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

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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3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know — the first of this new year — I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from startup development to energy transition — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Joey Sanchez, senior director of ecosystems at the Ion Houston

Joey Sanchez joins the Houston Innovator Podcast to discuss his new role at The Ion Houston. Photo via LinkedIn

Joey Sanchez, who previously served as director of corporate engagement at Houston Exponential, has been in his new role as senior director of ecosystem at The Ion for about three months now.

"I'm focusing specifically on the communities of entrepreneurs, startups, investors — and trying to bridge connections among them," Sanchez says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "This is the biggest challenge in Houston and we want to flip that with density. Density is really the key to solving connections."

Sanchez joined the Houston Innovators Podcast and shares about what gets him so excited about Houston innovation on the show. Click here to listen and read more.

Nisha Desai, founder and CEO of Intention

Four climatetech-focused individuals have been named to Greentown Lab's board. Photo via LinkedIn

Greentown Labs named new board members, including two community board members to act as liaisons between startups and Greentown Labs. Greentown Houston's appointed representation is Nisha Desai, founder and CEO of Intention, and community member.

Desai's current startup, Intention, is climate impact platform for retail investors, and she has previously worked at six energy-related startups including Ridge Energy Storage, Tessera Solar, and ActualSun, where she was co-founder and CEO. She's also worked in a leadership role at NRG Energy and spent several years as a management consultant with the energy practice of Booz Allen Hamilton — now Strategy&, a PWC company.

"I'm honored to join the board of Greentown Labs as a representative of the startup community," she says in the release. "This is a pivotal time for climate and energy transition. I look forward to working with the rest of the board to expand the collective impact of the Greentown Labs ecosystem." Click here to read more.

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory

Moji Karimi joins InnovationMap to discuss how Cemvita Factory has deployed its recent investment funding and what's next for the company and Houston as a whole when it comes to biomanufacturing. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Moji Karimi and his sister Tara had the idea for a company that could transform carbon emissions and mitigate new damage to the environment. Only, it seems, they were a bit ahead of their time.

Houston-based Cemvita Factory, founded in 2017, uses synthetic biology and take carbon emissions and transform them into industrial chemicals. However, it's only been since recently that the conversation on climate change mitigation has focused on carbon utilization.

"I think people are realizing more about the importance of really focusing on carbon capture and utilization because fossil fuels are gonna be here, whether we like it or not, for a long time, so the best thing we could do is to find ways to decarbonize them," Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO, tells InnovationMap. "There's been this focus around carbon capture and storage, and I think the next awakening is going to be utilization." Click here to read more.

3 businesses join Houston initiative for carbon capture and storage

seeing green

Three big businesses — Air Liquide, BASF, and Shell — have added their firepower to the effort to promote large-scale carbon capture and storage for the Houston area’s industrial ecosystem.

These companies join 11 others that in 2021 threw their support behind the initiative. Participants are evaluating how to use safe carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology at Houston-area facilities that provide energy, power generation, and advanced manufacturing for plastics, motor fuels, and packaging.

Other companies backing the CCS project are Calpine, Chevron, Dow, ExxonMobil, INEOS, Linde, LyondellBasell, Marathon Petroleum, NRG Energy, Phillips 66, and Valero.

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity.

“Large-scale carbon capture and storage in the Houston region will be a cornerstone for the world’s energy transition, and these companies’ efforts are crucial toward advancing CCS development to achieve broad scale commercial impact,” Charles McConnell, director of University of Houston’s Center for Carbon Management in Energy, says in a news release.

McConnell and others say CCS could help Houston and the rest of the U.S. net-zero goals while generating new jobs and protecting current jobs.

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from industrial activities that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and then injecting it into deep underground geologic formations for secure and permanent storage. Carbon dioxide from industrial users in the Houston area could be stored in nearby onshore and offshore storage sites.

An analysis of U.S Department of Energy estimates shows the storage capacity along the Gulf Coast is large enough to store about 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to more than 130 years’ worth of industrial and power generation emissions in the United States, based on 2018 data.

“Carbon capture and storage is not a single technology, but rather a series of technologies and scientific breakthroughs that work in concert to achieve a profound outcome, one that will play a significant role in the future of energy and our planet,” says Gretchen Watkins, U.S. president of Shell. “In that spirit, it’s fitting this consortium combines CCS blueprints and ambitions to crystalize Houston’s reputation as the energy capital of the world while contributing to local and U.S. plans to help achieve net-zero emissions.”

Texas doctor dives into Shark Tank with invention that stops hiccups

shark bait

Humans are weird. Take, as a perfect example, the phenomenon of hiccups — the sudden and involuntary spasm of the diaphragm muscle between regular breaths. All humans experience them, and so do other mammals and even amphibians. But we’re guessing other animals don’t approach treating hiccups in the wacky ways humans do.

For instance, some less-than-successful hiccup remedies of lore include sipping water upside down (and subsequently trying to not drown), holding one’s breath for a long time (and often hiccupping throughout the hold anyway), sucking on a peppermint, gagging oneself or pulling on the tongue, and even gobbling up a spoonful of peanut butter to help change the breathing and swallowing pattern.

The truth is those ideas are mostly a waste of breath. Luckily, one San Antonio doctor has invented a device that supposedly instantly relieves hiccups — and his invention is getting so much attention that he’s even hooked a chance to pitch the product on a new episode of ABC’s entrepreneurial-focused reality show, Shark Tank.

Dr. Ali Seifi, a neurointensivist at UT Health San Antonio and the inventor of the aptly named HiccAway, will appear on an episode of Shark Tank that airs tonight, January 21 at 7 pm.

HiccAway, a straw-like device that a hiccup sufferer uses to sip water through, is likely to wow the sharks — maybe even take their breath away? — as it is the world’s first scientifically proven medical product that safely relieves hiccups.

In fact, HiccAway was recently the subject of an article in JAMA Network Open, a publication of the Journal of the American Medical Association Network. The article addresses a four-month cross-sectional study of 249 participants from multiple countries that found that HiccAway stopped hiccups in almost 92 percent of cases and was rated a heck of a lot more favorably than home remedies.

“I believe that the science behind our product is what makes our product trustworthy and reliable. There are many hiccup remedies that are all hit and miss with no exact science to them,” Seifi says. “Some healthcare products claim they can cure a medical condition, but they don’t have scientific backup to support the product. I can confidently state that HiccAway is one of the few products on Shark Tank so far with a strong published research study as a backup.”

While hiccups are simply an annoyance for most of us, they can also be chronic for patients with cancer, meningitis, multiple sclerosis, stroke, traumatic brain or thoracic injury, and even for patients who have had surgery that requires anesthesia.

“After I witnessed my own neurology patients suffering from hiccups without an effective treatment, I was inspired to develop a safe and effective device that would be simple to use and easily available to all people,” Seifi says. “When you forcefully sip water through the device, it keeps the phrenic and vagus nerves occupied, so they don’t have enough time to cause unwanted spasms in the diaphragm. This interruption stops the hiccups.”

While the HiccAway device is already available to purchase through hiccaway.com and on Amazon, as well as at walmart.com and even in H-E-B stores throughout South Texas and at heb.com, Shark Tank (which boasts a viewing audience of about 7 million) could propel HiccAway and Seifi into a new realm of entrepreneurial success.

“For me, the experience was surreal,” says Victor Fehlberg, president and CEO of Higher Innovations Inc., which manufactures and distributes HiccAway from the Denver area. “It took so long to prepare, so much time was spent waiting, that when the pitch and appearance were finally recorded, it went too fast. It was like I was dreaming because it had been so long in the making.”

The Shark Tank appearance is likely a dream come true for Seifi and the HiccAway team — and a total breath of fresh air for the hiccup-suffering public.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.