The Telework tide became a tsunami

In the old days, pre-Covid, I used to write about telework as a tide coming slowly in. An inch at a time, unlike Alvin Toffler’s Third Wave. But with the advent of Covid the telework tide turned into a tsunami, seemingly sweeping all else before it. Now that the tsunami is slowly receding it’s time to review its impacts and their future.

Its suddenness

The Covid pandemic suddenly forced many organizations to become telecommuter-dominant early in 2020. Consequently, the majority of the employees at all levels of the organizations were forced, almost overnight, to work at home, mostly with no prior training or other preparation. I was conflicted at the time, elated that a massive, global demonstration of teleworking had been started, but worried that the lack of training and pre-planning would produce many organizational disasters.

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Climate change: Promisies, promises, promises

Recently President Joe Biden chaired a virtual international conference on climate change that included many of the world’s leaders. The conference gained a number of new or updated promises by nations, including major emitters like China, Europe and the US, to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 2030. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that these ventures are still mostly promises. Actual major reductions in GHGs have yet to be seen. The Covid-induced global slowdowns in transportation and other forms of energy consumption, big as they were, were still largely masked by emissions elsewhere. For example, China added several coal-burning power plants to its active inventory in 2020. The result is that growth in GHG emissions today is still largely unchecked. Furthermore, for each year the promises are unfulfilled the required rate of decrease of GHGs in following years goes up if we are to meet the promised goals.

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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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