Earlier this year I wrote about defining telework and its synonyms. Much has happened regarding telework and its evolution over the past two years. Here’s a progress report.
As I wrote in January 2022, telework is now named differently quite often. The most popular terms in 2022 appear to be remote work and hybrid work. Both terms are often perceived erroneously, particularly that the work arrangement must be full-time. That is, the hapless worker must always be confined to working from home or to a rigid schedule, designed by the Chief Executive Officer, of a fixed ratio of days-per-week in the office, the rest of the time at home.
This misunderstanding is not news to me. It has been a problem over the past five decades, people miss the point that telework is a flexible tool; to be used when and where it is appropriate. It is by no means all or nothing.
Work situations often change because of external influences such as weather, pandemics, technology innovations or client/customer demands. Think of it this way: telework fits best for actually getting the detailed work done; time in the office, or some other common gathering place, may be best for socializing and for situations where complexity must be resolved or training is needed. How much each mode is used depends on what is going on at the moment. That usually varies from week to week or month to month as telework evolves in the real world.
The key challenge in evolving a telework process is establishing the best pattern for success. Here are some hints.
Full-time home-based teleworkers
This category is reserved primarily for experts whose work does not require much face-to-face interaction with fellow employees. Actuaries, for example, are serious, solo number-crunchers; their communication is mostly with databases, often over networks. Many computer programmers also fit into this category.
Years ago I supposed that about 4% of all teleworkers would fall into this category. A survey we did of actual American teleworkers in 2000 boosted that number to about 8%, doubling my original estimate. Covid caused this category to jump to almost 100% for the past two years.
Almost everyone else
Now we’re in the transition period where once full-time telecommuters will also be spending time in an office or some other central/regional location. They will move into a routine where on average they spend x days per week in that office and the rest of the time telecommuting from home. The challenge for both management and telecommuters is to discover x. I used the think that x would average out to 2.5 days per week but reality is turning out to be a lower number.
For example, according to The Wall Street Journal, mid-town Manhattan office occupancy dropped from almost 100% pre-covid to less than 5% in early 2020. So x in early 2020 turned out to be almost 0 days per week in the office. Since then occupancy has slowly risen to about 30%. I suspect that missing 70% comprises mostly full-time home-based telecommuters. Although office occupancy will slowly rise as telecommuters spend more of their time there, I doubt that it will return to the early 2020 levels.
Although mid-town Manhattan may be unique in the world, similar actions are likely worldwide. Overall, x may turn out to be closer to 1 day per week in an office in the long run.
Early in my research on telework I had two worries: that telework would take too long to evolve and be accepted; and that telework would happen so fast that there would be major adjustment issues. Both worries have proven to be valid. Telework took way too long to be accepted, resulting in a steady increase in fossil fuel use and global warming. Yet when telework was suddenly accepted worldwide it has produced some major side effects.
Foremost among those side effects is the depopulation of city centers. My earlier blog on this seems to be happening. Recently Alicia Diaz and Alexandre Tanzi of Blomberg City Lab discussed the problem.
Bank earnings and real estate prices have soared but offices in Midtown Manhattan and the Financial District remain under-occupied as employees opt to work from home. Subway ridership remains at just 60% of pre-pandemic levels.
This is because the businesses that catered to those, now mostly AWOL, office workers have been forced to reduce staff or even close. The article continues:
In Manhattan alone, about 275,000 fewer paychecks are being doled out than in March 2020, according to the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages data. Manhattan jobs account for 57% of the city’s, directing the overall economy and commanding higher wages than other boroughs.
Of course, some of these losses are in jobs unrelated to telecommuters but the effect is still substantial. To some extent these jobs will migrate to areas where the telecommuters live but the disruption in central city areas is still significant.
As “offices” evolve to communication centers their physical layout is changing. Where once they comprised rows of cubicles, each containing a single worker, they now need to provide a flexible combination of meeting rooms and conversation spaces. Maria Roche and Andy Wu give some options in the Harvard Business Review.
Neighborhood telework centers
There is now a sufficient number of telecommuters to make the idea of neighborhood centers viable. In earlier years regional telework center attempts often failed because there weren’t sufficient numbers of teleworkers living nearby. As one example, Salmaan Farooki in Canada’s The Globe and Mail reports the success of the Okanagan coLab in Kelowna, B.C. where “We’ve had a lot of people relocating from larger centres like Vancouver or Toronto, several members who’ve come from out east and just wanted a different lifestyle and something more connected to the environment,” according to Shane Austin, the lab’s co-founder.
The sudden switch from telecommuting to commuting by car did result in a persistent decrease in CO2 emissions. However, that was swamped by increases in emissions elsewhere, particularly from new coal fired power plants. As those power plants are phased out or otherwise terminated telework’s contribution to reducing the rate of climate change will be more evident.
Look for more here on the evolution of telework as time goes on.