A growing number of independent professionals call Houston home. Photo via Pixlr

Visitors to Memorial Park on an early weekday afternoon probably have to stop and wonder where all these people are coming from. Don’t they have work to do?

Maybe they do, but on their own schedules. Fiverr, a marketplace for connecting freelancers and new clients, released its fifth annual Freelance Economic Impact Report, ranking Houston as the tenth fastest-growing city for freelancers.

According to the report, some 144,000 workers in Houston made $6.6 billion. That means the Bayou City led Texas with around $46,000 for per capita income.

Elsewhere in Texas, Austin came in as the fourth fastest-growing city for freelancers. The city's 77,262-person independent workforce earned $3.4 billion in 2021. In Dallas, which came in at No. 8, some 177, 500 workers made $7.6 billion.

Joining Houston, Austin, and Dallas in the top 10 were:

1. Orlando, Florida
2. Nashville, Tennessee
3. Miami, Florida
5. Tampa, Florida
6. Las Vegas, Nevada
7. Charlotte, North Carolina
9. Portland, Oregon

Although on the surface the report focuses on geography, it collected data that shows eight out of 10 freelancers believe they can live anywhere and work anytime. However, fewer than half reported that it was “a primary factor” in becoming freelancers, and a third said that work was “a primary influence” in their choice of location.

Most important, 70 percent of respondents said they were “highly satisfied” with working independently.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Looking back at months working from home, what did employees miss most from the workplace? Graphic via UH.edu

What do workers miss most about the office? University of Houston explains

houston voices

The commute, the water cooler talks, the in-person meetings. Have we missed these things? Or can the research enterprise, for the most part, stay virtual?

“Many people who have been working from home are experiencing a void they can’t quite name,” said Jerry Useem in The Atlantic. Maybe getting back to our old routine will do us good.

Tracy Brower in Forbes wrote, “Many of the reports of increased productivity were early in the pandemic. Some have dubbed this ‘panic productivity,’ attributing the early perception of increased productivity to the adrenaline boost people got from the sudden shifts in the nature and location of their work. Job loss was rife, and people may have been working like crazy in the hopes of staying visible, relevant and ensuring their boss thought they were still adding value even from home. But in the words of W. B. Yeats: “Things fall apart.”

Studies are showing now that we’ve hit our breaking point a year and a half into the work-from-home onset. What do we miss the most?

The commute

It can’t be the commute. Or can it? The work-from-home boom will lift productivity in the U.S. economy by five percent, mostly because of savings in commuting time, said Enda Curren in Bloomberg.

But Useem wrote specifically about commuting, and what he found was incredible: in 1994, an Italian physicist named Cesare Marchetti noted that throughout history, humans have shown a willingness to spend roughly 60 minutes a day in transit. This explains why ancient cities such as Rome never exceeded about three miles in diameter. The steam train, streetcar, subway and automobile expanded that distance. But transit times stayed the same. The one-way average for an American commute stands at about 27 minutes.” What are these 27 minutes, on average, good for?

There are people who love to drive — it gives them a sense of control regarding their day. On your morning commute, especially if you take mass transit, you can clear your head, decompress, make errand-esque phone calls or listen to audiobooks and podcasts. That’s not all we miss, though.

The office

Michael Scott on the television show, “The Office,” said he makes “20 little trips to the cooler” and recounts the “20 little scans I do of everybody to make sure everything’s running smoothly, and the 20 little conversations I have with Stanley.”

We may take considerably fewer coffee or water breaks than they are used to at the fictional Dunder Mifflin, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t healthy to stand up, stretch and make small talk with a co-worker for a short spell.

According to SparkHire.com, fostering a sense of office camaraderie helps teams to perform better, improves their ability to work as a team and boosts employee retention rates. And university environments are meant to be experienced in person. The public art on campus, the leaves in the fall, all of the sensory cues that remind us we are in a collegiate atmosphere matter.

The doppleganger

Next, lets introduce the concept of the double self: the work self and the home self. One needs to transition to the other.

Jon Jachimowicz of Harvard Business School was quoted in the Atlantic as saying: “If you respond like a manager at home, you might be sleeping on the couch that night. And if you respond like a parent at work, its weird.”

So, it behooves us to make a real, tangible transition from home life to work life. If your institution has not opened back up yet, you can do this by dressing like you would at work. It will make doing chores around the house less tempting if you’re dressed for your actual job. There are other things you can say to yourself or rituals you can perform to get ready for working from home.

These are readily supplied as you actually get back to the office or the lab. Showering, coffee stops, small talk in the elevator all signal that our day is really beginning.

The thank you note

Some researchers were deemed essential workers and never worked from home, and even started shifts that were different from their older routines. Much research work needed to occur in actual lab spaces. If this applies to you, then consider this a thank you card from your colleagues who want you to know that while some of us were zooming and plugging away on computers at our kitchen tables, we acknowledge the struggle it was for you to cover every shift, every day.

For instance, David Brammer, D. V. M. , DACLAM, of University of Houston Animal Care Operations said of his staff: “Excellence is difficult to define but unmistakable when observed. Within Animal Care Operations, I have found excellence. He went on to say that his staff encountered a variety of challenges, all while maintaining the highest standard for animal care. “By adjusting to the new normal rather than abandoning standards, focusing on the completion of tasks, working hard and staying positive, the staff of ACO successfully set an example for others to follow.”

One last thought

It definitely comes down to what your institution’s leadership has decided about back-to-work schedules, whether they be full time on-campus, at-home or hybrid. There’s something to be said for being able to adapt when in a pinch. It doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that things can’t transition back to the way they once were. Versatility, remember, is an indispensable trait.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

Gotta love that WFH life. Photo by Maskot/Getty

Houston plugs in as hot spot in ranking of best cities for remote workers

workin' it

If you're a remote worker living in Houston, you might just want to stay put. A new ranking puts Houston high on the list of the best cities in the U.S. for remote workers.

The Bayou City comes in at No. 11 overall in LawnStarter's new ranking for remote-work ranking.

For its list, Austin-based outdoor services provider LawnStarter examined data for 194 of the biggest U.S. cities covering 20 factors, including remote job opportunities, internet connectivity, cost of living, and availability of personal workspace.

Elsewhere in Texas, Frisco tops the list of the best cities in the U.S. for remote workers, followed by Dallas (No. 3), Arlington (No. 4), Austin (No. 6), and Plano (No. 8).

Here are LawnStarter's 20 best cities for remote workers:

  1. Frisco
  2. Naperville, Illinois
  3. Dallas
  4. Arlington
  5. Atlanta
  6. Austin
  7. Tampa, Florida
  8. Plano
  9. Raleigh, North Carolina
  10. Cincinnati
  11. Houston
  12. Nashville
  13. Cary, North Carolina
  14. Chicago
  15. Denver
  16. Salt Lake City
  17. Charlotte, North Carolina
  18. San Antonio
  19. Arlington, Virginia
  20. Seattle

Jeff Herman, editor in chief at LawnStarter, tells CultureMap that overall, the Texas' lack of an income tax and solid quality of life boosted all of the states' cities in the top 20, he says.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Some 49 percent of Houston workers are burned out at work. Getty Images

Nearly half of Houston workers complain of serious burnout, says new report

working hard

Local workers who're especially dreading that commute or cracking open the laptop in the morning aren't alone. A new study reveals that nearly half of Houston laborers are more burned out on the job.

Some 49 percent of Bayou City residents report to be burned out at work, according to employment industry website Robert Half. That's significantly higher than last year, when only 37 percent reported burnout in a similar poll.

Meanwhile, more than one in four Houston workers (28 percent) say that they will not unplug from work when taking time off this summer.

Not surprisingly, American workers are ready for a vacation. Per a press release, the research also reveals:

  • One in four workers lost or gave up paid time off in 2020
  • One in three plans to take more than three weeks of vacation time this year

Elsewhere in Texas, the burnout is real. In Dallas, 50 percent of workers report serious burnout. More than a quarter — 26 percent — of Dallasites fear they won't disconnect from the office during summer vacation.

In fun-filled Austin, 45 percent of the workforce complain of burnout. Some 32 percent of Austinites feel they can unplug from work during the summer.

Fortunately for us, the most burned-out city in the U.S. isn't in the Lone Star State. That dubious title goes to the poor city of Charlotte, North Carolina, where 55 percent of laborers are truly worn out.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Edward Henigin, CTO of Data Foundry, sums up what he thinks the future of work from home will look like. Photo by Maskot/Getty

Texas expert: What does the future of remote work look like?

guest column

Since the start of the pandemic, the idea that this event will change the way we live and work now and, in the future, has been a on the minds of everyone.

It's true that remote work has become a mainstay of day-to-day operations, and now the traditional offices are looking more and more like the office environment of the past. In a recent survey published in July 2020, it revealed that before the pandemic, only 17 percent of responding U.S. employees worked from home at a rate of five days or more per week. At the time, this survey was conducted in April, however, that share had increased to 44 percent. Even as pandemic response developed, a Gallup poll from October revealed that 33 percent of U.S. workers were still working remotely.

So, the question remains: What will the future of remote work look like for enterprises?

Changes we've seen so far

Businesses have already been finding their footing with the assistance of an array of platforms and solutions, all of which have helped them pivot quickly and successfully through the use of more digital means. Right now, we see that cloud-based collaborative applications like Microsoft Teams, Slack, and Zoom (which had its daily user numbers more than quadruple by April 2020) have become the backbone of many new workplace IT strategies, offering an ability to bridge the distance and ensure seamless cooperation.

Meanwhile, to keep a growing number of endpoints and devices secure as employees use home networks and personal computers to log onto work environments, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have become key. Studies show that VPN usage increased by 124 percent in the U.S. between March 8 and March 22, 2020. This can be attributed to the technology's ability to help businesses ensure protected file sharing, data encryption, secure remote access, and more. These are all crucial elements for keeping the expanding footprint of the enterprise network safe.

Finding a balance

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing remote work transitions. Some businesses will require more on-site work while others may make a more comprehensive transition away from central office locations. As we move forward, it's likely that we'll see many organizations settle somewhere in the middle with a hybrid strategy that allows distanced operations where feasible and on-site work where needed.

Overall, it's clear that across these many different applications and use cases, the importance of digital infrastructure has increased. Regardless of what platforms or services are in use, the network and other foundational IT infrastructure have become central to success as businesses expand their bandwidth needs, incorporate data-centric solutions, and depend on reliable, speedy communications. It will be crucial moving forward that businesses not only adapt to the challenges they currently face, but plan for a flexible long-term work strategy.

Understanding how the company will need to function and what services it will need to achieve success in any given strategy will be paramount, and after an individualized vision is developed, technology action plans will need to start rolling out. For some this may mean adjusting IT equipment environments (like moving on-premises data center assets to outsourced facilities), for others this may mean expanding their networks or implementing new cloud-based connectivity.

All in all, agility and flexibility are at the core of the reimagined enterprise, and planning is the enabler of both these business virtues. Now is the time to look forward, not only for the sake of preparation, but for the sake of keeping our eyes on a brighter, stronger, and more dynamic future.

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Edward Henigin is CTO at Austin-based Data Foundry, which has a growing data center location in Northwest Houston.

Employees prefer the kitchen table to the boardroom. Photo by Maskot/Getty

Here's how much salary Texans would willingly forfeit to continue working from home

WORK PERKS

For some, working from home is starting to look like the new normal. But whether your office is gearing up for reopening or you're looking at taking calls from your couch for the foreseeable future, one thing is for sure: Texans love that WFH life.

Finance website RealBusinessSavings.com recently surveyed 3,500 American employees to evaluate their attitudes about offices in the current circumstances, and the results showed an overwhelming preference for our makeshift home desks.

The average American employee would take a $316 pay cut per month in order to continue working from home after lockdown, with Texans specifically willing to give up $278 each month to avoid going back to their place of work.

Nationally, 57 percent of employees say they will request to continue working from home to avoid contracting coronavirus in the workplace. One in 10 are happy to be far away from office politics, and two in three say they have been more productive working from home.

When it comes to reasons people prefer to continue working from home, 30 percent of employees say saving money on transportation is the best thing, followed by no daily commute (28 percent). An additional 22 percent say the best part is saving money on lunch and afterwork drinks, while 8 percent said their favorite part is not having to wear business attire (hooray for yoga pants!).

Broken down across the country, it appears Californians are most keen on keeping their WFH routines after lockdown, as the average employee there would forfeit $495 of their salary in order to continue to do so. Comparatively, Hawaii employees are ready to go back to the office, with the average respondent there forfeiting only $71 of their salary each month in order to continue working from home.

And if we ever do return en masse to the boardroom, it seems the days of high-fives and handshakes with your coworkers are over. Results say that 75 percent of employees do not think handshakes will ever return to the work environment, and in their place should be the elbow tap (65 percent), a simple nod (28 percent), the balance-testing foot tap (5 percent), and the formal bow (a mere 2 percent).

Perhaps most telling is this result: One in three workers say that since WFH began, they have felt their bosses have been friendlier and with a more relaxed attitude toward employees. Long live the Zoom meetings.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Looking back: Top 5 most-read Houston research-focused stories of 2021

2022 in review

Editor's note: As 2022 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. In many cases, innovative startups originate from meticulous research deep within institutions. This past year, InnovationMap featured stories on these research institutions — from their breakthrough innovations to funding fueling it all. Here are five Houston research-focused articles that stood out to readers this year — be sure to click through to read the full story.


Texas nonprofit cancer research funder doles out millions to health professionals moving to Houston

These cancer research professionals just got fresh funding from a statewide organization. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Thanks in part to multimillion-dollar grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, two top-flight cancer researchers are taking key positions at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Pavan Reddy and Dr. Michael Taylor each recently received a grant of $6 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Reddy is leaving his position as chief of hematology-oncology and deputy director at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center to become director of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. C. Kent Osborne stepped down as the center’s director in 2020; Dr. Helen Heslop has been the interim director. Continue reading.

Rice University deploys grant funding to 9 innovative Houston research projects

Nine research projects at Rice University have been granted $25,000 to advance their innovative solutions. Photo courtesy of Rice

Over a dozen Houston researchers wrapped up 2021 with the news of fresh funding thanks to an initiative and investment fund from Rice University.

The Technology Development Fund is a part of the university’s Creative Ventures initiative, which has awarded more than $4 million in grants since its inception in 2016. Rice's Office of Technology Transfer orchestrated the $25,000 grants across nine projects. Submissions were accepted through October and the winners were announced a few weeks ago. Continue reading.

Houston researchers create unprecedented solar energy technology that improves on efficiency

Two researchers out of the University of Houston have ideated a way to efficiently harvest carbon-free energy 24 hours a day. Photo via Getty Images

Two Houstonians have developed a new system of harvesting solar energy more efficiently.

Bo Zhao, the Kalsi Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, along with his doctoral student Sina Jafari Ghalekohneh, have created a technology that theoretically allows solar energy to be harvested to the thermodynamic limit, which is the absolute maximum rate sunlight can be converted into electricity, as reported in a September article for Physical Review Applied.

Traditional solar thermophotovoltaics (STPVs), or the engines used to extract electrical power from thermal radiation, run at an efficiency limit of 85.4 percent, according to a statement from UH. Zhao and Ghalekohneh's system was able to reach a rate of 93.3 percent, also known as the Landsberg Limit. Continue reading.

Texas A&M receives $10M to create cybersecurity research program

Texas A&M University has announced a new cybersecurity-focused initiative. Photo via tamu.edu

Texas A&M University has launched an institute for research and education regarding cybersecurity.

The Texas A&M Global Cyber Research Institute is a collaboration between the university and a Texas A&M University System engineering research agency, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. The research agency and Texas A&M are also home to the Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center.

The institute is funded by $10 million in gifts from former Texas A&M student Ray Rothrock, a venture capitalist and cybersecurity expert, and other donors. Continue reading.

Houston research organization doles out $28M in grants to innovators across Texas

Houston-based Welch Foundation has awarded almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. Photo via Getty Images

Chemical researchers at seven institutions in the Houston area are receiving nearly $12.9 million grants from the Houston-based Welch Foundation.

In the Houston area, 43 grants are going to seven institutions:

  • Baylor College of Medicine
  • Rice University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Texas A&M University Health Science Center
  • University of Houston
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
  • University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston

The Welch Foundation is awarding almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. The money will be allocated over a three-year period. Continue reading.

University of Houston powers up first robot food server in a U.S. restaurant

order up

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.