Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Unpredictability Factor--The Myth of Telecommuting and the Growth of Central Cities

I never quite understood the appeal of working in my pajamas, although, evidently, the ability to do so makes one the member of an exalted class—the telecommuter. It’s all very George Jetson--like and it’s made folks like Steve Jobs very wealthy men. It’s also the topic of countless and generally boring visions of telecommuter nirvana where we are all in our pajamas looking out at the smog free home of the brave. The problem is it doesn’t work. Yes, jobs that have specific instruction and little deviation from the norm can be done in your home. They can also be done in India or Brazil. But you just can’t do much when the unexpected happens. The value of the American worker will be increasingly based on his or her ability to react to and deal with the unexpected and unpredictable world of global business. That’s tough to do in your jammies.

Let’s start with the latest rather startling evidence. The latest statistics from the Census Bureau indicate that office jobs have been growing at a faster pace in central cities than in their surrounding suburbs. Yes, the cities who our many experts told us 15 years ago would be virtually empty while we all sat and watched the grass grow in squat brick buildings in suburbia are outpacing the dull worlds surrounding them.

Considering that a suburban office worker is one step up the ladder from a telecommuter, things don’t bode well for the pajama party. Nor does it matter how many apps you’re running on your IPhone, because you can’t run an app for something that doesn’t yet exist, such as an unexpected visitor. It’s not difficult to see why suburban office use is on the relative decline. And it’s very easy to see why telecommuting rates have barely changed in 20 years. And it won’t change regardless of how much more of a toy we make our phones. It’s still a phone. Period.

I offer up the “unpredictability factor” as a new determinant in the location of the workforce. In short, the more unpredictable events that may occur in a given business day, the greater the necessity that the worker be located in or in close to a central city. And unpredictability has three components.

The first component is one of unexpected demand for services. Examples of the first would be commercial loan officers. Although one could argue that a loan officer can stay in his pajamas until the day and hour of his meeting, that would imply that every meeting must be a scheduled one. Not being in your office when a successful businessman wants to discuss a loan is not providing your core service. Other examples include real estate brokers, who must be ready for unexpected showings; attorneys who are unexpectedly called to court; and most public workers, who must be available for unexpected public business such as a marriage license. All of these workers possess the same qualities—the ability to deal with and react to new, unexpected business events.

The second component of unpredictability is the unexpected need for supplies or connections to provide the service. Examples from the unexpected supply side can be direct—an architect’s unexpected need for large scale renderings and a premium restaurant table for an out-of-town client unexpectedly in town for the night. They are more frequently indirect –the commercial loan officer’s need to meet with a rating service’s local representative about the creditworthiness of the unexpected seeker of the loan mentioned above.

The third component of unpredictability is the endless series and cycles of the unexpected meeting whether that be during a walk through the city, at a popular lunch spot, or while attending a seminar or lecture. This component is the one most cited by advocates of doing business in the city, and it is entirely one of making one’s presence known simply by being in the midst of your potential clients and vendors. As Woody Allen said, “80% of life is just showing up.”

It’s hard to accommodate the unexpected in your pajamas. And once you strip away the chic and false notion that an IPhone is somehow more than a phone, you can see that a telecommuter is the most replaceable of workers. By design, their work cannot deal with the live unexpected world of business on either the demand or the supply side. You don’t run in to many potential business partners in your kitchen. It’s nice to be able to email me a picture of your cousin’s new baby from your living room couch, but that’s not business.

A worker’s value in America is increasingly tied to his or her ability to deal with and respond vigorously to the unexpected. The closer a worker is to the central location of any geographic area makes that worker more capable of dealing with demand for and supply for unexpected business. It also dramatically increases the chance of the serendipitous meeting. The role of the telecommuter is to operate within dictated boundaries. But, of course, you get to wear your fluffy slippers at the same time.