Thursday, June 9, 2022

OTR: Commuting Cost Lockdown

 I was thinking about this the other night while I was driving home from the office. I'm doing the "hybrid" work schedule these days. We're asked to be in the office three days a week. However, I am working on a project that requires a fair number of meetings with colleagues in Asia, so I have days where the first call starts at 7am and the last call ends after 8pm. My normal commute is about an hour each way and that will make for a very early start and a very rushed dinner if I want to catch the late call at home. So I try to get in a couple days a week and add a day if I need to meet in person with someone.

Now add in the price of gas. I have a decently efficient VW Tiguan that generally gets north of 30 miles per gallon for my commuting. My prior car averaged around 22mpg, so that is actually a big improvement. Gas is pretty much double what it was during Covid and close to doubling pre-Covid, so even with better mileage, the savings are gone if I drive to work every day. A shorter workweek helps matters, but I'm sure that many people are feeling the pinch, especially when coupled with inflationary increases on everything else.

This makes me wonder if we're headed back to knowledge workers staying home, simply because going to work costs too much. I know that Metra (the commuter rail system) is experimenting with $100 monthly passes that allow unlimited rides anywhere on the rail system. I suspect they will get some takers and draw people back to the train if they are heading into Chicago from an outlying suburb.

In any event, the new ways that we work and the resistance of many people to leaving their bunny slippers behind, coupled with higher expenses, may accelerate the "Great Resignation" as people look for "remote" job opportunities or work that is closer to home. It will further exacerbate the real estate challenges of many organizations where predicting capacity needs will become a nightmare. And, very likely draw a bigger divide between employees who have to come to the office / factory and people who can work from home.

As a side note, as I watch gas prices continue to climb, I noticed that those big gas station signs with the digital numbers on them only go to $9.99. I had a flashback to 1980 when gas had to be sold by the liter because the mechanical price reels on the pumps only went to $.999.  We may be seeing that again soon. In the meantime, you might want to invest in companies that make those big gas station signs -- or the temporary number ones that will be bolted to the signs.

OTR: Electric Vehicles

 I saw this article this morning and it pretty well sums up why I won't be buying an electric car anytime soon.


1. Base cost of the vehicle. Any decent car is expensive these days, but electric cars are around $10,000 more expensive than gasoline powered cars. Yes, you avoid gas stations and oil changes, but you're still paying for electricity.

2. Infrastructure. You have to recharge the vehicle and that means adding a charging station to your garage. Depending on what you need / want, that can be a minor electrician expense or the need to add electrical capacity to your residence. Plugging the car in at night to a regular outline will likely not give you a full charge if the battery is drawn down. On the road, you have to find one that is available and fast. Many of the charging stations out there aren't yet set up for high speed.

3. Range. If I'm just back and forth to the office (40 miles each way), an electric vehicle is fine. But if you're making a longer trip, you're going to need to stop about every 300 miles and hope there is a high speed charger available. My Tiguan can go about 500 miles on a tank of gas -- that's about as much as I can drive by myself in a single day. Getting from home to see my in-laws likely would mean sweating out the last half hour of the drive. I normally will make that trip with one bio break. Having to park and recharge the car for a half hour (or more) is not worth it.

4. Durability. I like to keep my cars for ten years or so. Post-Covid, maybe longer because the miles aren't piling up like they used to. I'm not convinced that electric cars have that durability yet.

Chicago to New Orleans is between 900 and 1000 miles -- around 14 to 15 hours of driving. In my Tiguan, I'd likely be stopping in Tennessee for the night. The reporter indicated that the trip took far longer than expected (although the linked article doesn't give numbers that reflect reality). It sounds like, to be safe, you're stopping for extended charges at least three, and probably four, times. That's going to require good planning. I've read articles that advise people to just plan to have a sit down meal while the car charges. Well, yeah, but when I'm going somewhere, I'd like to get there --  and while leisurely meals are something you probably should do on vacation, that also means you need to find an available charging station near a decent place to eat. You also want to hope that your hotel has a charging station -- and another guest doesn't plug in and head to bed.

So while the prospect of $6 a gallon gas certainly has me looking for options, I'm still not sold on electric cars quite yet. Yes, there are some tax incentives and other means to reduce up front cost, but I think we are still very early in this lifecycle. I'm not ready to be an early adopter.

Monday, April 4, 2022

OTR: The New Workplace

Corporate America has a big problem. It's called real estate. Many companies have too much of it because the workforce has decided that it doesn't need to come back to the office.

As I drove up to the office this morning, I took note of various office building parking lots along the tollway. There was Allstate's huge campus -- deserted. That property has been sold and the workers are either staying home or going to other facilities. Next up... Walgreens. Also pretty empty. Trustmark... empty. Tenneco...empty.

The Abbott Park campus for AbbVie and Abbott looked more populated, but there are a fair number of scientists and production workers who need to be there. At my office building, home to the IT folks, parking was quite good. I went in and walked to my office, saying hello to a few people. But my end of the floor was pretty empty. As the day progressed, I had some folks drop by, and I stopped to say hello to others in the office. But my meetings were on Microsoft Teams.

Pre-COVID, our building was just about maxed out for occupancy. Offices were hard to come by, and the Facilities folks were trying to hold down moves so they could get a handle of space availability. Moves have resumed and we're starting to sort out where people can be to work more effectively when they are in the office. But it is clear that something will need to change -- companies can't continue to pay for space that isn't being fully utilized. That means changes -- likely to "hoteling" sorts of space arrangements. You don't have a permanent spot, but maybe get assigned a "neighborhood" or get together with other folks that you need to collaborate with on a given day. You come to the office when you need to meet or work with others. These arrangements have plusses and minuses. As a manager, I like having a door for employee meetings or discussion of sensitive matters. And no one really wants to have to sit by the boss... People who have experienced these sorts of arrangements say that sitting cheek by jowl with folks means that the office gets loud. The noise level means that people then live with headsets and earbuds in all the time, not really collaborating with those around them. Some people like to "nest". They like to make their office or cube their own, but that is hard to do when you don't have your own space.

I'm a nester.

So it is likely that we will again need to adapt to changes in how we work -- and when we work together in person. But that also means getting folks to willingly come to the office. If you're going to spend a couple hours commuting every day, incurring public transportation or increasing gas expenses, there needs to be a good reason to make the trek. I've found myself surprised to find that I need the social aspect of the office more than I thought, but I also know that sitting in an anonymous, sterile workspace, plugged in to a headset, having meetings online, isn't exactly what I want to come back to. I suspect that we are going to have to learn how to work differently.

So how do we maximize the value of being in the office? There's the million dollar question. As you look through the window into my office, know that there is nothing in that picture that I don't have at home. In fact, as you may have read in a prior post, I have some better things in my home office. I'll quickly admit that I'm lucky in that regard. I have a dedicated office space, high speed Internet, a huge monitor, and a really nice ergonomic chair. But others love to work from their laptop in a recliner or in bed or even at the kitchen table.

For knowledge workers, then, the value of being in the office has to be realized. Management can't talk about sunk cost of facilities, "fairness" to other workers who have to come to a company facility, or collaboration benefits that haven't quite been worked out. As we adapted at the beginning of COVID, we have to adapt once again.

When I think about a collaborative workplace, my mind is drawn to the old Dick Van Dyke Show of the 1960's. The "office" scenes were Dick's character, Rob Petrie, and his office mates putting together comedy sketches and routines for a weekly variety show. The team of writers continually collaborated to put together a show. That type of creative work is all about collaboration. When I was consulting, some projects required us to document a particular business process. We'd go out and gather information from the client, then come back together and document the different elements of the process, making connections between individual elements. Ultimately, we had to find ways to streamline the process. That required some collaboration.

When I think about what I do -- and what many of my colleagues do -- we're quite siloed, working in distinct business processes, cranking out particular pieces of work. Often when we come together with others, they aren't in the cube or office next to us -- they are in Europe, or Asia, or Latin America.

In my mind, then, the question is -- how do we normalize collaboration for otherwise siloed work? We can't force it. We likely have to look at our work differently. Is this a task that we could knock out more quickly if several of us sit down and work through the task? Is there value in a more junior person scribing the decisions made (and thus learning the process and the interpretations)? Do we hold off on answering email until the afternoon? Do we set expectations around what kinds of communications are necessarily synchronous, and which ones are asynchronous? Do we have meeting free days for more focused siloed work, training, and one on one meetings with managers?

Do we change the way that we utilize our workforce? Do our most valuable knowledge workers become an internal consulting force, dedicated to one or two simultaneous projects that are completed in an accelerated manner? Do we identify subject matter experts or do we ensure that subject matter expertise is spread around? Do we silo only the complex, repeatable tasks that can't be moved to a managed service?

The other question is -- how do we hold people accountable when we can't see them every day? That's a huge learning curve for many managers. It requires a change to how we set expectations and define deliverables. Knowledge workers are often firefighters -- having to address an urgent, unexpected need that wasn't in the day's plan. That causes work to be set aside and deliverables delayed. Which then means we have to better define what is important and what can wait -- and how we measure the work we do.

The workplace has been altered in a significant way. The way we work and where we work has been changed. Companies are faced with empty real estate and unhappy employees -- employees who have to work away from home and employees who can work from home, but aren't allowed to do so. These dynamics will force the next change in how work gets done.

Friday, September 10, 2021

OTR: Working from Home -- 18 Months Later

Fourteen years ago -- yes, I have been sporadically blogging for that long -- I wrote a post called, "The Two Minute Commute". I had forgotten about that post until I re-read it this evening -- after I finally finished this post. It took a while, but I've been living that life now for most of 18 months. What's interesting is how I imagined it would be and how it turned out. Oh, and that long ago work style never happened. Massive downsizing tends to make space available in a company.

For most of the past 25 years, working from home has been an option for me. At first, it involved tying up the household phone line with a noisy modem connection. But I had a laptop and the ability to produce work away from the office. During that time, my home workspace evolved from a cluttered table in the kitchen or basement to a dedicated office space with a door after we did some remodeling.

Early on, working from home was a rarity -- a critical need or weather would force the issue. By 9/11/2001, working from home was more common. I recall being at home on that fateful day and being able to turn the TV on and see what was happening. I was home that day because my wife was ill and we had a pre-school child who needed to be looked after.

Through the next 20 years, I improved my workspace. I bought better monitors; added KVM switches to enable me to easily switch between my work computer and my home computer using the same keyboard, video monitor and mouse; I bought better seating and work surfaces; and I added a TV in my office. Working from home was now a treat -- but mostly a way to avoid bad weather or work while recuperating from some back surgeries where I was able to work, but not drive for a month. So at the point that Covid showed up, I had worked at home for some extended periods and had a comfortable workspace with most of what I needed at hand.

On Monday, March 16, 2020 --  my last day in the office -- I locked up my cabinets, turned off my monitors, and grabbed a few things that I thought would be useful at home. My Dilbert calendar remained on my desk because we expected to be home "for a couple weeks".

I got home, popped my laptop in the docking station I had purchased previously for my home office and took stock. The prior Christmas, my daughters had gifted me with a Samsung 43-inch curved, flat screen monitor (now apparently no longer available). I had been looking for a second monitor for my home setup and stumbled on this monitor instead. It had a built-in KVM switch and after a bit of fiddling, I had gotten it to work seamlessly with my home setup. I knew that I'd like that monitor, but I had no idea how much.

I dug out an old webcam that I hadn't used since my prior job and dusted off a couple sets of USB headphones that I had squirreled away. Up to that point, I had been using headphones with my landline phone for conference calls, but we were shifting to video conferencing with our relocation to home.

That first week was a major learning curve for everyone. With huge numbers of people working remotely, plus schools shifting to remote learning, a lot of technology crashed and burned. Our technology folks moved quickly to deploy new tools and enable capabilities that had only be discussed previously. Co-workers were often scrambling to find places at home to work. But work continued. After all, it would just be for a few weeks...

At the end of May, my employer merged with another company. The merger happened while most of the people who would be involved in making companies come together were working from home. It has been a remarkable process.

As Spring turned to Summer, we began to realize that this would go on for a while. We started scheduling "water cooler meetings" to check in on our teammates and share our latest Amazon purchases or recipes. We had some late afternoon cocktail meetings just to be casual and maintain connections. I hired two employees -- who I never saw except through my monitor. I decided to buy a new office chair -- one that matched my in office ergonomic chair. I found that I could customize it and decided to get a longer piston so I would sit a little higher. Unfortunately, I didn't check dimensions with a tape measure and discovered that the lowest setting on the tall piston put my knees at desktop height. A phone call and FedEx resolved that problem.

Along the way, I did manage to get out a little. A few visits to a friend gave me some change of scenery and company. The Internet kept me working like I had been, minus my big screen and nice chair.

Summer started to turn to Fall, and it looked like we might head back to the office. Some people did, but the check in protocols and in office safety protocols didn't make it very conducive. Covid ramped back up and we all stayed home. I started experimenting with different desk lamps to deal with early darkness and late night meetings.

Fall became Winter and the vaccines started to arrive. Some people went back in again, but we mostly stayed home. Winter turned to Spring. The company started to offer vaccine appointments, with factory workers and scientists who had to be in the building getting first dibs. Eventually, my turn came in April and May and it looked like we might finally be returning to the office. At the end of May, the safety protocols were lifted and I decided to venture back in mid-June.

On June 9, I opened my office door for the first time since I had closed it 450 days previously. There was my Dilbert calendar. There was a 20th anniversary Lucite plaque for someone on my team who had the anniversary while we were gone, and had taken another job in the company during the interim.

There was amazingly little dust and a sign on my desk proclaimed that my office had been sanitized at some point. For the next couple weeks, I went into the office a few times to reacquaint myself with the commute and start to see people I had missed. Traffic wasn't bad and parking was great. The vending machine company, however, had given up on stocking our machines.

Within a couple weeks, we were invited back to the office. We found some treats on our desks to welcome us back.

Most of my team was able to come in, but there were still some challenges. Parents didn't have day care or summer camps for their kids. Office moves weren't happening, so transferred employees couldn't come in to their new location. Then we started to use our "work from home" conferencing technology and had a whole new learning curve. Our conference rooms were mostly set up for audio conferencing and trying to make video conferencing work was... difficult. We had a cookout in the parking lot during week two and ice cream during week three. We started having in-person meetings again. We rediscovered hallway conversations that enabled us to avoid meetings. But the population was definitely not at pre-Covid levels. Parking was quite good, however.

Then Covid got another vote. The in-office safety protocols ramped up again and it seemed pointless to drive for an hour each way so I could lock myself in my office all day. On August 2nd, I locked up my cabinets, turned off the monitors and power strips and went home. The Dilbert calendar came with me this time.

So I'm home again, although if I need to be in the office, it is open. People who have gone in say it is back to being a ghost town.

While I was back in the office, I managed to get my laptop replaced -- it was getting very long in the tooth and showing its four and a half years of use. That led to a new set up at home that wasn't working as well as the old setup for some reason. The new computer didn't like the way it was switched over to the monitor and was fussing about USB connections. I decided to turn to Amazon for a new KVM setup and after a couple days, that seems to have solved the problem. That gave me a good excuse to reorganize the wiring spaghetti and do some dusting. 

It's hard to say how long this work at home period will last. I suspect that we may not return to "normal" for a while. One thing is for certain, our expectations about where we work won't be the same.

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