Going virtual requires rethinking how knowledge work gets done

Transitioning to a truly remote workforce requires a top-to-bottom rethink of how business is conducted on an everyday basis, with an emphasis on asynchronous communications. This is the single most difficult thing companies face when making the transition from a “meetings-first culture to a writing culture,” Hansson said. “Most newbie remote companies thought remote just meant all the same meetings, but over Zoom,” he said. “That led to even more misery than meetings generally do. You have to make the transition to an asynchronous writing culture to do well as a remote company.”

Source: After embracing remote work in 2020, companies face conflicts making it permanent | VentureBeat

As knowledge workers and their organizations have de-emphasized the role of the centralized, commute in office (CCO) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the problem of too many online meetings has cropped up under the moniker of “Zoom fatigue.” Essentially, it’s creating an electronic office where working is defined by real time presence. As David Heinemeier Hansson of Basecamp (formerly 37Signals) explains, there is more to shifting from a CCO-based organization to a virtual one than where the work gets done and communication about it occurs.

The other factor in going virtual involves not just becoming more location agnostic. It’s also becoming more independent of when those activities are performed. Not everyone needs to be working and communicating at the same time, i.e. 8-5, Monday through Friday as established in the 20th century Industrial Age economy. As Hansson notes, that requires moving away from real time spoken communication in meetings to written communication.

And that’s a good thing. Writing forces people to more carefully think through their thoughts and ideas and what it is they want to communicate. It also provides a written record of challenges and progress on a given project. As more knowledge organizations become virtual, this is an important cultural step in the transition. And it has broader social and environmental benefit, according to Hannson:

Aside from operational efficiencies, remote working also benefits the environment, something that became abundantly clear early in the global lockdown. NASA satellite images revealed an initial decline in pollution in China, but as the country gradually resumed normal operations, pollution levels increased accordingly. Much of this change can be attributed to traffic, and Hansson feels remote work is one way to help the planet while improving people’s mental health.

“I’m less interested in how we might benefit [from a greater societal push to remote work] as a company, and more interested in how the world might benefit as a whole,” Hansson said. “More remote means less commuting. And for a large group of people, a better, less stressful life. That’s a massive step forward for the planet and its inhabitants.”

No going back to the office: Death of kings of industrial age knowledge work being hastened by pandemic

Lifestyle changes take about four to six months to become established habits. For organizations, the time scale is considerably longer. And years for society as a whole. The principle is new habits and ways of doing things must be repeated over sufficiently long durations in order to become firmly rooted. Once they have, a break with the past has been achieved and change has occurred.

The social distancing of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the rapid virtualization of knowledge work as working in crowded cube farms and centralized commuter office (CCO) spaces was not conducive to controlling the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The course of the pandemic in much of the industrialized world will likely play out over roughly an 18-month-long timespan.

That’s long enough for organizations to grow accustomed to working virtually, especially since some were already doing so well before the pandemic’s public health restrictions hit in spring 2020. Knowledge work has been undergoing a fundamental shift for years, disintermediated by information and communications technology (ICT) that no longer requires a set time and place for performing it.

In his 2013 book Four Dead Kings at Work, author Dave Rolston identified four rulers of knowledge work in the industrial age: set job duties performed under a single manager at one place (the office) and the same time (8-5, Monday-Friday). The pandemic has hastened the death of at least two of those monarchs: time and place. By the time it ends around the middle of 2021, it’s likely few knowledge organizations will use their office real estate as they did before the pandemic. Working virtually without co-locating staff in office space during set business hours will have become an ingrained habit by forced adjustment. There will be no going back to the daily commute to the office habit. Knowledge organizations will look to downsize their office real estate footprint and more rationally utilize it.

For many, elements of existing office space offer smart conference rooms to better enable complex presentations, deep discussions, brainstorming and strategizing. But sprawling square footage of offices and cubicles will no longer be needed. The space could end up being converted to residential living space placed on the housing market or to house staff and guests attending those presentations, deep discussions, brainstorming and strategizing sessions when spread over multiple days. Other possibilities include recreational and fitness facilities, theaters and food services.

Knowledge workers can do without the daily commutes or the office furniture, observed Sid Sijbrandij, co-founder and CEO of GitLab, at the CNBC Workforce Executive Council virtual event. But as social beings in an organization, they require camaraderie, he adds. That can be had virtually as well as face to face in other brick and mortar settings such as eateries and conference centers, both of which have been severely adversely impacted by public health restrictions and will be looking for a post-pandemic bounce. Organizations and work teams can convene in them on a less than daily or weekly basis and carry less office space costs on their books.

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.

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.

5 reasons why ‘no office’ is better than ‘some office’ | Paul Miller | LinkedIn

Two weeks ago I was given a tour around the iconic new London headquarters of a large financial services company. They had considered many aspects of the shared working areas, pop-up meeting spaces, quiet areas and how to subtly influence better collaborative working. There is just one problem for this company – and for almost every other large organisation I know that is investing in ‘future workplaces’. No matter how many comfy lounges you have and how good the coffee, workers are voting with their feet and leaving offices.

Source: 5 reasons why ‘no office’ is better than ‘some office’ | Paul Miller | LinkedIn

Just recently came across this thoughtful post by Paul Miller, CEO and founder of the Digital Workplace Group. While many observers of the changing world of knowledge work still see a place for a centralized, commute-in office (CCO), refurbished as a comfortable space to meet up with colleagues and collaborate some part of the work week, Miller sees it as no longer serving a useful purpose.

He even goes as far as to predict the CCO will in the 21st century become an obsolete white elephant. Citing his own company’s experience, Miller argues that organizations that try to adopt a virtual work culture but retain the CCO will suffer an identity crisis of sorts and related in group/out group adverse organizational dynamics.