Industrial Age Ver. 2.0

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).

Self-driving cars. Scooters. The future of commuting to work is here

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.

Source: Self-driving cars. Scooters. The future of commuting to work is here

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.

Michael Shear’s Rx for the increasingly congested commute and improved access to knowledge jobs

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.

Why Do We Still Commute? – Pacific Standard

Over the last year, many companies have ended their liberal work-from-home policies. Firms like IBM, Honeywell, and Aetna joined a long list of others that have deemed it more profitable to force employees to commute to the city and work in a central office than give them the flexibility to work where they want. It wasn’t supposed to be this way—at least according to Norman Macrae.

Macrae foretold the exact path and timeline that computers would take over the business world and then become a fixture of every American home. But he didn’t stop there. The spread of this machine, he argued, would fundamentally change the economics of how most of us work. Once workers could communicate with their colleagues through instant messages and video chat, he reasoned, there would be little coherent purpose to trudge long distances to work side by side in centrally located office spaces. As companies recognized how much cheaper remote employees would be, the computer would, in effect, kill the office—and with that our whole way of living would change.

Source: Why Do We Still Commute? – Pacific Standard

As readers of this blog know, I am firmly in Macrae’s camp. I have a couple of issues with this analysis by Greg Rosalsky. It contains the implicit assumption that knowledge workers commute in order to have real time, face to face conversations with their colleagues every Monday through Friday. The value of these co-located daily discussions is cited to justify the daily commute.

That might hold true for those working in intense think tank work environments like Google’s Moonshot Factory where the job is a group exercise of spitballing and deeply analyzing concepts for their practicality and most importantly, their potential monetization. That’s more akin to a live-in academic residential fellowship than the usual type of work most knowledge workers perform with most of its components and deliverables in digital form accessible from most anywhere. In fact, many of them find they are more able to think and concentrate outside of centralized, commute-in office spaces such as in quiet home offices and communicate quite easily with colleagues using online collaboration tools.

Rosalsky’s article also repeats the “urban centers are cool and people want to live there” to partly explain why we continue to commute to centralized offices in metro areas. But as Rosalsky also notes, the cost of living there is quite high. It’s often out of reach for all but the highest paid knowledge workers and is itself a factor driving lengthening commutes to distant locales where housing is affordable.

To Rosalsky’s credit, he does mention the personal costs of commuting borne by knowledge workers — and indirectly by their organizations due to the adverse health and wellness impacts of daily commuting. I would argue that the maturation and proliferation of information and communications technology has brought us to the point predicted by Macrae where for the vast majority of knowledge workers, the costs of daily commuting can no longer be justified nor the expense of maintaining centralized, commute-in office space for their organizations.

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.

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.

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.

ICT innovators like Yahoo and IBM struggle with forces of decentralization they’ve unleashed

“Everyone I know is very upset,” says one employee, who like most interviewed asked to remain anonymous while discussing an employer. Some workers furiously began looking for new jobs. Others say they have stopped contributing to long-term projects because they aren’t sure whether they’ll be around in the future. “Source: qz.comThey can say “goodbye” to the best and brightest talent. Iike Yahoo and Best Buy, IBM is in deep trouble. Somehow that seems to create a “circle the wagons” reaction. But the connection between co-location and collaboration or innovation has NOT been proven. Many of the studies often cited in these arguments date back to the early 1990s when working at a distance was much more difficult.

Source: IBM’s recall of remote workers sounds like a death rattle. Say “goodbye” to the best and brightest. – Global Workplace Analytics

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This post by Global Workplace Analytics raises an excellent point that calls into question the value of information and communications technology (ICT) that makes collaboration possible without daily co-location and the commuting necessary to support it. It reflects the difficulty that even ICT innovators like IBM and Yahoo have coping with the society altering forces they’ve unleashed that make the commute-in office all but obsolete.