The Stack Archive

Telecommuting: community needs

Fri 13 Mar 2015

michael-shearMichael Shear is the President of the Broadband Planning Initiative in Washington DC. Having looked at the background facing proponents of telecommuting, issues of transport and environment, telecommunications policy, and security, today Michael closes this series of features by examining the potential of ‘connected communities’…

Every community requires a core set of elements to be viable in today’s economy including: 1) Jobs and job access, 2) Education at all levels, 3) Medical Services, 4) Government and public services including emergency services and 5) Housing.

Jobs and job access – Communities have long relied on the approach of attracting jobs by attracting employers – one at a time. This has pitted neighboring communities against one another and, in many instances, the reliance on one or several major employers, has been devastating when the employer moves, is acquired, or goes out of business. As jobs move, so do people. Moreover, given the current weakness in the housing market, this has become more problematic. The changing nature of work in America, shifting from a manufacturing to an information economy, has underscored the relevant role of telecommunications infrastructure in re-engineering our economies.

Locating work centers in local communities puts underutilized commercial real estate to work and will improve employee productivity and employers’ abilities to attract and retain quality employees

Education – Access to all levels of quality and affordable education has become more fundamental to our economy and society. We no longer accept that education stops at high school graduation or even college-level degrees, but rather that education is an ongoing necessity to sustain and grow a career. We must recognize that advanced telecommunications infrastructures are a critical component to our success and must be available where we live and work.

Medical Services – As the need for medical services increases relative to America’s aging demographics and the expense of services continue to increase, timely access to quality medical services can be greatly enhanced through telemedicine, and remote clinic services to a greater number of communities.

Government and public services – As community revenues have fallen, leaders are pressed to find more cost-effective approaches to informing the public and responding to their needs. Likewise, emergency services are pressed to do more with less and must find more efficient methods to respond. Once again, telecommunications has a central role to play.

Affordable Housing – With few exceptions, no community can exist if housing is not available to spectrum of socio-economic individuals and families. Available and affordable housing is integral along with access to the above listed elements.

Focused Approach – Changing Remote Work Practices from Accommodation to Calculation

“It is adaptive rather than allocative efficiency which is the key to long run growth. Successful political/economic systems have evolved flexible institutional structures that can survive the shocks and changes that are a part of successful evolution. But these systems have been a product of long gestation. We do not know how to create adaptive efficiency in the short run.” – Douglass C. North, Economic Performance Through Time – 1993 Economics Nobel Prize lecture

As with any new set of tools, we must understand their intrinsic characteristics and appreciate how we might best utilize them for a given outcome. Adapting tools to the way we behave is not the same as adapting our behaviors to the characteristics of these new tools. Inevitably, we do both.

Assessing aggregate community demands and understanding telecommunications as infrastructure might provide an expanded horizon regarding how a more focused approach could enhance the economic competitiveness and sustainability of our communities. This is the basis for the distributed workplace model.

Distributed workplace is a community work model that seeks to change the current single location workplace model by ‘localizing’ access to more jobs and more employers. A network of strategically based work centers, distributed workplace is a higher order model than today’s teleworking approaches. These work centers contain multiple suites with each suite dedicated to 15-50 employees from one company or agency. With a dozen or more tenant organizations, each work center supports 150 to 1000 employees. Each work center is connected to other work centers and each employer’s location using dedicated, secure broadband technologies.

For the vast majority of potential remote workers, the daily commute is the only way to get to the job and keep the job

By creating economies of scale, a central support technical staff provides infrastructure, training, and security to the various work center clients. Employees will have the capability to work for major business and government employers around the metropolitan or regional area from a networked work center located in their communities.

These strategic office networks will achieve economies of scale and create a secure, scalable platform for rapid geographic expansion to other suburban and rural communities providing residents local access to jobs. In addition, there are economic incentives to develop distributed work centers extending employment opportunities to part-time working parents, students, and individuals with disabilities.

Locating work centers in local communities puts underutilized commercial real estate to work and will improve employee productivity and employers’ abilities to attract and retain quality employees. Localizing jobs more easily offers employment opportunities to part-time working parents, students and those with disabilities. Distributed workplace is a permanent deployment of employees, which produces measurable and predictable reduction in transportation congestion while immediately converting gasoline dollars into ‘local economy’ dollars. Furthermore, this new approach begins to provide a higher-level security for data, systems, and employees than current methods.

Knowledge in the community

Distributed Work Centers will do for area employers what retail malls did for retailers in the past – expand access. In this case, access to knowledge workers from a greater number of area-wide communities and in a way that greatly reduces the employees’ gas costs and helps address the transportation congestion issues plaguing every major metropolitan community in America.

Some advocates of telework believe that we all should work from home or a coffee shop. A portion of the workforce are successful using home as their workspace. However, the data regarding the potential for remote working is clear – only a small percentage of the potential remote workforce can or are willing to work remotely under the current approaches. A predominant argument is that the problem for the lower than expected level of telework participation is ‘middle-management resistance’. Given the complexities of the changing dynamics of the workplace, it is more likely that there is no ONE problem. There are a number of issues associated with the way we work, our behaviors at work, the nature of social interaction (not cyber-social) and the real need for the majority to preserve a separation of our work life and our home life.

Remote working (or teleworking) predominately has remained a ‘privilege’ of the better education, higher-paid and senior employees of most organizations (See Lister and Harnish – 2011). For the vast majority of potential remote workers, the daily commute is the only way to get to the job and keep the job. Of the approximately 120M daily commuters, about 50M to 60M are knowledge workers (meaning they theoretically could perform their jobs from ‘anywhere’). But, on any given day less than 3M do work from home or remotely – once you purge the home businesses and self employed (though they are not part of the daily commuting workforce anyway). And, if advocates of work-from-home suggest we all work from home, what impact will this have on already depressed commercial office space markets?

We have tried telework or drop-in-centers. Certain communities have incubators that cater to the entrepreneurs. However, we have yet to strike upon a more holistic model for the vast majority of knowledge workers. Though we have felt and borne the brunt of the information economy’s ‘flattening of the world’ we have yet to find a comprehensive and secure multi-location methodology for deploying our workforce. Ironically, these same disruptive technologies are causing a tremendous challenge to retail malls and the retailers dealing with growing on-line behaviors.

The architecture for distributed workplace networks and community-based centers is designed to integrate the other essential building blocks of distance learning, telemedicine, day care and after-school programs, government services, and emergency preparedness based upon the needs of each community. Creation of these networked centers not only enhances access to existing jobs but also creates new technology jobs to support this infrastructure.

The multi-location, distributed workplace model takes advantage of the changing nature of work and balances deployment with security and management oversight while enhancing economic growth and competitiveness. As an adjunct to transportation, transit and land use planning, this broadband methodology may offer more timely relief, may be expanded is a shorter time-frame, and can easily be extended into extra urban and rural communities.

Federal Leadership (in communities where the federal government is a major employer)

For all the pressures to change, including congressional legislation to support telework, most agency and department heads have been vastly unsuccessful at attaining acceptable levels of remote work compliance (currently less than 20% of the 2004 objective).

Although these are ‘discretionary’ laws, increased emphasis on cyber-security, emergency preparedness and continuity of operations planning, requires a more effective and strategic workforce deployment strategy. At a time when pay freezes and rising gasoline prices affect federal workers the most, a distributed workplace initiative can provide a more equitable method to improve their condition. By adapting an aggregated approach to the needs of agencies and departments, the federal government has the opportunity to reduce real estate and IT infrastructure costs, increase security and control while posturing federal employees to be vastly more effective to deal with emergency situations. Not all emergencies provide advance warning and can be predicted.

Many agency and department heads argue the effectiveness of the work-from-home approach to address emergencies but do not differentiate between, for example, forecasted snow outages (notification events) and terrorist attacks (non-notification events). The relevance here is that current telework practices result in less than 3 percent of the federal workforce working remotely on any given day (and that is not the same 3 percent every day). In an event of a non-notification emergency, the likelihood is that too few employees will be postured to respond and may be precluded from being effective due to interruptions in power and connectivity.

Depending on where a ground zero event occurs, federal employees will likely face the daunting challenge to evacuate, hope they can arrive at an alternate work facility (most likely home) and that power and connectivity are available for them to operate under these circumstances. Given these realities, the federal government as employer is in a unique position to lead by example working with communities to demonstrate a more holistic application of information and communications technologies.


Michael B. Shear, Founder of Strategic Office Networks, LLC, and of the non-profit Broadband Planning Initiative, has more than 3 decades experience in bringing new technologies and services to market. Mr. Shear has earned a BA in International Affairs and a MS in Telecommunications from the University of Colorado.

Read the previous article in this series: Telecommuting: security, continuity of operations, and emergency preparedness

Next Monday we will present this feature series as a single report


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