Houstonians are punching back in, a new report finds. Photo by Tom Werner/Getty Images

So much for that everybody-working-from-home thing. New data shows Houston workers have headed back to the office in greater numbers than workers in eight other major U.S. metros.

Figures from Kastle Systems, a provider of security services for buildings, indicate Houston ranks second for back-to-the-office activity, with a 37.9 percent occupancy rate as of October 21.

Meanwhile, 41.4 percent of workers in Dallas-Fort Worth were at the office as of October 21 compared with pre-pandemic levels. By comparison, Kastle Systems' 10-metro average was 27.4 percent. Kastle says this data makes Dallas-Fort Worth the "most open" place among the 10 metros.

To assess office occupancy habits since pandemic lockdowns went into effect, Kastle Systems has been examining keycard, fob, and app data from 3,600 buildings and 41,000 businesses in 138 cities. Its weekly back-to-the-office barometer reflects access activity in Houston and nine other major metros:

  • Dallas
  • Austin
  • New York City
  • Los Angeles
  • Chicago
  • Philadelphia
  • Washington, D.C.
  • San Francisco
  • San Jose, California

Elsewhere, Austin shows up at No. 5, with a 35.1 percent occupancy rate.

In last place among the 10 metros is New York City, where the occupancy rate was 17.4 percent.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

In a guest column, Jan E. Odegard of The Ion Houston, discusses the ways COVID-19 has affected the workforce permanently. Getty Images

Houston innovation expert on life after COVID-19: 'we may never work and learn the same again'

Guest column

When the Houston-area was faced with the COVID-19 pandemic and instituting a shelter-in-place to keep residents safe, The Ion's mission to build a world-leading innovation hub didn't change, but the way we advocate and engage with learners has.

At a programmatic level, we're bringing our networking events to a virtual platform, convening our high school STEAM Innovation Challenge program via online meetings, and moving the Ion Smart and Resilient City Accelerator, which incubates technology to support the City, coursework, counseling, and mentoring online.

At a philosophical level, we're exploring and evaluating how current sociological and economic conditions will change and drive the way we'll provide programming and resources. We're not entirely sure what changes we'll institute, what programming we'll need to tweak, since this is a global "experiment" that has not yet played out, but ideas, technology, and offerings are being explored and developed. It's in the Ion's name to keep the ever-forward motion of discovery.

As senior director of Academic Programming, my job will be to implement those ideas and move new programs forward. To do this, the team is developing and pivoting programs we had on the drawing board and are engaging in conversations with academic stakeholders, workforce development programs and executives with innovation-driven hiring needs.

Through the course of the conversations and self-observations, one thing is very clear: we may never work and learn the same again. This is why.

The digital transformation has accelerated exponentially

Universities moved thousands of courses online in a matter of a week, if not a few days. In an era where consumers can order goods or purchase a book with the tap of a button, this may not seem to be a big deal, but for campus centric academic institutions and employers, it is.

To put the technological infrastructure in place and equip students and employees with the tools necessary is momentous. While many organizations were well equipped, some never needed to, and others just had a handful of offerings online, they are now 100 percent online. This rocks the core of their operation and many of the lessons learned during COVID-19 will transcend past COVID-19 and transform these institutions.

What we do not know yet is what the impact of this will be on the student, delivering education and training material online is only half the problem, how students access and learn remains to be seen.

Soft skills matter

Soft skills, or interpersonal (people) skills, are not only harder to define but to evaluate and build, especially from home. Soft skills include communication skills, listening skills, and empathy. When you're alone with three screens up, you're inherently more distracted and maybe more concerned with what's going on there than with the outside world. Working from home not only requires discipline, but also requires you create boundaries.

While Slack channels, video meetings, and online mentorship are critical avenues during a time like this, we must make an extra effort to feel the dynamics of a mentor, mentee or teammate, and to ask the right questions. Probing deeper where needed and recognizing when backing off is the better path forward.

As we look at performance and work habits, changing or tweaking online behavior is different from modifying in person behavior. Critical thinking skills and clear communication and expectations are imperative (most of us have sent what we thought was the "perfect" email, that was not only misunderstood but misinterpreted), as is not losing sight of the person. Refining soft skills can do this, and now we need to do that online.

While developing and practicing soft skills one-on-one or in small groups can be done, the question is how to scale this to larger groups and courses. One way we're seeing this done more successfully is in the format of flipped classrooms. While instruction is often based on completing assigned reading before live class lecture; online recording gives new opportunities. Instead, the time allotted for live lectures, students will watch pre-recorded lectures followed by instructor supported small group Q&A and problem-working sessions.

Learners of all age groups can spend time problem solving or presenting an assignment rather than the material itself (practice and teach what you learned). This format not only offers opportunities for more personalized engagement, but also opens opportunities for more senior students to participate and practice leadership and mentorship by supporting these sessions.

The death of the 9-to-5 work schedule

It's very clear. We're all scrambling. Scrambling to get fresh air when there aren't too many people out. Scrambling to procure food. And for many, scrambling to watch our kids, manage their education, and get our job done.

Work is shifted to the early morning or bleeding into the evening. Without the confinement of going into the office and leaving at a certain time, personal bookends are further moved. In some countries it's frowned upon to send emails outside of work hours — in the U.S. it is a lifeblood.

COVID-19 forced us to work from a home model, and corporations and employees are now co-creating rules of meaningful engagement for accountability and developing the right framework for success and trust to get the job done. Daily video/call check-ins with staff members, as many are doing right now, is suddenly not abnormal (or intrusive) but now an integral part of working together and, helps create a shared purpose. While the job might just be done after the kids fall asleep, or that afternoon stroll, these calls ensure we are connected.

At the Ion, these daily check-ins are not just about what work you did and will be doing, but about building and supporting the individual, the team, and a shared purpose. The lessons learned from COVID-19 will make corporations and organizations more open to working from home moving forward, because we learned how to do it, and lessons learned will survive COVID-19.

Physical connections will be back

I am an introvert that must act as an extravert to do my job. Well, after 4 weeks working from home, I do miss the social engagement offered by the office.

While I can work with the team, and schedule virtual coffee and cocktail hours, it is not conducive to impromptu water-cooler talk. So, while I believe we now have the skills and methods to work from home, we have reinforced the importance of a physical space to convene.

There has been a long discussion about roles of traditional, work and school campuses, and whether or not it is outdated. I disagree, and if there is one thing that stands out it is that physical campuses serve a critical role, even if we tweak how learning will be delivered and work will be performed. Going back to a collaborative setting such as an office, lab or classroom will give us an opportunity to see, create, and build to scale. Physical connection is also imperative for building the soft skills we mention.

Engaging in a conversation on a video call from your bedroom isn't the same or as meaningful as reacting to a question or conflict in-person. If you are a student in an aeronautical engineering course you can simulate something until the wrong button is pushed. But you need to see and feel it "blow up" to react and internalize. Online reaction is still different than in-person reaction.

Holistically, it's also imperative for our health. Loneliness, which can be brought on by the isolation we're experiencing, is associated with physical isolation. Together, in a workplace setting we're sharper mentally, and simply better together.

As a career academic, now in my second act, and deeply embedded in operations and strategic partnerships, these observations give me great excitement. With a city keen on innovation, and partners willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with learners and entrepreneurs, I know Houston will play a part in changing how we learn. I hope the next time you're reading something from me it's about just that.

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Jan E. Odegard is the senior director of Academic and Industry Partnerships at The Ion.

According to a report, robotics could substitute for 46.3 percent of tasks usually completed by workers in Houston. Photo by vm/Getty Images

Study finds that almost half of Houston's workforce tasks could be done by robots

digital dangers

While fears of robots taking the jobs of American workers has been perforating throughout the United States, a news study found just how much of the workforce's responsibilities could be automized.

Almost half of Houston's workplace tasks are susceptible to automation, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. Of 100 metros analyzed, Houston ranks 31st among the country's 100 biggest metros, with 46.3 percent of work tasks susceptible to automation.

Authors of the study are quick to point out that this doesn't mean human workers will be entirely replaced by robots. Rather, they say, it means at least some of the humans' tasks could be automated.

"While this report concludes that the future may not be as dystopian as the most dire voices claim, plenty of people and places will be affected by automation, and much will need to be done to mitigate the coming disruptions," the authors write.

Across the country, jobs that could encounter the most interference from automation include food preparation worker, payroll clerk, and commuter network support specialist, according to the report.

"Machines substitute for tasks, not jobs. A job is a collection of tasks," the report says. "Some of those tasks are best done by humans, others by machines. Even under the most aggressive scenarios of technological advancement, it is unlikely that machines will be able to substitute for all tasks in any one occupation."

Elsewhere in Texas:

  • Dallas ranks 29th among the country's 100 biggest metros, with 46.5 percent of work tasks susceptible to automation.
  • San Antonio ranks 41st among the country's 100 biggest metros, with 46 percent of work tasks susceptible to automation.
  • Austin ranks 78th among the country's 100 biggest metros, with 44.3 percent of work tasks susceptible to automation.

According to CityLab, the Brookings report shows places where energy jobs are prevalent, such as Houston, will get through the automation period "relatively unscathed," as will college towns and state capitals like Austin. Authors of the report maintain that automation complements human labor.

"Generally, whatever workplace activity isn't taken over by automation is complemented by it — making each remaining human task more valuable. This makes labor more valuable, and the increased productivity generally … translates into higher wages," the report says.

The report indicates that among the 100 largest U.S. metros, Toledo, Ohio, confronts the most potential automation in the workplace (49 percent share of job tasks), while Washington, D.C., faces the least potential automation (39.8 percent share of job tasks).

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This story originally ran on CultureMap.

New study shows Houston has more job openings than any other Texas city. Photo by Tim Leviston/Getty Images

Houston becomes job capital of Texas with highest number of openings in the state

Get to work

As all good Houstonians know, the Bayou City reigns as the energy capital of the world. But, as it turns out, Houston also ranks as the job capital of Texas.

In October, a daily average of 4,188 job openings were listed in Houston — more than any other place in Texas. That's according to a review by data-mining company Thinkum of online job postings at thousands of companies.

In terms of the sheer number of daily job postings, Houston ranked fifth among U.S. cities in October, according to Thinkum. Seattle held the No. 1 spot (10,291 average daily job listings).

Thinkum's top 20 also included Austin (No. 6), with a daily average of 3,227 job postings, and Dallas (No. 12), with 2,685.

The abundance of job listings in Houston can be attributed, in part, to its status as one of the top U.S. metro areas for corporate relocations and expansions, as ranked by Site Selection magazine. In 2017, the Houston welcomed 196 new and expanded corporate facilities.

"Houston is the most diverse city in the U.S. and companies thrive in our region. We are powered by a highly skilled and well-trained talent base that enjoys an excellent quality of life," Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, said in March.

Career website LinkedIn says hiring in the Houston metro area climbed 14.3 percent in September 2018 compared with September 2017. On a seasonally adjusted basis (removing predictable variations for seasonal hiring), hiring went up 0.8 percent from August to September, according to LinkedIn.

That's good news for the Houston area, as the unemployment rate in September was 4.1 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with 3.4 percent in Dallas-Fort Worth and 2.9 percent in Austin.

A February report from Taylor Smith Consulting noted that the Houston economy had been in recovery mode after the collapse in oil prices and in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. However, one expert says Houston has now mostly bounced back from the economic slump.

Helping fuel Houston's economic recovery are initiatives like Houston Exponential, a new nonprofit designed to accelerate startup growth and, as a result, job growth. Formation of Houston Exponential was announced in October.

"The world calls Houston a knowledge capital because of the incredible concentration of ideas and innovation in our great city," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in October. "Technology innovation and a vibrant startup community are key drivers to Houston's present as well as our future. Through [Houston Exponential], we will create new, high-paying jobs, grow our startup and technology community, make accessing entrepreneurship capital available to all of our citizens, improve our quality of life, and lead this culture of innovation that inspires each and every one of us."

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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Houston cleantech company sees shining success with gold hydrogen

bling, bling

Houston-based cleantech startup Cemvita Factory is kicking things into high gear with its Gold Hydrogen product.

After successfully completing a pilot test of Gold Hydrogen in the oil-rich Permian Basin of West Texas, Cemvita has raised an undisclosed amount of funding through its new Gold H2 LLC spin-out. The lead investors are Georgia-based equipment manufacturer Chart Industries and 8090 Industries, an investment consortium with offices in New York City and Los Angeles.

Gold Hydrogen provides carbon-neutral hydrogen obtained from depleted oil and gas wells. This is achieved through bioengineering subsurface microbes in the wells to consume carbon and generate clean hydrogen.

Cemvita says it set up Gold H2 to commercialize the business via licensing, joint ventures, and outright ownership of hydrogen assets.

“We have incredible conviction in next-generation clean hydrogen production methods that leverage the vast and sprawling existing infrastructure and know-how of the oil and gas industry,” Rayyan Islam, co-founder and general partner of 8090 Industries, says in a news release.

Traditional methods of producing hydrogen without greenhouse gas emissions include electrolysis powered by renewable sources like wind, solar or water, according to Cemvita. However, production of green hydrogen through normal avenues eats up a lot of energy and money, the startup says.

By contrast, Cemvita relies on depleted oil and gas wells to cheaply produce carbon-free hydrogen.

“The commercialization and economics of the hydrogen economy will require technologies that produce the hydrogen molecule at a meaningful scale with no carbon emissions. Gold H2 is leading the charge … ,” says Jill Evanko, president and CEO of Chart Industries.

Investors in Cemvita include Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum, as well as BHP Group, Mitsubishi, and United Airlines Ventures.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures and United Airlines Ventures are financing Cemvita’s work on sustainable jet fuel. United Airlines operates a hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport Houston.

Founded by brother-and-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi in 2017, Cemvita uses synthetic biology to turn carbon dioxide into chemicals and alternative fuels.

Houston named best city in Texas and No. 11 in U.S. in prestigious report

best in tx

At least according to one new report, Houston is not only the Energy Capital of the World but also the livability capital of Texas.

A new study from Best Cities, powered by Resonance Consultancy, puts Houston at No. 11 among the best cities in the U.S. That’s the top showing among the six Texas cities included in the ranking. Houston appeared at No. 17 on last year’s list.

“Educated, diverse and hard-working, Houston is America’s stealthy powerhouse on the rise,” Best Cities proclaims.

Best Cities notes that while Austin grabs much of the best-city attention, “the promise of the Lone Star State drawing Californians and New Yorkers is quietly being fulfilled in Houston.” The website points out that the Houston metro area has gained nearly 300,000 residents in the past year, thanks to both domestic and international migration.

Here are some of the individual rankings that contribute to Houston’s 11th-place finish:

  • No. 4 for restaurants
  • No. 7 for culture
  • No. 8 for foreign-born population

“Houston is a diverse and vibrant metro where individuals can start a family, grow their business, attend world-class institutions and universities, or be immersed in the 145 languages that are spoken by our residents,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says in a news release. “The quality of life we have in Houston is second to none, and the data we receive from placements such as … Best Cities further reaffirm the strength and resiliency that has come to define this great city of ours.”

A few spots behind Houston on the Best Cities list are No. 14 Dallas and No. 15 Austin.

What lifts Dallas to the No. 14 spot? These are some of the factors cited by Best Cities:

  • Location of more than 10,000 corporate headquarters
  • Strong showing (No. 2) in the airport connectivity category
  • Kudos for the soon-to-be-expanded Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center Dallas
  • Home of the country’s sixth largest LGBTQ+ community
  • Presence of the 28-block, 68-acre Dallas Arts District

Austin comes in at No. 15, one notch behind Dallas.

Best Cities praises Austin as “a place that’s incredibly livable. Talk to any entrepreneur leaving Silicon Valley or Seattle and chances are they’ve considered Austin.”

The website points to a number of Austin’s assets, such as:

  • Growing presence of Fortune 500 headquarters
  • Comparatively low unemployment rate
  • Location of the University of Texas’ flagship campus
  • Status as the Live Music Capital of the World
  • Home of the annual SXSW gathering

Two other Texas cities make the Best Cities list: No. 34 San Antonio and No. 94 McAllen.

Best Cities bases its list of the best U.S. cities on Resonance Consultancy’s combination of statistical performance plus qualitative evaluations by locals and visitors. Those figures are grouped into six main categories. This year’s ranking features 100 U.S. cities. To come up with the ranking, Resonance Consultancy assessed all U.S. metro areas with at least 500,000 residents.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

How a Houston med device startup pivoted to impact global health and diagnostics

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 153

In the span of a couple years, a Houston startup went from innovating a way for patients with degenerative eye diseases to see better to creating a portable and affordable breath-based diagnostics tool worthy of a prestigious grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.

Steradian Technologies, founded in 2018, set out to create human super-sight via proprietary optics. In early 2020, the company was getting ready to start testing the device and fundraising. Then, the pandemic hit, knocking the company completely off course.

Co-founder and CEO of the company, Asma Mirza, says on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast that the Steradian co-founders discussed how their optic technology could detect diseases. Something just clicked, and the RUMI device was born.

"We are from Houston, Texas, which is one of the most diverse and accessible cities in the country, and we were having trouble with basic diagnostic accessibility. It was taking too long, it was complicated, and people were getting sick and didn't know if they were positive or negative," Mirza says on the show. "That's when we pivoted the company and decided we were going to pivot the company and use optics to detect diseases in breath."

Fast forward two years and the company has been recognized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with a grant to sport the development of the tool — which costs about the same price as a latte to make. The impact for global health is huge, Mirza says, allowing for people to test their breath for diseases from their own homes in the same time it takes to take your temperature.

"You blow into a cartrige and we're able to take the air from your breath into a liquid sample," Mirza says, explaining how the device uses photons to produce quick results. "It's wild that we still don't have something like that yet."

She shares more details about the grant and the future applications for the technology — as well as the role Houston and local organizations have had on the company — on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.