How Remote Work Will Change How We Plan our cities
July 6, 2022
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by Stephen Kanyi

The remote work debate is all but settled across the corporate world.

It works.

Each day more companies are going remote if only to save on costs, especially in these tough economic times.

However, for all the good that remote work will bring to the corporate world, it will have far-reaching impacts on our society. This model will bring benefits as well as a few more challenges.

One major challenge is how remote work is going to affect cities. As more employees choose to work from home office buildings will become more negligible and eventually even non-existent. If we are lucky, we could see an end to towering skyscrapers.

A good tradeoff if you ask me, nobody needs more skyscrapers in our cities. While they make for a good view from above, their utility stops at that. Skyscrapers, in my opinion, are unnecessary monuments of a bygone era.

Many of these office buildings were built in the age of huge computers, server racks, and copy and fax machines that gave employees good reasons to work from the office. Today however PCs have become many times more powerful and most of us have the equivalent of entire 60s-era server racks and computer processing power on PCs and mobile phones.

Is there then, any real reason to work from the office?

Even perks like ping pong tables, free meals and in-door gardens that are making offices more like adult day care centres than work centres cannot paint over the fact that most of the time all you need for an office job is a computer with an internet connection. Doesn’t really matter where you are.

Technology is slowly making the office obsolete.

Moreover, even when workers do go to the office they live completely in ‘their own world’: headphones on, multiple tabs open, Email, Slack, Spotify, YouTube, Twitter and a few others.

Even in those popular open offices, genuine communication and collaboration are at an all-time low. Think about it. If you are in a large organization the chances of you interacting with top management are really low. Corporate culture for all its contribution, makes workers automatons, a cog in the corporate machine. Might as well stay at home where you can be comfortable while turning the machine.

And those much talked about discussions and collaboration by the water cooler with colleagues? Well, do you really need an office to do that? If you can’t do it over a video call then a coffee shop or a meeting at the park can also do it. These have greater ambiences anyway and are essentially better environments for team bonding and collaboration.

But again, I’m not here to make a case for remote work. I’m simply stating the folly of insisting on the office model.

What interests me is the consequences remote work will have on city design in the near future. The fact that millions of people will potentially, all of a sudden, have no need to be close to their offices to work will obviously have far-reaching impacts on how cities are designed.

Now, I’m no futurist or a city planner for that matter so I will not claim to be an expert in this prediction. But having been a remote worker for a few years I can foresee two ways this model will change our cities.

Easing of Traffic Congestion

This is a no-brainer. With more people working from home there will be no need for them to commute to the office for most, if not all of the week. That means fewer vehicles on the road and thus less congestion and traffic.

Now, this is a good thing not only for workers who will avoid the gruelling morning traffic but also for employers who will have gained from increased productivity from workers while also reducing costs in terms of fuel and parking space.

However, perhaps the biggest effect less congestion will have on city design is that there will be less need for so many roads. A lot of our cities’ spaces are dominated by roads and alleys. This is space that could be used for walking paths and bicycle riding but is instead ceded to vehicles.

Reducing the number of vehicles could enable us to recover much-needed space for more essential communal purposes such as coffee shops and parks. Cities like Madrid and Barcelona have fully embraced public transportation and it is not a coincidence that they are also some of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Beautiful picture of Barcelona, Spain

More importantly, the environment will also get some reprieve from vehicle fumes and maybe move companies a little closer to carbon neutrality.

The fact is, roads take too much space. And the vehicles that use them even more so, if you factor in parking space. The result has been that cities that are centred around vehicles and not people. We need to take this space back. Remote work could be the first of many steps in this direction.

Moving to Suburbia

With offices becoming less important to work, employees do not need to stay close to the office. This means that individuals and families could and definitely will move away from cities and into suburbs which are much better suited for family life anyway.

Given the chance I see more remote workers choosing to relocate to suburbs leaving cities for people who actually have to be there.

Health professionals, lawyers, business executives and essential workers all need to be on-site to carry out their work. With remote workers moving to suburbs these professionals will have more space and time to do their work.

Moreover, demand and therefore rent prices for housing in the cities will fall as remote workers move out. This will make lives easier for essential city personnel, many of whom have been forced out of cities due to the rising standard of living and thus have to make long daily commutes.

Suburbia on the other hand will experience massive growth in size and correlating increase in rent prices. This will not be good for current residents who will have to deal with the challenge of bigger communities and more importantly increased rent and mortgage prices.

Overall, however, I think remote work will have a net positive effect on cities as a whole. Decreasing congestion and traffic in cities will free up space for more important tools and activities helping to create a better environment that can foster true innovation and collaboration which is the true purpose of modern cities.

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