Prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper sees significant but diminishing value in face-to-face work, and believes that as technology improves, more work will go remote. He and many others foresee a hybrid future for the Valley in which the type of work, type of company, and workers’ personal preferences determine who’s in the office — or even the Bay Area — and who isn’t.In-person meetings might take place weekly, monthly or quarterly, in shared workspaces or attractive destinations. “You basically offset those costs by rather than spending it on rent you’re spending it on travel expenses for that quarterly meeting, which ultimately will be a lot cheaper than maintaining an office and forcing yourself to hire people who are local.”
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.
You won’t hear this from so-called greens who vote to block road construction, but traffic is arguably the top environmental problem in San Diego County, which lacks a big industrial footprint.Cars spew vastly more air pollution when they are prevented from reaching the speeds posted on freeways and parkways. In addition, stop-and-go traffic sends tons of heavy metals from brake dust into watersheds.Then there’s the economic damage. The average commuter in San Diego County lost 42 hours a year sitting in traffic in 2014, reckons the Texas Transportation Institute.Put another way, we each lose an entire work week every year. Such delay cost the region an estimated $1.7 billion, a low-ball figure that includes only wasted fuel and lost time (calculated at the median hourly wage).Harder to measure is missing a kid’s first goal; all those spikes in blood pressure; the spiritual toll from hating a stranger just because he applied his brakes.
Planners and public policymakers continue to respond to traffic congestion with the same ineffective solution: building more transportation infrastructure. Instead, we should be building better telecommunications infrastructure and transitioning to distributed knowledge work so people don’t have to commute daily to offices to do their jobs. The environmental, organizational and social benefits strongly make the case.
This episode features Jack Nilles, who coined the term “telecommuting” in the early 1970s –before the personal computer and well in advance of today’s Internet-enabled information and telecommunications technologies. Back then as today, environmental concerns over fossil fuel emissions and their impact on climate and health were prominent. In Los Angeles where Nilles lived at the time and still does today, Angelenos complained of bad traffic and bad air. So Nilles performed a thought experiment while stuck in a traffic jam on the way to work. He asked himself, why are all these people driving to an office to use a telephone when they could just as easily do so at home?
Nilles subsequently made a career shift from rocket scientist to change agent and consultant and later formed JALA International, working with companies interested in the concept of distributing knowledge work to the communities where their employees live, working in home or in satellite offices connected to their downtown offices.
Looking back over the past 40 plus years, Nilles says he is surprised the migration out of centralized, commute-in offices has been so slow. He points to an entrenched Industrial Age mindset equating work with physical presence. However, Nilles adds it’s slowly but surely breaking down, predicting between one fourth and one third of knowledge workers will be working outside of the traditional office space by 2020. Among the major benefits, according to Nilles, are higher productivity, reduced office space costs, happier and healthier staff and enhanced employee attraction and retention.
(NOTE: Audio quality is degraded in portions due to Internet connection quality problems but the dialogue can be heard OK).
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.
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.