Shift out of centralized commuter offices a long term trend

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.

Source: Coronavirus, home prices send Bay Area families to Sacramento | The Sacramento Bee

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.

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.

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.

Ongoing paradox of SF Bay Area that underutilizes ICT, chokes on traffic congestion

If it seems as if you’re spending more time behind the wheel than ever, it’s not an illusion. Since 2010, the amount of time Bay Area drivers endure crawling along in freeway congestion has soared 70 percent.That’s the highest level of “congested delay” — time spent in traffic moving at speeds of 35 mph or less — since traffic experts began keeping track in 1981.

Source: Drive across Bay Bridge tops list of Bay Area’s worst commutes – SFGate

The San Francisco Bay Area continues to underutilize its signature product — information and communications technologies (ICT) — that could make a big dent in its world class traffic congestion by reducing commute trips.

Instead of commuting along freeways to offices located elsewhere in the Bay Area, ICT enables knowledge workers to remain at home or in the communities rather than playing road warrior each work day. But the Industrial Age commute to the office habit is proving to be very enduring even as traffic congestion and associated delays and adverse quality of life impacts continue to increase.

ICT, declining role of CCO forcing redefinition of knowledge work

The maturation and proliferation of information and communications technology (ICT) is upending the concept of knowledge work. During the late Industrial Age, knowledge work meant working Monday through Friday 8-5 in a commute-in office. If a knowledge worker made the commute and showed up every workday, 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week — ipso facto they were performing knowledge work. As Dave Rolston wrote in his 2013 eBook Four Dead Kings at Work, these strictures of time and place are breaking down.

In the process, that collapse is forcing a redefinition of knowledge work to mean, well, work and specifically the work product — and not a daily trip to appear at a centralized commuter office (CCO). After all, that daily commute adds no intrinsic value and in fact extracts significant personal cost from knowledge workers that can reduce their morale and interest in what really counts – their work projects.

The current time is one of transition away from Rolston’s dying kings of the traditional workplace. Take, for example, the growing buzz on workplace flexibility and telework or virtual/remote work. It represents a shift away from the CCO and illustrates the tension between the traditional CCO and new, emerging ways of performing knowledge work beyond the CCO.

The CCO took many decades to be established and knowledge organizations have invested enormous sums in them. So even though ICT has effectively obsoleted them by distributing knowledge work outside the CCO, they won’t disappear overnight. But their role will fade as time goes on. In the meantime, a new definition of knowledge work will be formed that is independent of the CCO.

“Telework” is outdated in age of location independent work

There are still a remarkable number of offices filled with modern-thinking people, trying to solve modern day issues that look like they were constructed in 1984. And while I love nostalgia as much as anyone, you don’t see Google and Facebook flaunting photos of high, padded cubicle walls and flourescent lights. Why? Because they want the most out-of-the-box, creative and collaborative employees working on their future-thinking initiatives.One of the biggest barriers I face in my work, promoting workplace flexibility, is the notion that employers think I’m talking about sending everyone to work from home. Again, “telework”, a term coined in the 70’s is also antiquated. It is in fact rooted in the notion that you have to be anchored somewhere to work, which is just not the way your average employee operates in 2015.

Source: Transforming the Workplace | Calgary Economic Development

Robyn Bews nails the transformation that’s taking place in how knowledge work gets done. She makes a key point I discuss in my book Last Rush Hour: the terms “telework” and “telecommuting” are based on the Industrial Age notion that knowledge work must be performed in what I term “centralized commuter offices” or CCOs for short. Under this outdated paradigm, “tele”working in another location is the exception rather than the rule.