Telework 2021: Who, what, when and where

Now that many of us have had at least a year of experience with teleworking (or many of its synonyms) it is time to take stock of the possibilities for the near future. Who will the future teleworkers be, what will they be doing, when will they be teleworking and where will they be doing it? The successes, and tribulations, of the past year give us some clues to each of those possibilities.

Who

Fundamentally, teleworkers are people whose jobs are at least partially location-independent. Currently that’s roughly half to three-fifths of the workforce in developed countries; information workers. Some information workers still are restricted to live near and work in a primary location but technology is constantly eroding that requirement. Those restrictions are imposed by such things as access to fixed or very expensive equipment or facilities, security considerations or group interaction requirements. Currently that leaves more than 40% of the workforce as potential active teleworkers. As technology improves, the proportion of telework-eligible workers grows.

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Time to move ahead . . . to the 19th century

For those of you who weren’t around at the time I submit that the early 19th century had much to admire. Particularly the fact that most people lived and worked at home then. Leaving aside such matters as plagues, wars, racism, unequal rights and other forms of injustice we have an opportunity, 200 years later, to emulate those days. Covid-19 has forced many of us to try it, willing or not. Somewhere between 25% and 45%, of employed people (depending on the data source) in advanced countries are currently full-time, at-home teleworkers.

Yet it still seems that many people are having problems getting adjusted to their new situation. In a previous blog I discussed the physical aspects of setting up the home office. Now it’s time to think about the psychological rearrangements.

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Redesigning the rest of the city: Neighborhoods

In December 2020 I wrote a blog about redesigning city centers. This time around I consider redesigning the rest of the cityscape. One of my main themes for the past almost five decades was that telework would allow us to work and live in a neighborhood while still being connected to the rest of the world. The simultaneous advantages of small town and big city living. Most things available without getting in a car.

Before

That concept was in the core of our original telecommuting project in 1973. Workers were allowed to work in satellite offices located in their residential neighborhoods, dropping the commute in favor of telecommuting. Working near home instead of in the big downtown headquarters of their employer. The Los Angeles long range plan then was to have 18 regional centers as hubs for local activities. Our idea was to set up projects in those regional centers. Living at human-scale within a booming metropolis. Fast forward 48 years and an article by Peter Yeung appears on the BBC website with the same idea: the 15-minute city.

What has changed since 1973?

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Redesigning CITY CENTERs

In May 2020 I wrote a blog about the potential impacts of the coronavirus and telework on urban downtowns. At that time the idea was tentative that telework might force major redesign of city centers. Now comes another article from Matthew Haag of The New York Times about city center conditions to date. Titled “Midtown is Reeling. Should Its Offices Become Apartments?” Haag essentially verifies my conjectures. City centers need a redesign, even in the past-covid era.

Here are some of the events that have occurred in Manhattan since May.

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Moving from panic to new-normal teleworking

Now that matters have settled down a bit from the first panic days of the Covid-19 onslaught it is time to think about getting back to some sort of normal. Specifically, how do we get from total lockdown, everybody working at home, to a new normal version of teleworking? Here are some fundamentals of the decision process.

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The Rise of the Chief Telework Officer?

Now that the Covid-induced panicky rush to working from home has died down somewhat, more organizations are thinking about naming a Chief TeleWork Officer, or Chief Remote Work Officer. The reason? Someone needs to organize and monitor the whole telework process to make it more coherent, secure and effective for the entire organization. Most large organizations have a CEO, a CFO, a CTO and a CIO to cover Executive, Financial, Technology and Information/marketing issues, respectively. Why not a CTWO?

Here are some of the areas where the CTWO should have responsibilities and authority.

  • Telework rules and regulations.
  • Facilities management
  • Technology acquisition and development
  • Personnel training and evaluation
  • Security
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The return of the neighborhood office?

Our first test of telecommuting in 1973 was based on the idea of setting up offices near the homes of a company’s employees. The idea was to reduce or, better, eliminate the need for the employees to commute to their company’s headquarters. The information technology available in the mid-1970s was too primitive to allow employees to work from home so we called these new workplaces satellite offices. As the technology improved in capability the name morphed into neighborhood offices to give a more intuitive feel for their purpose.

Since then there have been several attempts to recreate satellite/neighborhood offices in various places around the world. Possibly the most recent of these ventures is the WeWork series. WeWork’s offices are generally located in or near city centers while the prospective users of the space are typically scattered fairly randomly around the region. So while the need for ad hoc office space may be satisfied by these central workspaces, the need for significantly reduced commuting is not. Home-based telework clearly wins the commute-reduction battle.

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Getting Your Home Office together

Now that you’ve been thrust by the Covid virus into working from home for months you may have experienced some difficulties. Or many difficulties. After all, one of the promises of teleworking is that your productivity will increase and your tension will decrease. If those aren’t happening it could be because your ad hoc home office isn’t properly organized. If that’s the case here are some tips for improving matters. It’s time to get your home office together. This may involve some negotiation.

Where

As in all real estate issues the first three items of importance are: location, location and location. Your home office should be located in a place that is relatively isolated from the rest of your home’s activities — at least while you’re working. Ideally that’s in a space or spaces, in the case of multiple home workers, that can be sealed off, at least acoustically, from the rest of your home during working hours. Not your bedroom, not the kitchen or dining room tables. Not the fire escape, especially in bad weather. Maybe the basement or attic, if you have one. The key rule here is isolation. One of the primary reasons for your improved productivity is a new freedom from interruptions. So you can do your work effectively.

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In search of that elusive serendipity

Almost from the beginning of our research on telework we had the alleged problem of loss of serendipity — that chance encounter by people in the hallway or lunchroom where the conditions were just right to lead to major positive changes in . . . whatever. Almost from the beginning we have been in search of that elusive serendipity during telework. That Aha! moment that transforms where you collectively are going. In my experience those prized chance hallway encounters among co-workers rarely are serendipitous because one factor is usually missing.

I had a truly serendipitous experience in Santa Barbara, California, in the Spring of 1971 when I asked Sam Clawson, a regional planner in that city, about how the aerospace industry could help him. His answer: “Why can’t you techies do something about traffic?” Bingo! My Aha! light went on and soon changed the direction of my career. Then, two years later, what I started to call The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff became Telecommuting. Now the question is: could that happen today or are the chances diminished when most information workers are teleworking, spread across the countryside?

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Coronavirus defeats organizational stiction

There’s a physics/engineering term called stiction. Stiction is defined as the force required to get a stationary object to move; the force needed to overcome the friction that make the object stick to where it is. In my experience organizations, even individuals, have stiction. It takes some force to get them to leave their comfortable places. For years, even decades, I have battled to get organizations to move out of their familiar positions and adopt telework. The process often takes years of urging and cajolery. The response has been slow to move from interesting but too risky to OK, lets do it. Now an unlikely force has made it happen, almost overnight. Coronavirus has defeated organizational stiction. Worldwide. It’s disaster time once again.

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