Pandemic forced organizational change, shattered Industrial Age boundaries defining knowledge work

Pandemic social distancing restrictions served as an organizational change intervention, forcing knowledge industry organizations to reassess their cultures and beliefs about how work gets done. Pandemic restrictions virtually overnight switched off the gravity that pulls knowledge workers into a centralized, commute-in office workspace. As those restrictions are lifted amid mass immunization campaigns, knowledge organizations continue to confront these fundamental questions.

For most knowledge organizations, their cultures are strongly rooted in the belief work is being definitively performed when people are present in the office, reinforced by social connections made there and functions such as group lunches and celebrations. The organizational hierarchy is visually represented and reinforced in the office layout, with managers assigned corner and window offices and the rank and file in cubicles on the inside of the floor. A knowledge worker’s manager is clearly identified on the organizational chart. Clocks on the wall define when work is expected to be done.

A decade before the pandemic, author Dave Rolston in his 2013 book Four Dead Kings at Work predicted the death of these anchors that traditionally defined the boundaries of knowledge work in the Industrial Age: 1) One centralized workplace; 2) A single manager; 3) Performing a single defined job and pay grade; 4) At the same time each week.

The pandemic hastened their death requiring organizations to flex or abandon them. The elimination of the centralized office workplace and the erosion of the 8-5, Monday through Friday work time diminished the first and last of the kings, bookended by the daily commute. After more than year of foregoing commuting, knowledge workers have realized the enormous personal time burden it imposes, taking time away family, community, and health promoting behaviors such as adequate sleep, exercise and home cooked versus takeout and restaurant meals. Not to mention clothing and transportation costs.

This realization within knowledge organization has major implications for where knowledge workers will live in the coming decades and for traditional urban planning predicted on centralized settlement and development patterns forming sprawling metro areas requiring ever longer commutes.

Pandemic previews, hastens arrival of the last rush hour

The social distancing brought on by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic offers a preview of the benefit of decentralizing knowledge work and will hasten the arrival of the last rush hour. Prior to the pandemic, only a small but growing percentage of knowledge workers spent most of the week working outside of centralized, commute-in offices (CCOs). With the closure of offices to slow the infectious disease outbreak, many more are now forced to do so. They may have grudgingly accepted daily and often long commutes as part of the job. Working outside of a CCO demonstrates they can still get their work done without the daily commute. Instead of turning a car key to start their workdays, they turn on the lights and their computers.

The reduction in commuting is also demonstrating how the automobile-oriented transportation infrastructure built up in starting in the mid-20th century is supposed to function per its original design. In metro areas, that infrastructure is overloaded with cars well beyond that specification, rendering it an inefficient means of getting people to CCOs. Over the decades, more highway lanes are added and public transit funding increased in the hope of improving transportation efficiency. But the effort and billions of dollars spent has largely been futile. The rush hour congestion remains and for too many, it takes too damn long to get to the CCO and back home again.

Freeing up personal time otherwise sacrificed to the commute brings into sharper focus the cost of daily commuting to CCOs. Working in the same space with co-workers has its benefits. Some info tech companies see it as essential to creativity, allowing for the spontaneous sharing of ideas. Having other workers around helps spark that, they believe. It likely does but with a tradeoff that’s not adequately recognized. In congested metro areas and their high cost of housing, bridging the distance daily between knowledge workers’ homes and the CCO with mid-20th century technology comes with a big price. There’s personal time lost every workday that could be used exercising, spending more time with family and friends as well as money spent on transportation, business attire and meals outside the home.

When that cost is suddenly removed from the picture and the savings realized as during the current pandemic, the benefits are also brought into clear focus – as clear as the previously fouled air in these metro areas now. Knowledge workers are learning they can share ideas and be creative without being co-located in CCOs thanks to 21st century information and communications technology.