Permanent Work From Home Is Coming: Many employers now say the benefits of remote work outweigh the drawbacks, but Microsoft found 162 million people do not have internet available at broadband speeds

Estimates of workers doing their jobs from home range from about a third to nearly half. And according to Global Workplace Analytics, “a typical employer can save about $11,000 year for every person who works remotely half of the time.” And workers can bank between $2,500 and $4,000 a year working remotely half time. The Global Workplace Analytics survey shows 77% of workers say they’re fully productive at home. And managers are largely satisfied with their work performance.

Just as the Great Depression highlighted a need for ubiquitous electricity, advocates are urging leaders to seize COVID-19 as a turning point for ubiquitous internet.

Brian Tucker/Smart Cities Dive

Chris Teale@chris_teale, Smart Cities Dive, May 26, 2020

When schools closed amid health warnings of the novel coronavirus, officials at Hopewell City Public Schools in Virginia faced an urgent obstacle: expanding Wi-Fi access to roughly 1,000 students without reliable internet at home.

The school district devised an out-of-the-box solution to “take the internet to the kids,” the disrict’s IT supervisor Kris Reed told Smart Cities Dive in an earlier interview. They retrofitted 31 school buses with wireless routers, which can cast Wi-Fi signals up to 300 feet, and deployed the buses in densley populated areas of Hopewell.

This creative thinking — replicated in cities across the U.S. —  was spurred by coronavirus’ exposure of the digital divide as millions are forced to work and learn from home. That exposure has resulted in calls for broadband investments in a bid to close a clear gap in internet access, but cost remains a major barrier to deployment. 

“These are not new problems, they are just amplified problems,” Katie Jordan, Senior Policy Advisor for North America at The Internet Society, told Smart Cities Dive. “This has been an issue that we have talked about for a decade now, that there are communities that are being left behind. The disparity between those that are connected and under-connected is just so stark that we can’t ignore it anymore.” 

Stark divide given new intensity

Internet equity advocates say the rise in telecommuting, distance learning and telehealth has magnified the digital divide in the United States, not only between urban and rural areas but also within urban areas.

In April, the FCC released its Broadband Deployment Report, which found only 18 million people lack broadband access today — a 14% drop from 2018 numbers. While Pai issued a statement lauding the “progress” that has been made in bridging the digital divide, the findings received a torrent of criticism, including from members of the FCC who said the report understated the problem and gave telecoms too much leeway in promoting their own efforts.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel argued the coronavirus pandemic has only highlighted the urgent need for more broadband access nationwide. “[This] report ignores the lived experiences of so many people struggling to get access to the broadband they need right now for work, education, healthcare and more,” she said in a statement dissenting from the report’s findings.

“My fear at this point isn’t that we either make progress or we don’t. We have to make progress. We don’t have a choice.” Katie Jordan, Senior Policy Advisor for North America, The Internet Society​

Additionally, there are striking discrepancies between the FCC’s data and the broadband deployment data collected by private entities. Recent research from BroadbandNow estimates 42 million residents lack access to broadband, while Microsoft data from last September finds that 162 million people do not have internet available at broadband speeds.

The massive differences in reporting harms data credibility and illustrates the need for a total reboot of federal process,  Francella Ochillo, executive director of internet advocacy group Next Century Cities, told Smart Cities Dive.

“What we know is that it doesn’t matter if either number is true, we know it’s just wrong,” she said. “I don’t know any scientific study that has that type of spread that thinks the results are accurate.”

Jordan said the data and clear inequities should be enough to spur action of some sort, but expressed concern that only short-term fixes will be explored.

“My fear at this point isn’t that we either make progress or we don’t,” she said. “We have to make progress. We don’t have a choice. The entire planet knows now that not having internet access is not an option. My fear really is what kind of progress do we make. Are we OK with putting Band-Aids everywhere and hoping that’s enough or are we going to really solve this problem?”

Myriad companies and associations signed the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Keep Americans Connected pledge to keep internet services on regardless of a customers’ inability to pay phone or internet bills; waive late fees; and open up Wi-Fi hotspots to Americans in need. While the FCC has touted this pledge as effective, prompting Chair Ajit Pai to extend it through June 30, internet equity advocates said the solutions are not sustainable long-term.

“[If] the water stopped running for a day, yes, we could probably all take out a couple of gallons of water and figure it out, but after a while, people are going to say, ‘What are we doing about the actual plumbing and the piping?'” Ochillo said.

Competing policies

There are already competing visions of how to improve broadband internet access, especially with a large infrastructure package mooted in Congress in a bid to stimulate the economy.

House Democrats released a proposal in late April — a continuation of the $760 billion Moving Forward Framework put out in January — that includes an updated broadband initiative to invest $80 billion over five years on deploying necessary broadband infrastructure and beginning a $5 billion program to distribute low-interest financing for deployment.

In a statement, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-SC, said internet must be made accessible to all, just as electricity was made accessible to all through the 1936 Rural Electrification Act.

“Just as the Great Depression made clear to all that electricity was the ‘next greatest thing’ in the 20th century, the coronavirus pandemic is making clear to all that broadband is the ‘next next greatest thing’ in the 21st century,” Clyburn said.

Many already see the internet as a necessary public utility as important as electricity, gas and water. Some cities have looked to solidify this importance and better control internet access by setting up municipally owned and operated utilities.

“Just as the Great Depression made clear to all that electricity was the ‘next greatest thing’ in the 20th century, the coronavirus pandemic is making clear to all that broadband is the ‘next next greatest thing’ in the 21st century.” Rep. James Clyburn, D-SC House Majority Whip

Ochillo said there are also parallels with the 1950s push to build the interstate highway system in a bid to connect previously hard-to-reach areas and enhance national security during the Cold War. Back then, she said, leaders were bold in their bid to improve accessibility.

“Aren’t we in the same place here, where we’re saying that the people who are hard to reach are the ones who are the most impacted? They are the ones who don’t have a voice in this conversation, all their opportunities are going to be directly limited by their geography,” Ochillo said.

Bipartisan willingness

There appears to be bipartisan support for increasing broadband investment, some of which has already borne fruit. Congress passed the Broadband DATA Act earlier this year, which directs the FCC to collect more granular deployment data from wired, fixed-wireless, satellite and mobile broadband providers.

And in mid-April, leading Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced the Eliminating Barriers to Rural Internet Development Grant Eligibility (E-BRIDGE) Act in an effort to reduce the digital divide between rural and urban areas. The bill would remove regulatory hurdles for broadband projects under U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) grants, and help local communities partner with the private sector for more funding flexibility.

Now, more than ever, it is critical that our rural communities are equipped with the tools and resources to flourish,” Rep. John Katko, R-NY, and a sponsor of the E-BRIDGE Act, said in a statement.

In written testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on the state of broadband amid the pandemic, Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, said policymakers must “develop a coherent and coordinated national broadband infrastructure policy,” to avoid future situations of people lacking access during a crisis.

And in separate written testimony, Jonathan Spalter, President and CEO of USTelecom-The Broadband Association, said “incremental approaches” to solving the digital divide have not done enough. Instead, he said, it is time for policymakers to be bolder.

“One of the undeniable lessons from COVID-19 is that the United States needs to once and for all roll up its sleeves and provide the funding necessary for ubiquitous, futureproof broadband,” he wrote. “Our goal must be 100% connectivity for all Americans.”

‘An inflection point for action’?

Partnerships between local communities and telecoms may be key to further bridging the digital divide, particularly when reaching customers in the “last mile” of connectivity, Jordan said. While the cost of connecting that last mile in rural areas is an obstacle preventing deployment she said there are workarounds for cities.

Jordan cited the example of Pu’uhonua o Waimānalo, a native Hawaiian village on the island of O’ahu, which has pushed for community-led internet access after years of neglect by telecom companies. Hawaiian Telecom built fiber in the middle mile to link its core network to the local network plant, then locals dug the trenches to connect fiber to a community building and provide a mesh Wi-Fi network. The internet is locally owned and operated, bringing safe and fast internet to around 100 people in the community.

“In order for our sovereign Nation to evolve independently, it is critical that we have control over our connectivity,” Brandon Makaawaawaa, deputy head of state for the indigenous Nation of Hawai’i, wrote in a blog post for the Internet Society. “We consider this national infrastructure, and in many ways, these are our first roadways.”

Although partnerships can sometimes underdeliver on promises — like Google Fiber’s abortive foray into Louisville, KY that left the company with a $4 million penalty — Jordan and Ochillo agreed that empowering local residents to get involved in broadband deployment can help keep track of service and boost community advocacy for equitable internet access.

“Dig once” policies, where fiber and other infrastructure is installed during road construction and other disruptive building projects, should also be given strong consideration. The House Democrats’ plan looks to encourage such policies, which Jordan said is financial sensible.

“It’s pennies on the dollar, it can be open access,” she said. “That way you’re not having to re-dig up the roads six months later when a community has got it together enough to get a grant for fiber access.”

With big infrastructure projects having been successful in the past, for such moves to be made with broadband internet, especially as society steps into new phases of the coronavirus pandemic.

“[What] we need to do is take this crisis, take this momentum… make some noise, raise a ruckus, and decide we’re going to fix it,” Rosenworcel said during an early April webinar hosted by the Brookings Institution. “This is an inflection point for action and we’ve just got to seize it.”

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Work from Home Becoming Permanent, on NPR, June 22, 2020 on All Things Considered by Uri Berliner

After three months of much of the country working from home, many employers and their workers now say the benefits of remote work — cost savings and a more relaxed atmosphere — outweigh the drawbacks.

Ada Yokota/Getty Images

Indefinite. Or even permanent. These are words companies are using about their employees working from home.

It’s three months into a huge, unplanned social experiment that suddenly transported the white-collar workplace from cubicles and offices to kitchens and spare bedrooms. And many employers now say the benefits of remote work outweigh the drawbacks.

Tech companies Twitter and Facebook captured headlines with announcements about permanent work from home. But the news from a 94-year-old company based in the heartland — Columbus, Ohio — may have been even more significant. Nationwide Insurance is shutting five regional offices since remote work has gone off so smoothly during the pandemic. And thousands of employees will permanently ditch their commutes for home offices.

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Nationwide CEO Kirt Walker says it’s been a popular decision at the company. “Overwhelming. Hundreds of emails and cards and letters and phone calls. ‘Thank you for doing this.’ So I think we got it right,” he says.

It’s all about the money

Saving money is always an attractive proposition for businesses, especially these days. And that’s likely to drive the shift to remote work, according to Kate Lister, who consults with companies on the future of work as president of Global Workplace Analytics.

“Going into a recession, an economic downturn, those CEOs are laying awake at night thinking of all those buildings that they’re heating … productivity is continuing without being at the office. And saying, ‘Wow, I think we could use for a change here.’ “

One potential change: Demand for commercial real estate falls due to the growth of remote work and the realities of a painful economic downturn. For example, 90% of the 60,000 employees at investment bank Morgan Stanley have been working remotely during the pandemic. Lesson learned, according to Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman.

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“I think, yes, we will have less footprint,” Gorman told Bloomberg Television, referring to office space. “I think that’s highly likely. We’ve proven we can operate with effectively no footprint.”

Office space is expensive

Other major companies, such as the investment bank Barclays and Oreo-maker Mondelez International also expect to use less real estate as more employees work from home. Nationwide says costs will be significantly lower with so many employees working from home instead of offices, and it intends to return the savings to customers in lower premiums.

According to Global Workplace Analytics, “a typical employer can save about $11,000 year for every person who works remotely half of the time.” And workers can bank between $2,500 and $4,000 a year working remotely half time.

But remote work all the time isn’t popular with either bosses or workers.

Gorman says he wouldn’t want Morgan Stanley’s employees working from home exclusively. And that seems to be the prevalent view for both management and employees. A Global Workplace Analytics survey says the sweet spot for workers is splitting the week between home and office. THE CORONAVIRUS CRISIS: Laundry Between Emails: Working From Home Goes Viral In The Time Of Coronavirus “If I were to have it my way, I would probably work from home three days and go into the office two,” says Matthew Shultz, a plumbing designer who lives in Fort Worth, Texas. Normally he drives an hour each day to get to an office in Dallas. But these days he pads over to a guest bedroom at home and fires up his computer.

“You know I’m sitting here wearing shorts and a T-shirt, and I’ve got my two cats just running around all through the house,” he says. “It’s kind of weird, but at the same time it’s more comfortable. And I feel like I’m a lot more relaxed here than I am in in the office.”

Shultz says he gets at least as much done from home as in the office. That reflects the Global Workplace Analytics survey showing 77% of workers say they’re fully productive at home. And managers are largely satisfied with their work performance.

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The biggest holdback against remote work for the past 20 years has been middle managers who didn’t trust their employees to do it,” Lister says. “And the biggest difference between managers who support it and those who don’t is those who have done it.” Now that the results are in from the grand experiment, Lister says she expects much of that resistance to melt away.

These assessments are significant because telecommuting has become so prevalent during the pandemic. Estimates of workers doing their jobs from home range from about a third to nearly half.

That would include people such as Raul Maestri, a mortgage underwriter from Miami who was telecommuting even before the pandemic. When offered a position working from home in 2016, Maestri was initially skeptical. “I spent 20-plus years in the corporate environment, going to the office,” he says. But now he’s a dedicated fan. Maestri says he misses the banter with colleagues and the hum of activity at the office but says there are just so many advantages to working from home, from saving money on gas and dry cleaning to his emotional state of mind. “I’m generally happier and feel less stress working from home,” he says.

Silence is an issue

Now the caveats. About half of working Americans can’t do their work remotely. Not even during a dangerous pandemic. And for those workers who can do their jobs from home, there are potential downsides.

Judith Olson is a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine who has been studying what she calls “distance learning” for about 30 years. She has some warnings. Collaboration with colleagues can suffer. You can feel lonely and isolated. “The hardest thing for somebody to deal with long distance is silence,” she says.

It’s easy to feel like you have disappeared from the heart of the company, Olson says, missing out on the casual chats and the important decisions. “Basically blind and invisible. So you have to take all kinds of extra effort to make sure that you coordinate well with the people that you’re working with.” And Olson has one other piece of advice for remote workers: Make sure you’ve got an ergonomic chair for your home office. You don’t want to throw out your back.