Archive for employment

WFH is Here To Stay. But.

When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and spread across the US, we all became subjects in likely the greatest remote work and telecommuting experiment ever. Abruptly, and on an ad-hoc basis, millions of us brought our offices into our homes, and just kept on working. Overall, the work from home (WFH) experiment is succeeding. And not only that, it’s succeeding under conditions far less than ideal. It would be one thing if we were working at home and the kids were in school. But our kids are home, too, challenging us to balance both our kids’ needs and our bosses needs under the same roof at the same time.

We’ve learned, thanks to widely available broadband, home WiFi networks, and teleconferencing software that works remarkably well despite the security and data scraping issues, that physical offices aren’t really all that important anymore. We’ve been able to work effectively without them even if there have been some strains in the transition.

This lesson has not been lost on the C-Suite crowd. As we start to think about how to reopen offices, keeping public health and liability concerns front and center, they will not pass up the opportunity to shift their companies’ occupancy costs to their employees while they cut their companies’ office space requirements. The savings will drop right to the bottom line, and they’ll be richly rewarded as the stock-based part of their compensation zooms in value. While I’m familiar with the arguments about how “social” we all are, how we need to be with one another, and how important face-to-face collaboration is, we’ve proven by our actions that there is another way. And when management decides what’s best for the company, the matter is pretty much settled, especially in this time of record-high unemployment and spreading insecurity.

Looking ahead, I believe that we will see a lot of office space reduction in the coming year, whether in the form of consolidation, lease renegotiation wherever possible, greater use of reconfigured co-working or flex spaces, or other space-shedding strategies. And WFH will be a big part of the “new normal”. Overall, we’ll see lower head counts and more square feet per person, also known as lower density.

The office spaces that do survive this shift will be different. While the adjustment is just getting under way, changes are coming. The most obvious thing will be spreading out people in order to maintain social distancing, which is the only strategy proven effective in containing and controlling the spread of this terrible virus. And the impact will be significant. In New York, the ratio of worker to space dropped in recent years to as low as 80 square feet per person, as companies packed people in to manage their occupancy. Look for that allocation to at least double as employees are spaced further apart both for the sake of their health and the companies’ liability. Bench seating will become a relic of the recent past, and quickly. I doubt anyone will miss it.

Constant, routine daily cleaning and disinfecting will become the norm, both within office spaces and in building common areas. That will significantly increase operating and maintenance costs. Individual tenants will have to shoulder their own internal costs, but expect to see landlords trying to pass their increased costs through.

The concepts of attendance and start times will have to change. In nearly every office building, the elevators are the bottleneck. Queuing people up in the lobby spaced six feet apart, and limiting the number of people in each elevator at any time means that it will just not be possible to move people upstairs the way we used to just a few short months ago. When there is a vaccine, this problem may go away. Until then, expect to see a lot more flexibility in office starting times, limits on capacity beyond those imposed by office layout changes, work shift setups along the lines of factory work, and other concepts. Some will work and some won’t.

The biggest change will come when management looks carefully at how they use the space they have, and what their people actually do in that space. Then they’ll figure out how to prioritize which tasks actually have to be done onsite and reconcile those space needs in order to use less space more efficiently. Hoteling concepts are probably dead; after all, why pay for transient space when your people will work from home? We may see new designs for spaces for teamwork and collaboration onsite, taking into account social distancing criteria, while relying on WFH for what used to be individual offices or cubicles. An idea that may work in some businesses would be to keep everyone working remotely and only bring people in to make the important “in person” new business pitches or similar presentations. These are only a few ideas. There will be others.

Look for changes in mechanical systems. I think we’ll see new interest in increasing outside air changes, possibly ditching return air plenum designs in favor of ducted returns, attention paid to internal airflow, consideration given to operable windows, ultraviolet duct sanitizing systems used more widely, and other concepts. Proximity systems could also be expanded. Most office workers these days already have a key fob or ID card for access; there’s no reason they can’t be used to control a broader range of things. And hands-free washrooms could easily become the standard going forward.

Those are just some of the physical changes we can look forward to. As we start talking seriously about reopening, WFH needs to be developed from its ad-hoc format to a more fully featured way of working.

Home offices or workspaces have to be upgraded and improved. It’s one thing to spend a couple of months doing videoconferences with your laptop balanced on your knees as you juggle your notes, all the while backlit by the light pouring in your living room window as your fellow video conferees look up your nose. It’s another thing to spend a substantial part of your career that way. To really perform at one’s peak, remote workers need a comfortable workspace separate from the family. That requires dedicating a space in your home for work, in effect losing the use of it by you and your family. It also requires investment in the form of, possibly, physically modifying your home. There are also operating costs incurred, be they paper, printer cartridges, or other supplies that used to be available at the office. We may also see new house and apartment plans evolve to include a usable home office or workspace. Apartment dwellers, especially in the small units built in this current cycle, will be particularly challenged. One idea could be for their landlords to convert the ground floor retail spaces to intelligently, and safely, designed resident work spaces. Retail is failing, so this may be a way to make lemonade from lemons. No matter the solution, there is a value, and a cost to the employee to be accounted for.

We all have to learn new presentation skills. We may not all be anchormen or women, but we do need to improve the way we look on video. There are also a lot of tools and tricks to presenting oneself better on video, all of which are part of a truly successful WFH setup. Again, it takes investment in hardware, software, and training. And costs that the remote worker will have to bear.

The “time bleed” has to stop. Anecdotal evidence indicates that people working from home put in an extra three hours a day. While, as professionals, everyone accepts putting in some extra time as part of the landscape, three hours a day extends to 750 hours a year. Consider that a standard working year is around 1,900 hours; working an additional 750 hours is the same as putting in around an additional 40%. Since it would be naive to expect a commensurate raise, the solution is a social one. Companies and employees have to recognize that working from home requires clear limits and a clear understanding of start/stop times. Most important, employers must understand and respect these limits.

The tax laws need to change. By shedding office space and pushing the WFH model, companies are shifting their occupancy costs to the staff without compensation. Since all of this will be done as a cost-cutting move on the employers’ side, and since it’s unlikely that the companies will turn around and share those savings with the staff, the Federal and State governments should step in and do what employers can’t be expected to do: provide tax incentives or other rewards to people who work remotely. One way would be to drastically expand the range of office-at-home tax deductions. Another way would be a tax credit for individuals, in other words a dollar-for-dollar reduction of tax liability based on the annual value of an employee’s home office or workspace. Since the big companies have been vacuuming up all kinds of tax favors in recent years, not to mention stimulus dollars recently, it’s only fair that employees get their share.

Child care will be a bigger and more urgent issue. On one hand, having our children see what we do to put bread on the table can be a valuable part of learning and becoming a good citizen. On the other, our kids need us when they need us, and they can’t always be expected to understand the demands of working. The school day is also shorter than the work day, and so something has to close that gap. A good start would be respect and understanding of the family’s needs, and an acknowledgment that those needs really do have to be balanced with company’s needs. One solution could be a greater use of flex time, or shift setups that allow working couples to stagger their days to provide continuous child care. Another solution would be reliable, broadly accessible after school programs. Along with this, child care tax credits should be broadly expanded so that employees at all levels can get help with the cost of child care, whether it is day care, after school programs, special needs support, or other qualified activities that working parents need in order to attend to their children’s’ needs while performing at a high level while working from home.

The WFH experiment has, among other things, finally killed off the stigma of working from home. When I started my business, I worked from home, as have many others. I will never forget the sneers that greeted me when I acknowledged that, and the presumption that I was somehow less professional because I didn’t have an “Office”. But, when newscasters, entertainers, and even political candidates work from home, all of a sudden it’s OK. As companies of all sizes across the US push this, it will be even more OK. Meantime, the lack of an office is now an equalizer, and those of us who’ve been doing it for some time have the advantage: we’re space-efficient, nearly paper-free, and very tuned in to how we look on Zoom. Advantage the WFH crowd.

A Fable for Our Time

A friend of mine recently returned home from California after two months traveling in France and England. As he unpacked his bags and settled back into his house, he sorted the foreign coins and bills accumulated while traveling and unspent at duty-free.  Looking ahead to future travel, he organized the currency into separate packets; when he was done, he had an unusual coin left over.  Not sure what it was, he sent me a photo, asking if might be legal tender and if so, where.

It is in fact a very rare and interesting coin that was once legal tender in a place many of us call the People’s Republic of New York.  They could be inserted into analog machines at the entrances to the most expansive public transit system in the world as payment of the fare; once in the system one could ride as far as one wanted for a flat fare.  They could also be spent, at full value, to buy snacks and sodas in bodegas and delis out in parts of Brooklyn like Bedford-Stuyvesant before they were gentrified.  I know this because, one day in architecture school and short of cash, I paid for lunch with one.

Artifacts like old coins tell us about worlds past, and this is no exception.  The People’s Republic of New York existed de facto as a city-state that enjoyed a unique status in the US as the center of culture, art, innovation, fashion, finance, commerce, architecture, and industry.  While the quality of its leaders varied, it was generally well-regarded as an enlightened progressive democracy that administered, in addition to its world-class transit system, an extensive network of public hospitals and clinics, the largest public housing program in the nation, and one of the oldest and largest public park systems in the country, free and accessible to all.  The Republic was also committed to education, a legacy of both the tremendous influx of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th Century, who valued education above all, and the reform movements of the early 20th century; the result was the creation of the largest public school system in the U.S. that produced generations of progressive leaders, successful professionals, acclaimed scientists, and world-renowned business  people, and a municipal university best known for producing more Nobel laureates than the Ivy League, MIT, and Stanford combined.  The Republic was also home to the largest concentration of multimillionaires in the U.S., who consistently supported progressive social and political movements out of a sense of obligation to the common good.  In spite of its tremendous concentration of wealthy elites, the Republic also boasted the most economically and ethnically diverse population in the nation: people of all origins, races, and economic achievement lived together harmoniously in close quarters.  The Republic’s commitment to liberal values was such that reactionary aspirants to the Presidency of the U.S. sneered at its “New York Values” as a way to achieve acceptance among like-minded reactionaries across the nation; the residents of the Republic were taken aback, knowing as they did the things they valued most are education, hard work, success, and tolerance.

The decline of the Republic began in 1980 with the ascension of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency of the U.S., who declared government the source of all that ails society, installed hypercapitalism as the official state religion, and whose minions began the looting of the U.S. and the transfer of its wealth to gated communities in Orange County, Santa Barbara, Montecito and Silicon Valley in California; selected neighborhoods in Houston and Dallas, Texas; a family in Wichita, Kansas; all of whose  denizens acquired ever more expensive apartments on the Upper East Side  of Manhattan and bought their way  into the formerly progressive elites.  Despite glimmers of hope in the intervening years, the decline was irreversible by 2009, when the elites of the Republic sold the mayoralty to a local billionaire, who retired in 2013 and handed the office, reduced substantially in power, to a local populist as a sop to the masses.  In early January of this year, the Republic formally became known as Oligarkistan and is a province of Russia administered from Washington DC.

Today, the Republic’s public hospital network and housing system are in various stages of distress.  Wealthy donors support the parks lavishly, but selectively, focusing their efforts and cash on the park across the street from their apartments.  The transit system remains, although when it will be privatized, with the inevitable service cuts and distance fares imposed in the name of hypercapitalism, is anybody’s guess.  The coins themselves went out of circulation in the early 2000s when the information technology/data harvesting oligarchs took control of the monetary system.

My advice to my friend was to hang onto his coin as a symbol of a lost society.  It will almost certainly increase in value.

Hollywood Swinging

Yesterday’s New York Times ran a story by Adam Davidson on the Hollywood model of business, touting it as this great new, compelling model of the way work will evolve.  And while I agree with Mr. Davidson that we are in the midst of a hundred year reset, I think there are a lot of shortcomings in the Hollywood model.  First, some historic perspective.

Sorry, Mr.  Davidson, there’s nothing new here.  The entire AEC (Architecture/Engineering/Construction) industry has run this way since before there were movies.

Architecture firms consist of a core of skilled professionals (once upon a time called draftsmen) who are internally flexible in that they are assigned to a specific project, reassigned once their work is done, or let go if there is no next project.  The firms then hire the specialized skills they need from a variety of consulting engineers (mechanical, electrical, structural, acoustic, fire protection, and so on) in order to complete the design and construction contract documents.  Then the construction documents go out to bid to general contractors, or construction managers, who really only provide management and supervision and rarely, if ever, perform the actual work themselves.  That task, really many, many tasks, is left to a variety of trade or subcontractors (plumbing, electrical, air conditioning, structural steel, carpentry, and so on).

Every construction project is, then, a stand-alone enterprise assembled for the purpose of building the building, the bridge, the power plant, the office space, or whatever else.  It comes into being, executes the task at hand, and is then dismantled as the project players move on to the next assignment.  While, unlike the Hollywood model, the project players are more often firms than individuals, everyone is expendable if there isn’t another assignment.  Anyone who has ever worked in the AEC industry has been laid off at least once.  Still, it’s a durable, efficient model, but before we embrace it as the new way to work, some reservations.

  1. Without training, there are no skilled workers. This model works in the AEC industry because schools of architecture and engineering produce educated entry level workers.  Because these professions are licensed by the states, there is a mandatory apprenticeship in the profession, usually three years, before one is considered qualified to sit for the licensing exam.  The unionized construction trades also provide apprenticeship programs as a prerequisite for membership, thus insuring a flow of skilled tradespeople (how the non-union world deals with this is anyone’s guess). Outside the AEC industry, though, corporate America has walked away from the notion of training and mentoring.  Since to be recognized as a skilled person in any field requires a combination of experience, knowledge, and skill, where are these Hollywood model workers going to get the training they need to participate successfully?
  2. Without medical coverage, everyone is at risk. As a Hollywood model worker, you have to fend for yourself when it comes to medical insurance and other benefits.  You will do this by paying the highest possible rates for medical insurance as a small business owner, sole proprietor, or single employee company, thanks to the way the insurance industry penalizes these kinds of workers.  While there are organizations that help freelancers with this by setting up groups, no one has the bargaining  power that large corporations have when it comes to dealing with health insurance companies, so no matter what, you will pay more.  Much more.  At the same time, as a freelancer or Hollywood model worker, you have very limited leverage when it comes to what you can charge your clients or customers.  So you’re stuck in the middle of unreasonably high costs for basic coverage and a cap on what you can make. So you earn less.
  3. The work never stops. Before you think this is a good thing, think again.  As a freelancer or Hollywood modeler, if you don’t work, you don’t earn.  While the cubicle jockeys in corporate America think that freelancing offers income and freedom, any freelancer that with any experience yearns for a couple of steady assignments to take the edge off the uncertainty.  Remember, most peoples’ costs are recurring things, like the mortgage, the rent, health insurance, and so on.  So take your place on the treadmill and spread yourself thin between doing the work you have and landing the next piece of business; it it’s a 50/50 split, you’re losing ground.  And in the meantime, try telling your landlord that your skills are magically re-evaluated by the market frequently.
  4. It’s not for everybody, and not for every skill. So far, the Hollywood, or AEC, model seems to work best with highly educated people who can do very particular things, have some, albeit limited, leverage when it comes to pricing, and either can, or want to be, flexible about the way they work.  If you need a lot of support, as opposed to collaboration, which is a very different thing, to effectively do whatever it is you do, you are unlikely to succeed.

All that said, whether you call it the Hollywood model, the EAC industry, or just plain freelancing, it can be an efficient way to work as long as it works more or less equally well for employer and employee. But beware when corporate America takes this one up as the latest management mantra because it just means they have found another way to screw us all.  Read the NYT article at