February 8, 2021
White collar work will be revolutionized after the pandemic. It is one revolt I am looking forward to.
Since March our country has been immersed in teleworking. We take for granted that anyone who is able can work from their homes. Yet, when you look at the fine details of local ordinances, you may be shocked to discover that many communities have shown a total disregard for teleworking, if not outright discrimination.
Back in 1982 I resolved to be apolitical. I was just married, fully employed and otherwise balancing my spare time remodeling a 100 year old farmhouse, caring for 3 acres and playing softball. In 1985 we commenced a move back into the city of Columbia, remodeling a derelict house built in the 50’s. I was also struggling to get a new business off the ground. My first premonition was to convert one of my rooms into an office. Over the next few years I would utilize the office space, while also leasing space downtown. In the late 80’s I had to give up the office space and return to the house. I suppose the added activity about the house and the babysitting rotation that periodically brought several kids to our front door gathered the attention of a nosy neighbor. Instead of talking to me about it, he “complained” to the city government. The complaint translated into an “inspection.” And all this due to a business that was composed of a computer on a desk, two printers and a business phone system. It was just little ol’ me running an IT consulting business.
Needless to say, I was catapulted into politics once again. I was surprised to see that for a progressive town like Columbia, Missouri, their home occupation ordinance applied to businesses that were prevalent in the 1920’s. Much of the white collar professions that emerged since the 30’s were not listed. It was not before long I was networked with a wide range of IT consultants, marketing consultants, advertising specialists and television producers who, technically, were not permitted to operate out of their homes.
I looked over the political landscape. The city council, while technically non-partisan, was dominated by Democrats. Growing up in a Democrat family, I knew most of them. I figured this would be no sweat; sit down with the assembly members, go over the ordinance and update it. What I discovered was that these so-called “progressives” were control freaks. They had absolutely no interest in seeing business being conducted from residences. Some had the notion if you were "wealthy" enough to run a business, you can pay rent for office space. It was a battle I lost. It was also evident that about the only politicians who understood my argument were Republicans.
By 1994 I closed down my business partly because I could not afford the rent, but mostly because of burn-out from the constant evolution of the IT industry. I since learned that the City of Columbia became a bit more flexible, but by 2002 I was in Alaska and did not care. I wasn’t alone amongst IT entrepreneurs as it was observed that Columbia in the 1980’s and 90’s was simply not ready for the new wave innovators. Apple Computer would never have started in Columbia because manufacturing computers in your garage was prohibited.
So how is it that Columbia’s ordinance was discriminatory? If I was an employee of a company or of the government, I was allowed to work from my home.
If you own your own business, you were not. Simple as that. So across the street the State of Missouri could have a social worker basing her operations from her home. She used the same amount of
space, used her phone for business, and traveled about to see her clients as much as I did. Yet she was legal, I was not. That’s discriminatory.
My experience in Juneau has been biased because I worked either for the state or federal government. And I frequently worked from my home. But Juneau was a bit more progressive than Columbia, MO. Telework agreements were encouraged. The primary reason for this was the peculiar situation of Juneau, a landlocked city that is 850 miles north of Seattle and 650 miles east of Anchorage. It seemed that half of the employees in Juneau traveled in their jobs. In my case I worked two months out of the year from Missouri.
The advent of COVID-19 put teleworking in overdrive. The federal government had already developed a rather robust history of teleworking by 2020. This meant that many of the components necessary for teleworking were in place when the crisis emerged in February. The sudden spike of employees working from home would severely test the network capacity. This would trickle down to the local network providers who had to tune their networks to transmit payload from residences more than from traditional business locations. But the experience of most was generally positive.
What will be interesting in the post-COVID world will be whether teleworking will continue and at what scale. As my history demonstrates, you cannot take for granted that teleworking is legal. Teleworking is not a constitutional right. It is a type of occupation that can be regulated by the local government. So to cover your back, check the ordinances.
Another dimension of teleworking will be much more global in scope. To say the least, companies and government organizations have discovered that a lot can be done from the home. The US Forest Service, where I worked, was rather progressive in that arena, but it was a constant give and take on what was considered optimal teleworking. First, it produces new challenges for measuring job performance. In the short term it is no-brainer. Does an employee meet objectives? In the long-term, it is a bit more complicated because the objectives themselves may need some adjustment. Business managers can generally tell if the office collective is getting too efficient. Folks are more relaxed, spend more time “in training,” gather more frequently in their cubicles or in the office kitchen. It communicates a message that more can be done or the same can be done with less. That is hard to assess when your employees are working from home. Conversely, management may increase demands on employees, and not fully realize whether those demands are reasonable.
Another concern about teleworking is the lack of synergy. Again, in the short-term, where teams are already in place, virtual teamwork is rather easy to develop. But depending on the project, virtual teams can be frustratingly devoid of creative energy. There is nothing that replaces a group of intelligent people gathered in front of a marker board. My first career was as a grain trader. Working virtually would certainly be doable, but not between 10:55 and 11:00 as the phones exploded with contracts being applied. Our eyes and hand signals communicated to our peers while our voices spoke over the telephone to buyers and sellers. That type of environment cannot be replicated on Zoom.
So “common time” will be essential at various levels for different businesses. Yet for a large number of occupations, teleworking can be nearly 100%.
This will revolutionize office economics. Real estate will be pounded as leasing contracts are renegotiated for reduced space. How the space is used will evolve to accommodate the estimated
count of any set of employees who may be working at the office at any one time. Office space will become less personal. An employee arrives, plugs into a spare cubicle, and goes to work. This has
been evolving at the USFS for several years. Sad to say, cubicles will not be cluttered with family pictures, awards, and plants.
Also evolving will be the attractiveness of jobs when teleworking is promoted. Mothers, in particular, will not be as pressured to balance careers and child-rearing, having to choose or having to incur substantial child-care expense. Work can be productive while allowing breaks for gardening and exercising. Home maintenance will not be a major disruption to work as you can do your job while waiting for the plumber to repair the hot water line. Home schooling becomes a possibility. Care of the elderly is another benefit from teleworking. All these things can happen without disrupting the work process in most cases.
Environmental activists have also taken note. Teleworking has dramatically reduced the traffic on the roadways (unless you live in Seattle), which means less fuel is being burned and reducing the emissions that have been contributing to long term global warming trends, much less improving the air we breath. As traffic is reduced, so to the need for parking spaces around office buildings. These type of trends will take a decade or more to completely take effect.
Finally, teleworking can significantly reduce stress. No longer is a tenth of your day spent in the car, fighting traffic. It has been quite fun, in some respects, to see each other during conference calls working out of our homes. In one meeting, a cat was loudly meowing in one frame, and a dog barked back in another frame. How often have we seen people on video attempting to be as professional as possible, only to be humbled by a nosy cat or a three year old who suddenly bounds onto someone’s lap. In my view, this has de-compartmentalized our lives and made us more human.
In summary, white collar work will be revolutionized after the pandemic. It is one revolt I am looking forward to.
By Eric Niewoehner
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