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.

Conversation with Michael Shear on distributed office spaces

Much of the discussion around the decentralization of knowledge work out of centralized commute-in offices is on telework — which for many connotes working from home. But that’s just one way today’s advanced information and communications technologies (ICT) can be utilized to manage transportation demand and traffic congestion, particularly for those who lack suitable home office space or don’t wish to work at home. Another is distributed office spaces located in communities where knowledge workers live offering social interaction, professional collaboration and IT support without the long commute and the stress and wasted time of rush hour traffic. Instead of thinking of access to centralized commuter offices via transportation infrastructure, a new way of thinking is emerging that flips the focus to providing access to knowledge workers where they live via ICT infrastructure.

Michael Shear heads the nonprofit Broadband Planning Initiative and Strategic Office Networks LLC (Website). He works with communities and organizations through public-private partnerships to establish and manage distributed workplace networks. These benefit knowledge workers by making work more accessible and employers by providing access to a broader labor market and better staff retention. Communities also gain “gas dollars” that would otherwise be spent on commuting and related costs by keeping them in the community. With increasing traffic congestion and reduced proximity to jobs in many metro areas as well as concerns over natural and human caused events in urban centers posing a disruptive threat to organizations, Shear believes a tipping point for broader adoption of distributed community office spaces is at hand. He has written several LinkedIn posts on the topic that can be viewed here.

Is your economic development opportunity commuting out of town EVERYDAY? | Michael Shear | LinkedIn

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.

Source: Is your economic development opportunity commuting out of town EVERYDAY? | Michael Shear | LinkedIn

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.

Where will they (federal employees) be at that OMG moment? | Michael Shear | LinkedIn

One of the most costly, time consuming and damaging aspects of America’s economy and environment is that of getting people to work. As American cities have grown into extended metropolitan areas and now mega-regions, they have become more polycentric; yet, the centralized business office method persists. Major organizations (both public and private) and corresponding local economic development policies preserve this legacy 20th century model. As the transformative and disruptive power of information technologies has chipped away at traditional organizational structures, the opportunity now exists to create a more effective, resilient, secure and equitable distributed organizational design.

Source: Where will they (federal employees) be at that OMG moment? | Michael Shear | LinkedIn

Michael Shear reiterates the premise of my recent eBook Last Rush Hour: The Decentralization of Knowledge Work in the Twenty-First Century. In the book, I cite Shear’s concept of utilizing information and communications technology to redistribute knowledge work out of congested downtown metro centers to co-working facilities located at the edges — where housing is affordable and where much of the workforce lives. Here, Shear posits doing so would enable the U.S. federal government to better sustain operations in the event of an unforeseen event closing off access to downtown office buildings.

Telecommuting USA: Stuck on the threshold of change | The Stack

Information and communications technologies have swept across the globe and their economic impact affects every community throughout the United States. Not only has this revolution accelerated the growth in the information economy but it has also facilitated the rapid transfer of American jobs to other countries. As America struggles to find its policy footings regarding these swiftly advancing services and technologies, fundamental changes to social and economic structures are well underway. While classical views on the future of metropolitan communities, regional economic development and sustainability planning approaches provide strong emphasis (if not sole) on the transportation and mass transit infrastructure or focus on increasing densities, they exclude any mention of information and communications infrastructure as a tool for planning 21st century communities.

Source: Telecommuting USA: Stuck on the threshold of change | The Stack

As I argue in my book Last Rush Hour: The Decentralization of Knowledge Work in the Twenty-First Century, in this article Michael Shear also portrays the rapid development and proliferation of information and communications technology as a hugely disruptive socio-economic force. It’s obsoleting the twentieth century, Industrial Age pattern where people live in one community and commute to another to work. Now they can work in their communities, either at home or in local shared office space that Shear terms “distributed workplaces.”