Pandemic rapidly accelerated virtualization, decentralization of knowledge work

The viral pandemic that closed down centralized commuter offices (CCOs) in the first quarter of this year accelerated a trend toward working outside of the CCO. The trend had been slowly growing in the previous decade or so, allowing knowledge workers to work in their residential communities during some or all of the work week.

The pandemic and the lockdowns instituted by state and local governments demonstrated to knowledge organizations that they could conduct their business without a CCO. Prior to the pandemic, the question was to what extent could their staffs work outside of the CCO and specifically how many days of the work week and which days. That forced organizations to adapt in how they communicate and collaborate, make decisions and coordinate and complete project using digital information and communications technology as the medium for those fundamental activities of knowledge work, replacing the analog mode of the cube farm.

Freed of the time sucking and often stressful daily commute to the CCO, knowledge workers have seen the quality of their lives improve, having more time for exercise, sleep, home cooked meals and family. For knowledge organizations, now that they’ve seen they can function without a CCO as their workplaces, they are beginning to address the larger question of the future role of their offices.

The issue is shifting from teleworking to virtualization. Organizations that were already partially virtual at the start of the pandemic with staff working only part of the week in the CCO and then shifting to the full work week with the pandemic are now examining whether to go fully virtual and dispense with the CCO altogether.

Others that were less further along on the trend line at the start of the year with staff only occasionally teleworking outside of the CCO are considering expanding telework while retaining the CCO. As they expand teleworking and their cultures and management practices adjust, over time these organizations could also begin to question whether it makes sense for them to virtualize and begin to migrate out of the CCO, realizing significant cost savings.

Confronting a large budget deficit ahead of the start of the fiscal year that began July 1, California Gov. Gavin Newsom called out the potential savings in his proposed fiscal year 2020-21 budget:

Historically, state government has been slow to adopt modernizations in the workplace. But the COVID-19 pandemic has forced a massive experiment in telework and allowed state managers, led by the Government Operations Agency, to rethink business processes.

This transformation will allow for expanded long-term telework strategies, increased modernization and delivery of government services online, reconfigured office space, reduced leased space, and when possible, flexible work schedules for employees.

The virtualization and consequent decentralization of knowledge work out of CCOs will have major implications in the decades following the 2020 viral pandemic that will reshape modern economies relative to labor markets, land use and real estate and transportation.

Metro areas developed like solar systems with CCOs as the stars at their centers with housing development and transportation systems orbiting around them. Their gravitational influence was weakening before 2020, diminished by information and communications technology that made them less relevant. Information and communications technology became the medium of knowledge work, allowing information to be processed and communicated virtually anywhere. No longer is it necessary to move the knowledge worker daily in motor vehicles to a set location during fixed time frames to accomplish that.

The pandemic hit like a huge gravitational wave, rippling through metro area “solar systems,” disrupting the gravitational tug of the CCO and scattering knowledge workers onto their own trajectories. Knowledge workers residing in the outer exurban regions of their solar systems were suddenly freed of the long super commute daily orbit to the solar center and back home again.

Some knowledge workers and their organizations realize than can exist in other “solar systems” — less densely populated smaller metros and towns free of commute congestion and where the pace of life is slower and the cost of living lower.

Looking back, the 2020 viral pandemic will be seen as a major event providing a tremendous boost for the rapid reformation of modern society.

State of California must overcome ingrained organizational culture, IT challenges to successfully navigate transition to virtual work

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.

Going forward, Newsom’s revised budget summary for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2020 notes contagion control measures implemented by his administration “has forced a massive experiment in telework.” It directs state agencies to develop “expanded long-term telework strategies” and to “rethink business processes.”  

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.

State of California looks to reduce office space requirements, citing “increased remote workforce.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s revised budget for FY 2021 is seeking considerable savings over the budget his administration proposed in January prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and sharp economic contraction that’s expected to drastically reduce tax revenues.

A component of the May Revise budget proposal would examine cutting the state’s real estate costs in light of state employees increasingly working outside of centralized commute-in offices as a disease control measure during the pandemic. This signals that the Newsom administration sees the shift as one that can be permanently adopted going forward.

With an increased remote workforce, the Administration, led by the Department of General Services (DGS), will evaluate the state’s real estate portfolio to determine which agencies and departments may be able to reduce lease space. Agencies and departments may be able to reconfigure their workspace to include additional meeting rooms and hoteling space, thereby reducing their lease footprint. Reducing space will decrease not only lease costs, but also energy costs. Additionally, DGS will look for possible restacking opportunities in state-owned buildings.

Trump Versus Telework: Federal Policy Retraction Will Cost Government Millions

Last week, the Washington Post reported that “President Trump’s government is scaling [telework] back in multiple agencies on the theory that a fanny in the seat prevents the kind of slacking off that can happen when no one’s watching.”

Source: Trump Versus Telework: Federal Policy Retraction Will Cost Government Millions

What we’re seeing is a clash between the traditional definition of knowledge work – seated in a chair in a centralized commuter office (CCO) after taking a vehicle to work – and the inherent constrained capacity of 20th century transportation systems in metro areas to accommodate that mode of working.

Organizations can insist all they want that knowledge work can only be performed in CCOs 8-5, Monday-Friday. But roads and highways are fixed, limited real estate that cannot flex to accommodate all the rush hour transportation demand that generates. The result is crippling traffic congestion, a giant time suck and numerous adverse effects on organizations and knowledge workers.

In the 21st century, information and communications technology replaces the pavement and the vehicle to bring knowledge work to the knowledge worker. We need to adjust our thinking and expectations.

The post-Industrial Age live-work future

Over the next couple of decades, expect a post-Industrial Age live-work residential settlement paradigm to establish itself. A hallmark will be the diminishment of daily commuting to work by knowledge and information workers. Instead, they will live in close proximity to their work.

Those with cosmopolitan tastes and able to afford downtown living are looking to live in urban centers and will continue to do so, sparking demand for central city housing. They will live within walking distance or a short bus ride from their offices.

Others will prefer small town living closer to nature and outdoor activities, residing on the fringes or outside of major metropolitan areas in smaller communities of 50,000 or fewer residents. Rather than the transportation infrastructure and automobiles that brought people to work in distant communities, they will rely on telecommunications infrastructure to bring their work to the communities where they live.

The trend will also affect suburbs that were built up in the drive-to-work post-World War II period. Suburbanites will increasingly work in their residential communities some or all of the workweek in home offices and shared co-working centers. That will significantly reduce rush hour transportation demand, taking cars off overburdened highways that cannot efficiently move large numbers of workers to centralized, commute in offices. And not a moment too soon since they are reaching a major maintenance interval, decades after they were first built.

Conversation with Mika Cross, federal workplace policy strategist

During a civil service career that has spanned a decade and a half with multiple federal government agencies, Mika Cross has advocated and supported the adoption of remote work outside of a centralized office settings as a means of promoting work/life balance, diversity, inclusion and employee engagement. Cross reports about a third of federal employees deemed eligible to work remotely at least some of the work week are doing so, six years after the enactment of federal legislation designed to increase the adoption of telework by federal agencies.

While telework leverages information and communications technology to bring federal employees’ work to them instead of requiring them to commute daily, Cross notes it’s primarily an organizational and management strategy that emphasizes getting the government’s work done with accountability, clear expectations and timeliness and quality standards. Cross discusses telework as a means of addressing one of the most pressing issues in contemporary American life: a perceived time famine among working professionals and employee engagement and wellness.

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.

Conversation with former California state government telework leader Geoff McLennan

In this podcast, Last Rush Hour author Fred Pilot talks with Geoff McLennan, who before his retirement from public service led the State of California’s efforts to implement virtual work among state agencies and departments. Geoff describes his work and explains the need for trust, leadership and a collaborative culture in order to support virtual work in the public sector. Geoff also discusses “underground” virtual work among certain categories of state employees and how changing expectations and values particularly among Millennials moving into public service and leadership roles will support the wider adoption of virtual knowledge work in government.

BOE headquarters: Falling plaster, shattered glass, even bats Capitol Weekly | Capitol Weekly | Capitol Weekly: The Newspaper of California State Government and Politics.

To the passer-by, the tower at 450 N Street is a downtown landmark, soaring assertively 24 stories into the Sacramento sky.

But for more than a decade, the Board of Equalization’s (BOE) headquarters building has been a nightmare to an assortment of state bureaucrats.  Glass panels fall out; water leaks; elevators stop between floors; there are potentially dangerous contaminants; plaster falls off walls; there are lawsuits.

Source: BOE headquarters: Falling plaster, shattered glass, even bats Capitol Weekly | Capitol Weekly | Capitol Weekly: The Newspaper of California State Government and Politics.

Telework and community-based shared co-working spaces would provide a solution to the ongoing and needless exposure of state civil servants to the deficiencies of this troubled building.

“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.