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.
The Covid crisis
Beginning in early 2020 the Covid-19 virus caused a cataclysmic change in office work. Suddenly, almost overnight, millions of office workers were thrust into being home-based teleworkers. Without warning. Without preparation. Without training. After almost fifty years of setting up structured telework programs my first thought was: “Wow, what a great opportunity to show how well telework works!” My second thought was: “OMG! What will happen when all those people find themselves in the midst of chaos? All those years we spent refining telework will go down the tubes.”
So far, fortunately, most of the newly-teleworking organizations seem to have survived the trauma well enough to see how teleworking from home improves productivity and reduces costs. So my earlier first thought was justified and the second thought was not. Most organizations now are seriously thinking about making extensive teleworking permanent.
Face-to-face versus videoconferencing
The human problems turned up almost immediately after companies started videoconferencing instead of having face-to-face meetings. I have received many comments about Zoom or Teams or Slack fatigue. My writings about increasing the effectiveness and decreasing the number of meetings apparently have not had the desired impact.
But the comments do point out the need for some form of face-to-face contact to replace the formal or casual interchange in the “old” office. I’m sure that the providers of collaboration technology are working hard at making it more user-friendly. But they are skirting the core problem: Most people need fairly frequent face-to-face contact. The question is: What does “fairly frequent” mean?
In our early experiments with teleworking involving satellite offices the issue of face-to-face interaction rarely arose. The employees were working in centers that looked pretty much like the offices downtown. Yet as technology advances, particularly personal computers, made home-based teleworking practical we started to wonder about the optimum frequency of teleworking for all concerned. I didn’t think that full-time home-based teleworking was a good idea. At least for me. [Note that I have been teleworking essentially full-time from home since about 1990.] What about the fit for other people?
In 2000 we ran a national survey of teleworkers and discovered that about 8% of them were full-timers. The average frequency of teleworking was about half-time. Given the greatly increased bandwidth available today I estimate that from 10% to 15% of teleworkers could easily cope with full-time teleworking with the average tending more toward four days per five-day week. Those combinations would produce the productivity increases and cost reductions on a global scale.
But wait! Most of those sudden teleworkers today are doing it full-time from home; homes that are not always conducive to useful work. We need to fix that. But do we need to retain all that expensive downtown office space just so the teleworkers can have occasional face-to-face meetings?
The rise of the neighborhood work center?
The once-moribund neighborhood telework center seems to be in the process of resurrection. For example, an article in the 7 September Financial Times discusses some startups in and around London. Their attraction is that they are (or will be) located in storefronts in their neighborhoods, thereby providing local escape from home for conversation-starved teleworkers as well as easy access to all the other amenities of the neighborhood. All without commuting other than by foot or bike.
There are other possible issues with multi-client work centers, such as information security, covid infection dangers and the like but there already are technological fixes for most of them. The main motivation remains: we need to provide more human contact for teleworkers while retaining the clear advantages of teleworking. We also need to design those centers so that they are widely available and profitable; thereby sustainable. We now may be off to a good start, or restart.