Rather than having countries that having thriving individual cities at the expense of the collective whole, remote work enables a renaissance of smaller cities and towns which people desert, leaving behind friends and family, in search of opportunity. Unfortunately, what people often find is that opportunity comes at a far higher cost of living.
This is an important point. Rather than the binary debate over workplace settings (home or centralized commute in office) the larger issue is really about community. Some argue the office is a community for many. Working outside of it erodes that sense of community and for some, even family.
But knowledge workers spend most of their lives in their residential communities and with their immediate families. Time and distance separates the two. That gap is growing bigger as knowledge workers must live in communities farther from the office where they can afford housing, spawning so called “super commutes.”
Information and communications technology (ICT) and most critically fiber optic telecommunications infrastructure bridges the gap and as the author notes, more broadly distributes knowledge work to smaller, less costly and crowded communities. That also comes with benefits of a better quality of life and more personal time freed up instead of commuting every day.
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.
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.
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.
At some point during this period, the economy will open back up. But that doesn’t mean people need to go back to the office, said Steve Heminger, a board director at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.“Are we returning to an old normal after this is over, or are we advancing to a new normal?” Heminger mused. “My vote is probably the latter.” Some companies have allowed remote work for years, but it’s never been enough to make a dent in rush hour crowds on BART, or thin congestion on the Bay Bridge. That all changed when the coronavirus shifted much of the tech-fueled Bay Area into bedrooms and home offices. If the trend sticks, it would reduce demand for office space downtown and lift strain off the transportation system, Heminger said.
As I’ve blogged repeatedly in this space, the San Francisco Bay Area and neighboring Silicon Valley represents a profound paradox, clinging to mid 20th commute-in offices. While at the same time, the region is recognized globally as a powerhouse of innovation in information and communications technologies (ICT) that makes possible doing knowledge work from most anywhere with good Internet connectivity, effectively obsoleting the daily commute. Yet in recent years, the region gained the dubious distinction as having some of the worst traffic congestion and longest commutes on the planet.
A paradox embodies a natural tension that like a stretched rubber band eventually reaches a breaking point and snaps. The current viral pandemic may have brought it there.
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.
The conference also included a short talk by Lenny Mendonca, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s chief economic and business adviser. Asked about Newsom’s efforts to promote regional responses to the state’s affordable housing shortage and Marin’s reluctance to surrender local control, Mendonca said, “There are 85,000 people a day who commute from the northern part of San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento into the Bay Area.“Those are often people who are commuting and an hour and a half and two hours each way in their car for economic opportunity,” Mendonca said. “That creates all kinds of challenges from housing costs to traffic to air quality to quality of life and community degradation.” Mendonca said one way to address this problem is to build more housing in places where the jobs are, including the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
Indeed, Mendonca recognized the need for more widely deployed advanced telecommunications infrastructure to enable virtual working in a recent interview. “We have large portions in every geographic area, especially rural California, that don’t have access,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “You need access to current technologies at the speed the world is moving.”
Liccardo, who also sits on the commission board, said reducing traffic congestion in the South Bay will require cities to add more housing units instead of simply focusing on job growth, and it might require regional incentives and penalties on cities.“We need to get people living closer to where they work,” Liccardo said.
True for those who must be on site for their work. Not true for most knowledge workers who thanks to today’s information and communications technology — much of it innovated in the Bay Area. A new generation of policymakers and planners is needed that recognizes the potential of ICT to reduce the need for daily commute trips that substantially contribute to the enormous transportation demand that’s choking the Bay Area and other metros.
Not long after the first Earth Day in April 1970, a Los Angeles aerospace engineer as engineers are wont to do saw a problem and came up with a solution to fix it. The problem Jack Nilles saw in his daily drive to the office was bumper to bumper traffic and bad air quality. His solution: substituting telecommunications for commute induced transportation demand by establishing satellite offices in “bedroom communities” where people lived to avoid the trip to centralized commuter offices. The environmental benefit of the solution Nilles proposed nearly five decades ago takes on increased urgency with the publication of a report issued today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning of rapidly accelerating global warming.
Absent aggressive action, many effects once expected only several decades in the future will arrive by 2040, and at the lower temperature, the report shows. “It’s telling us we need to reverse emissions trends and turn the world economy on a dime,” said Myles Allen, an Oxford University climate scientist and an author of the report.
To prevent 2.7 degrees of warming, the report said, greenhouse pollution must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050.
Turning the global economy on a dime is challenging to say the least. Cutting motor vehicle emissions associated with commuting is one measure that could be implemented relatively quickly, especially considering today’s information and communications technology is far more advanced than when Nilles first came up with his idea in the early 1970s, thanks to the proliferation of Internet protocol-based telecommunications.
Venture capitalist and PayPal founder Peter Thiel was recently interviewed on the Fox Business Network on the city of the future. Thiel talked about the two major shortcomings of today’s city as a situs for knowledge work concentrated in centralized metro commute-in offices: transportation and housing. Transportation systems – roads, highways and public transit – are “badly inadequate” in most metros, Thiel said, and housing costs are exorbitant. Both leave knowledge workers with two bad choices. “People need to have super long commutes or live in small apartments near the city centers where they have to spend all of their salaries on the apartments,” Thiel explained.
That’s where information and communications technology (ICT) can provide a workaround by allowing knowledge work to be dispersed outside of urban centers, according to Thiel. ICT solves the housing problem since it provides access to more affordable housing while at the same time eliminating the need for daily commute trips.
The idea isn’t new and has spawned years of debate despite the strong benefit in solving the housing and transportation challenge ever since Jack Nilles coined the term “telecommuting” in the 1970s. That debate continues to play out nearly two decades into the new century among organizations – ironically including ICT innovators like Yahoo, HP, Apple and IBM – that resist substituting ICT for transportation, fearing a geographically dispersed workforce won’t be as productive or collaborative as one co-located in a centralized, commute-in office setting. Thiel explains:
The ICT version (of transportation) people have talked about for decades is telecommuting. And so would there be some way so that you won’t need transportation at all, you could just do your work remotely. For a variety of reasons this has not worked over the last 30, 40 years people have been talking about it. The [perceived] problem generally is that people who work from their homes, they don’t work as hard. A lot of the value of work comes from talking to people in various ways.
However, Thiel notes management practices are changing to overcome those concerns that concentrate on managing the production and delivery of the work product. That focus necessarily forces a degree of diligence and collaboration to get the work done, he implies.
I think we’re starting to see more and more of this telecommuting in Silicon Valley and elsewhere where people are finding small teams of developers outside of Silicon Valley, there are ways to sort of bundle, put the work in certain packages that you allocate to different people. So I think maybe one of the end runs around the transportation system will be telecommuting. That’s a trend that’s underrated that’s worth exploring a lot more.
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.