Thursday, March 25, 2021

No Post This Week

 Due to a serious family problem, I will not be posting this week.  Expect me back with the AJSN on April 2nd.

Friday, March 19, 2021

The Pandemic: Three Whirlwind Weeks, and Where We Are Now

This topic does not allow articles, updates, and blog posts a long life.  I posted with accuracy on it on February 26th, but most of that is now obsolete.  Why?

The first reason is that, per Noah Welland and Sharon LaFraniere in the February 27th New York Times, “F.D.A. Clears Johnson & Johnson’s Shot, the Third Vaccine for U.S.”  This American-Belgian product only requires one application per person, and, as of the article’s date, its consortium “has pledged to provide the United States with 100 million doses by the end of June,” allowing, by July 31st, “more than enough shots to cover any American adult who wants one.”  Three days later we heard from Elliot Hannon in Slate that “Merck Will Reportedly Start Manufacturing Johnson & Johnson Coronavirus Vaccine,” including sequestering “two facilities,” one of which will be dedicated to making the drug, with people at the other providing ““fill-finish” services, the last stage of the production process during which the vaccine substance is placed in vials and packaged for distribution.”  This kind of cooperation is exactly what seemed to be missing in December and January, and will make a huge difference in both quality and saving of lives.  A noble move. 

The result of these two news items, written by Sheryl Gay Stolberg et al. in The New York Times, also on March 2nd, was that “Biden Vows Enough Vaccine ‘for Every Adult American’ by End of May.”  The president Joe, knowing what he did about the supply of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna products as well as the new one, made what then looked like an aggressive statement or stretch objective but, in the time since, has seemed increasingly realistic.  The first two vaccine manufacturers “pledged last month to deliver together enough to cover 200 million Americans by that date,” and the U.S. has committed to buy 600 million doses from these two companies alone. 

Almost immediately after it was approved, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine got into a controversy.  The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech drugs were rated at 94 and 95 percent “efficacy,” whereas Johnson & Johnson’s came in at only 72 percent.  As a result, probably also due to this product’s requiring only one dose, people started saying it was inferior.  Not so, said Hilda Bastian in a well-documented seven-plus-page March 7th exposition in The Atlantic.  Bastian’s main points were that first, the American-approved drugs are “essentially perfect when it comes to preventing the gravest outcomes,” with “zero cases of hospitalization or death in clinical trials for all (three) of these vaccines” (italics hers); second, the products do vary in “preventing illness” and frequency of “adverse reactions”; third, the rates of bad outcomes have been so tiny that in some cases adding only one infected test subject would have dramatically changed that vaccine’s published numbers;  and fourth, despite failure rates being microscopic for all of them we cannot be assured that will continue forever, but the three are all superb.

Two other recent articles were noteworthy.  In “The Pandemic Economy and the Rise of the ‘Noxious Contract,’” in the March 9th New York Times, David Grusky discussed how we could compensate people choosing to work in dangerous settings.  With the federal government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) almost invisible, many environments, perhaps sources of the majority of the American total of 29.6 million coronavirus cases so far, have been unacceptably risky.  Biden is working to fix that through the Labor Department and by “trying to ensure that workers who turn down health-jeopardizing employment can still qualify for unemployment insurance,” and Grusky suggested other measures, particularly a “new G.I. Bill” allowing workers in infection-hazardous jobs military veteran’s benefits and subsidized housing qualification.  Katherine J. Wu’s “You’re Not Fully Vaccinated the Day of Your Last Dose” (The Atlantic, March 17th) reminded us, backed up with a description of how vaccines work, that two weeks need to elapse after that.

What are the latest American pandemic statistics?  On the New York Times website for March 17th, the 7-day averages of daily new cases, daily deaths, and number of people hospitalized were 55,001, 1,260, and 41,275 respectively.  Twelve percent of Americans have now been fully vaccinated, with another 11% having received one dose and needing another.  As of yesterday, the 7-day average of people getting vaccines each day was 2,503,771.  Compared with the worst overall day of the pandemic, January 9th, the four average numbers above are, in order, down 78%, down 60%, down 70%, and up 611%.  Here is a map, rather changed since the last one I posted, of average new daily cases by county, with those in white showing none, those with the lightest color otherwise less than 10 per day per 100,000 population, and the most intense over 250 per 100,000:


These figures show that we are doing the Covid-stopping job in all respects.  As long as we stay the course with getting vaccinated, practicing social distancing, and wearing masks, we will most likely be out of this by early summer.  Let’s get there!

Friday, March 12, 2021

Eleven Brutal Truths on Office Design and Working from Home

Our pandemic, which has cut back workers’ on-site hours in amounts varying with time and organization, has caused differing reactions from employees and their management.  Three articles have shown that – “July Is the New January:  More Companies Delay Return to the Office” by Gillian Friedman and Kellen Browning in the October 13th New York Times, “Has the Pandemic Transformed the Office Forever?” by John Seabrook in the February 1st New Yorker, and “When will office workers return?”, by Bartleby in the February 20th Economist.  They all have valuable insights, particularly the Seabrook effort, a panoramic view of both title subjects.

There seems still to be, however, a failure of too many people to look at the actual effects of what was once called “telecommuting” and how offices are configured.  With AT&T, Dictaphone, and others, along with related MBA and management Ph.D. study, from 1989 to 2008 I had a ringside seat for pertinent trends, attitudes, and results.  From the three articles above and my accumulated knowledge and experience, I offer eleven unfashionable but valid ideas.

First, some employees, especially those with a tendency to underwork in the office, will ease up more if they are at home.  While many do better there, it does not make sense that people with trouble focusing in an environment designed for productivity turn into hard workers when in a place they have created for their own relaxation and distraction.

Second, as was consistently the situation in my AT&T groups, to a great extent the very people a supervisor would trust least to be effective at home are the ones wanting to work there the most.  That forces managers, who often prefer to think of employees as being identically productive, to choose between evaluating their charges more incisively and taking real production losses. 

Third, in a time where management has been so conscious of economic differences between workers that Zoom has been criticized for showing employee-residence backgrounds, working from home exacerbates those disparities, as not all people have equally compatible family arrangements or highly suitable work areas. 

Fourth, since about 1990 a pendulum has swung back and forth twice between working remotely and in offices.  As described by Friedman and Browning as well as by Seabrook, just before Covid-19 became widespread, management preference had shifted away from home offices, and they influenced employee behavior with both carrots (the likes of onsite yoga rooms, sushi bars, and free beverages and snacks) and sticks (IBM’s 2017 edict that, per Seabrook, “everyone must return to the office or leave the company,” and a similar measure by Yahoo).  That was a 180-degree change from IBM’s Smarter Workforce Institute proclaiming eight years earlier that those working from home “were highly engaged, more likely to consider their workplaces as innovative, happier about their job prospects and less stressed than their more traditional, office-bound colleagues,” and was not too similar to Bartleby’s observation that “employees have become less loyal as the pandemic has progressed,” as “workers are spending more time looking for other jobs and updating their LinkedIn profiles.” 

Fifth, consistent with many of Seabrook’s examples along with these corporate decisions to end it, when working at home the social side of employment and the ability of people to work closely together are each impeded at best and crushed at worst. 

Sixth, the choice between working at home or in a company office, if companies accept that, would still, if nothing else, be useful as an employee perquisite, as ultimately that is what it would be.

Seventh, in many cases real estate expenses saved by companies from more people working at home are only transferred to the workers themselves.  Per Seabrook, office space for each employee in San Francisco can cost $20,000 per year – someone feeling obliged to upgrade from, say, a one-bedroom apartment to a place with two can end up absorbing much of that $1,667 monthly difference.

Eighth, office design factors intended to encourage workers to put in extra hours, as shown by examples in the first two articles, are, whatever they happen to be, at best marginally ethical.

Ninth, forced “collaboration,” as Seabrook put it, created by requiring people to work in public spaces, is as much of a failure now as it was when it first became popular in the 1990s. 

Tenth, a pendulum has also swung between preferred office designs, from cubicles to desks in open rooms and back again, with an entertaining example, found by Seabrook, of a company conjuring up “” focus pods” that resembled three-sided restaurant booths” and “could be made higher, so they are more like an enclosed-booth experience.”  As the author pointed out, those are cubicles.  Out of style as they are, cubicles may still be the best office arrangement, as they offer much privacy and relative quiet with only short walks to coworkers and meeting areas. 

Eleventh, while business publications have long been notorious for rediscovering ideas and labeling them innovations, in nowhere other than in the combined area of working at home and designing offices is it clearer that, as per a song title from the 1974 movie All That Jazz, “everything old is new again.”  Offices were around before the days of Bob Cratchit’s perch in A Christmas Carol, and we are approaching 30 years of widespread remote-work-enabling Internet access.  It is time to look more at business history, with emphasis on what has been successful and what has not.  In the meantime, nobody should be surprised if old tactics, especially if forgotten, get us the same results.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Today’s Jobs Report: Strong Total Increase, Latent Demand Down 564,000 to 21.2 Million, Otherwise Indifferent – With Coronavirus Progress, That’s Fine


I didn’t know what to expect in this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary.  The only estimate I saw on net new nonfarm positions was 182,000, and knew the pandemic had eased considerably, taking pressure off any need for employment progress.  So what happened?

We came in at 379,000 new positions as above, more than double the often highly accurate Fox News projection.  The other results were indifferent.  Seasonally adjusted unemployment edged down from 6.3% to 6.2%, with the unadjusted version, showing we are in a generally below average month for work, fell from 6.8% to 6.6%.  As of mid-February we had 10.0 million officially jobless, down 100,000, but the share of people on temporary layoff was off 500,000 to 2.2 million, meaning that those unemployed without that status actually numbered 400,000 more.  Those out for 27 weeks or longer rose 100,000 to 4.1 million, and those working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping short-hours positions while thus far unsuccessfully seeking longer-hours ones, gained the same amount and is now 6.1 million.  The two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working or one step away, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, held and gained 0.1% respectively to reach 61.4% and 57.6%.  Average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls, a reverse indicator in these economic conditions since higher pay means fewer low-end jobs, gained 5 cents per hour, a hair above inflation, to $30.01. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the indicator showing how many new positions could be quickly filled if all knew they would be easy to get, improved from 21,792,000 as follows:

Most of this month’s drop was from lower official unemployment, with about 100,000 apiece from reduced numbers of people claiming discouragement and wanting work but not looking for it for at least a year.  Over the past 12 months, though, the AJSN, pre-pandemic, was more than 5.3 million lower.  The share of the AJSN from official unemployment dropped 0.4% and is now 44.5%.

As for Covid-19 relief, we had a tremendous month.  From January 16th to February 16th, per The New York Times, the 7-day average of new daily cases fell from 224,298 to 81,200 or 64%.  Daily deaths, measured the same way, were off from 3,319 to 2,183 or 34%, and the same measure of hospitalizations came down 46% from 129,008 to 69,856.  The 7-day average of vaccinations given increased 115% then, from 798,707 to 1,716,311.

How can we rate the February employment situation?  Given that our coronavirus progress has been so strong, a so-so economic month is no problem.  Progress on vaccinations has been real but too piecemeal, with most or many people receiving full doses in families with others who have not and thus unable to enjoy events freely with their primary group, for real economic advancement, and that shows in this morning’s results.  But our focus was well-chosen.  It may be several months before unemployment gets below 5.5%, or monthly net new jobs exceeds half a million, but as long as we do generally well with masks and social distancing, and keep increasing our vaccination rate, they will.  The turtle feels a lot better, and, accordingly, managed a full step forward.