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.

Transition from Industrial Age to knowledge economy sparks debate over “remote” work

No one said the decades long transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age knowledge economy would be an easy one. Exhibit A is the debate over “remote” work spotlighted in this article in the November 2017 issue of The Atlantic and the extensive comment thread it generated on LinkedIn.

It’s not hard to see why it’s an either/or issue when framed as working remotely. Remote is a relative term to the other side of the dichotomy – the traditional commute in, centralized office. Hence, the debate is over the merits and demerits of working remotely versus working in the centralized commuter office (CCO).

It’s a natural one given how advances in information and communications technology (ICT) over the past two decades have rendered the CCO increasingly less relevant and decentralized knowledge work. For some organizations such as Automattic, developer of the WordPress web platform, there is no such thing as remote working because there is no CCO.

Essentially, the debate over “remote” versus centralized and co-located is part of the process of coming to terms with the ICT spawned disruption to the Industrial Age model as we move toward a new way of doing knowledge work.

It isn’t 40 hours a week of face to face brainstorming and chatting with colleagues at nearby desks that requires a trip to and from home each weekday with the state of today’s ICT and collaboration tools. Much thought work can be done individually and occurs 24 hours a day – including while exercising and sleeping. In fact, both regular exercise and sufficient sleep are crucial to strong cognitive functioning that drives creativity and problem solving. Both of those activities are too often impeded by the daily time suck of needless commuting. Particularly as commutes grow longer in congested, costly metro areas that force knowledge workers to live farther away from the CCO to obtain affordable housing.