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Rethinking The Brick Switch: The upside telework economics of COVID-19

Rethinking The Brick Switch: The upside telework economics of COVID-19

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An office building is a sort of “brick switch,’’ a concentration and routing point for human knowledge and ideas. Imagine it as a telephone central office where phone customers have to go in person to complete calls face to face.

Before the late 1800s, the brick switch was the only known way to integrate an enterprise. Except for mail, we had no contact beyond the reach of our voices. There was data communication of sorts (the telegraph) but the “brick switch” brought most of us together.

The brick switch still has much to commend it. The connection quality is splendid. Conversations are conducted in high-resolution 3D video with full surround stereophonic sound and touch and smell thrown in. Conference calls are of especially top-notch quality.

On the minus side, though, to have much connectivity an awful lot of people have to get to the brick switch; not a good thing in COVID-19 times. Cross-talk between conversations is considerable and distracting. Hanging up when you’re through talking is any iffy proposition at best. Nuisance “callers” aren’t anonymous but there are a whole lot of them.

But the real down-side of the brick switch is economic. Office construction and operating costs are huge.And to make the brick switch work at all, a very high-overhead subsystem called a “commute” must be provided.

The commute is composed of several scarce resources and the human resource (the commuter her- or himself) is the most costly.

Commuters are either drivers or riders. Drivers cost a little more than riders since a greater portion of their creativity and stamina is consumed or dissipated during the commute. But both are quite expensive. Over the course of a 35-year career, a 45-minute daily commute (each way) equates to about one year and five months spent en route to and from work. Imagine driving 17 months straight for 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. The commuter gets no pay and the employer gets little or no productivity for commuting time.

Unless commuters are able to car pool, van pool or use public transit, the car is a very expensive component of the commute. If the commuter just described drives alone (as most do), their 35 years’ worth of commuting miles add up to over 555,000. At 20 miles per gallon that’s roughly 28,000 gallons of gas. Assuming cars last 140,000 miles in commute service (and crashes are avoided), over the 35 years four cars will be used up—without making a single beach, church, movie or Walmart trip.

At least the air that burns the gasoline is one free commute component. But is it? Twenty-eight thousand gallons of gas makes an awful lot of steam, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds. These tend to recombine as pollution. Pollution’s cost in healthcare and life expectancy is hard to quantify but it’s very real.

At work cars have to be stored (parked) at or near the brick switch. Over our 35 years that equates to about 8,225 parking space days. Parking may come free for lucky commuters or for employers but not for both. City parking cost is a big piece of the brick switch’s expense.

The final component of the brick switch’s commute subsystem is the road or its rail equivalent. I don’t have numbers for 2020 but back in the 1980s the nation’s Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMTs) increased 41.2% while the added lane mile capacity went up only 0.6%. Even before the loss of gas tax revenue to hybrids and battery cars it was impossible to build our way out of congestion. No new land is being minted for rights of way, so today it’s bound to be worse.

Transportation professionals in government and industry will tell you that added capacity typically stimulates more traffic than it carries.

With the arrival of telecommunications 1900s, the brick switch ceased to be the only available connectivity. For the first time in human history, we were able to affect events outside the reach of our voices and our lines of vision in real time. For the most part, institutions adapted to the new reality but not entirely: we still turn to the brick switch as our default “communications system.”

That’s understandable but unfortunate. A lot of stress, air pollution, road congestion, personal expense and business inefficiency result from the persistence of the old “workplace” paradigm. In a world where most work is thought, we ourselves have become the means of production. And, in a very real sense, we now are the workplace.

Even when COVID-19 is overcome, we need move information and ideation more often instead of moving people. This doesn’t mean that “the high-rise office building is the buggy-whip of the 21st century.” But the new paradigm should be that knowledge and information workers are administratively empowered and technologically enabled to choose, in the moment, between buildings and electronic communications as the means for integrating themselves into the enterprise. And neither electronics nor buildings should be considered “the default.” There should be no “default.”

Skype and Zoom notwithstanding, the brick switch still excels in one-to-many and many-to-one communications. Office buildings still support new employee orientation, some kind of of supervision and team building especially well.

But buildings are often misused.

Weak managers rely on physical oversight in lieu of coaching, empowerment, trust and managing to agreed results. Instead of forums for collegial interaction, buildings can become “cube forests”—human storage to which employees are brought daily because the boss might want to ask them something.

But the poet Milton’s famous line, “They also serve who only stand and wait” was not written for a competitive information economy.

Here’s the commute math for a typical brick switch career :

• 365 days X 5/7 = 260 week days/year

• Take away 10 holidays = 250 work days/year

• Take away, say, 15 vacation days = 235 commute days/year

• 45 minutes X 2 ways = 90 minutes per commute day

• 235 commute days X 90 minutes = 352.5 commute hours per year

• assuming 35 working years = 1 career, then…

• 35 years X 352.5 hours = 12,337.5 commute hours/per career

• divided by 24 hours/day = 514 days spent commuting

• 514 days (at 24 hours/day, 7 days per week) equates to 1.4 years, non-stop, spent commuting!

Car “lives” matter too. Over our 35 career years, 12,338 driving hours at, say, 45 mph = 555,120 commuting miles: 3 or 4 cars?

555,120 miles at, say, 25 mpg = 22,205 gallons of gasoline.

235 commute days X 35 years = 8, 225 parking spaces; $82K+?

Mooresville’s Stan Thompson is a retired strategic planner and environmental and transportation futurist for AT&T. Email him at or via Twitter at @mediarethink.

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