The massive, global shift to distributed work will not be undone. Nearly 9 out of 10 workers do not want to return to the office full time. That’s going to reshape offices, the companies that use them, the cities whose central business districts are organized around them, and everything else from public transit to housing prices. The cumulative change may ultimately have as much impact on the shape of our cities as the automobile did 75 years ago.
That might sound like a problem, but it is also an opportunity. Today, most knowledge work is clustered in a few exceptionally expensive, densely populated, and often environmentally challenged cities. Outside those places, opportunities for great education and high-paying jobs are few and far between. The best education and internships and career paths are all still prerequisites for each other. Too often, if you’re left out at the start, you’re left behind for good.
But the acceleration to distributed work, combined with new technologies that enable productive, rewarding collaboration across distributed teams can change all of that. Now, this doesn’t mean that the office is going to disappear. It’s not. Just because hardly anybody wants to return to the office full-time doesn’t mean that people don’t want to go at all. We do! We miss it, especially the social connection of in-person work. But that can be satisfied with a day or two a week.
A two-day-a-week commute extends the boundaries of where people want to live. Big companies will still have offices that shape skylines, but they’ll no longer need space for 100 percent of their employees at any one time; something closer to 25 percent will do. Demand for housing with appropriate working spaces will increase, hearkening back to the pre-industrial patterns of work and family life. Cities will be cheaper and thus hospitable for artists, teachers and nurses, along with more of the independent businesses who struggled for survival against chains as urban commercial space became prohibitively expensive.
We will be able to expand the information age opportunity to communities that have never shared in it. Tools that allow for asynchronous collaboration so people can work on their own time mean that child care, elder care, and other family obligations should no longer be insurmountable obstacles. And all of this will allow us to rethink cities themselves too — reducing traffic, increasing green space, and transforming some of those former offices into homes and cultural institutions.
This isn’t a pipe dream or some far off future; this is now, and next year, and the year after that, if we only embrace the opportunity to reimagine and the responsibility to reinvent.