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There’s a widespread feeling that remote work is now mainstream. An assumption that we will never go back to the old ways of working.

If that’s true, it’s been a long time coming. For years experts and pundits have predicted many more people will work from home in the future.

There’s evidence that the number of people working from home, at least for some of the time, was already rising before the Covid–19 pandemic accelerated the trend.

Remote work’s slow, steady rise

The rise has been slow, but steady.

It exploded when New Zealand and most of the world went into lockdown. Anyone who’s work could be done remotely logged on from home. Data volumes on broadband networks soared and hitherto esoteric applications like Zoom became part of everyday life for white collar workers.

For some home will be cemented in as their main future workplace. It’s worth remembering this only applies to certain types of work, a surgeon can’t operate via Zoom, nor can a supermarket shelf stacker.

The National Business Review closed down its editorial office, apparently for ever. The paper gave staff an allowance to cover home working costs.

Lonely, alienating?

Remote work is not too lonely and alienating for journalists. The job often involves attending functions or meeting people for interviews or information gathering.1 It could be hard going for some.

Yet, hundreds of companies are working through similar plans.

One key thing that changed with the early 2020 lockdown was that managers and individuals alike realised that mass remote working is possible and practical. Until now there was scepticism, especially among more anally-retentive managers.

Productivity questions

There are still questions over its desirability in every case. Some voices say remote working is more productive. Other managers hate the idea of not being able to look out from the corner suite to see rows of heads down with people beavering away.

For what it’s worth, my experience over the years is that it can be more productive at times, but work quickly eats in to the rest of your life. I certainly do more than a forty hour week and can count the number of non-working weekends over the last 15 years on my fingertips.

Either way, my gut tells me that while we are going to see more home or remote working than before lockdown, there will also be a drift back to the office.

Mix and match remote work

Maybe people will work from home two or three days a week and commute on the other days. Or it could be people will work one way when they need to focus on their own, and another way when close collaboration is needed.

It’s not all about me, but let’s go back to my experience in this department. I find if I only work from home, my productivity is OK, but not great.

Likewise, if I only work from an office, it’s not great either. But if I mix things up, productivity shoots up. If I have the freedom to work from home as and when the mood or my energy levels dictate, I get the best result of all.

Your experience might be different. It certainly will if you have a young family or if there’s not a lot of space at home. In those cases getting out is wise. This goes some way to explain the popularity of co-working spaces.

Which brings me to the other key point. It’s likely that many future workplaces will look and feel a lot more like co-working spaces.

  1. Well, that’s my experience and I’ve been working this way for almost 15 years now and sporadically for periods before this one. ↩︎

James RosenwaxJames Rosenwax says Auckland should focus on agility and the knowledge economy as it continues to emerge as a dynamic global city.

Rosenwax leads Aecom’s Australia and New Zealand cities practice. He recently authored a report on using innovation to transform Australian cities.

He says Auckland is already on the radar for many of the world’s major companies.

The Economist Intelligence Unit rates Auckland as the world’s eighth most liveable city. Yet Rosenwax says being seventh on the Jones Lang LaSalle Investment Intensity Index is more important.

“The JLL index is a measure of a city’s ability to attract investment from global corporations”, he says.

Read the full story by Bill Bennett in the New Zealand Herald.

Knowledge workers make a living by dealing purely with ideas and information.

The term has only been around for 50 years. Writer and management expert Peter Drucker first used knowledge worker in his 1959 book “Landmarks of Tomorrow“.

Drucker modestly said he was only the second person to use knowledge worker. He said it came from Fritz Machlup a Princeton economist.

Either way, Drucker popularised knowledge worker spending years expanding on the original idea and its wider implications.

Today’s knowledge worker

Knowledge worker is widely used today. While people generally understand the term’s meaning, there is still misunderstanding about its exact definition — even among knowledge workers.

Some think knowledge worker only applies to people working in information technology or elsewhere in industry using tools created by IT workers.

IT workers are only a subset. Anyone who makes a living out of creating, handling or spreading knowledge is a knowledge worker.

This covers a wide range. Teachers, trainers, university professors and other academics are clearly included. Writers, journalists, authors, editors and public relations or communications people are all knowledge workers. Lawyers, scientists and management consultants can also all be described as knowledge workers.

Educated workers

One key difference between knowledge workers and other white-collar workers is the level of education and training. Some knowledge workers don’t have a formal tertiary education or high-level training – they are a minority.

As a rule, knowledge workers have at least a university undergraduate degree, but that’s not always the case.

Older knowledge workers may have fewer formal qualifications. That’s partly because higher education was less available when they started out — and, anyway, university isn’t the only path to knowledge.

Another reason is practical experience counts for a lot. But the key here is knowledge workers
each have a personal knowledge store they apply in their work.

Knowledge workers are well paid compared to other groups of workers. Some knowledge workers join unions, but they are not usually organised in that sense.

This can lead to forms of genteel exploitation: few knowledge workers get paid overtime yet most are expected to voluntarily work for more than the basic 40 hours a week.

Knowledge skills are mobile

Knowledge workers are more mobile than industrial workers. They can take their expertise elsewhere at the drop of a hat. This happens all the time.

An employer who abuses knowledge workers’ professionalism is likely to see their most important assets walk out of the door one evening and never return. This applies as much today as it did when there were more jobs around.

Few governments have come to terms with the implications of having a highly mobile, highly educated, knowledge workforce. Just as knowledge workers can quickly find a new employer if necessary, most can move freely between countries. Any nation that doesn’t look after knowledge workers can expect – over the long-term – to lose them.

This applies in New Zealand, which operates a progressive income tax system that, at times, appears deliberately designed to alienate knowledge workers. To understand this, compared the marginal and absolute rates of income tax paid by most New Zealand knowledge workers, they are noticeably higher than in most competing nations.

When I wrote the first draft of this post (it originally appeared in a different format in 2001) the same could be said of Australia. Since then Australia has moved to correct its tax system and is attracting 40,000 New Zealanders each year, most of those emigrants could be classed as knowledge workers.

In the 1960s there was a lot of talk about a ‘brain drain‘. If anything the flow of knowledge workers migrating to more benign economies is accelerating.

Drucker distinguishes between various classes of knowledge worker.

High-knowledge workers include professional groups such as doctors and teachers deal mainly in the realm of the mind while the knowledge technologists work with their hands and brains in the IT industry, medicine and other areas. Although both categories of knowledge worker are growing, the bulk of growth comes from this second group.

When Frederick Taylor wrote The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911, it made sense.

Taylor thought management could be rationalised. He invented the time and motion study. He taught managers to develop clear and repeatable workflow processes. Taylor saw industrial-era workers as machines. It took a while, but his ideas were picked up by people like Henry Ford. Industrial business owners made fortunes as they revolutionised their workplaces.

Scientific management helped the west win a world war and continued as a powerful influence well into the 1970s and 1980s. It lives on today in industrial workplaces. Maybe it still has a place in factories and sweat shops. Yet, as Helen Whitehead from the Reach Further website explains, it certainly doesn’t have a place in the knowledge economy.

You can’t hurry or streamline true knowledge work in the same way you can automate car manufacturing. This hasn’t stopped managers from trying.

Whitehead’s story mentions dehumanising digital surveillance technologies like keystroke logging and email monitoring as examples of digital taylorism. They are all nasty and ultimately counter-productive.

What often looks like slacking; long conversations in the tea room, café meetings and even leaving the office early for drinks with colleagues and customers can be as productive as slaving over a hot computer. Building relations, shooting the breeze and exchanging ideas are often important aspects of creative knowledge work. What’s more, it’s rich for an employer who expects staff to work unpaid overtime, accept business calls and deal with email at all hours of the day and night to object to personal phone calls. Make that rich and counter-productive.