code-for-a-living June 6, 2022

Remote work is killing big offices. Cities must change to survive

If your office is where you live now, would you live in your old office?
Avatar for Ben Popper
Director of Content

I

I was born in Manhattan and lived much of my life in the Big Apple. I went to school on the Bowery and worked in office complexes that sat adjacent to storied destinations like Wall Street, Times Square, and Madison Square Park. I met sources for lunch and attended concerts and conferences that moved my career forward. But like many knowledge workers, in the wake of the pandemic, I’ve moved away from the concrete jungle and relocated to a small, rural town a few hours north of NYC.

I’m not alone. Recent data indicates that only 8% of office employees who worked in NYC pre-pandemic are back to the office five days a week. This creates a financial crisis for major urban areas. Fully 25% of NYC’s tax base each year has historically been derived from commercial real estate, anchored by offices in Wall Street and Midtown and the plethora of restaurants and stores and sidewalk vendors that cater to the millions of people who used to flow every day to and from the city’s commercial corridors. Big cities, in other words, aren’t what they used to be. But that leaves open a door to what cities might become.

New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, addressed the need for change in a recent speech. “It’s imperative that our economic leaders sit down and say what our business centers and districts are going to look like,” Adams said. “Do we change the zoning? Do we allow these new workforce housing that’s coming together outside, because there’s new ways people are doing business?” 

There is something revolutionary in there. Working every day in the world of software developers and knowledge management, I think we’re at a tipping point that will change not just where we work—home or office—and how we work—remote, async—but the nature of our cities, our towns, and with them, our civilization. From London to São Paulo, from Boston to Berlin, there is an opportunity for the metropolis to emerge as something different, something equally essential, but perhaps more equitable, affordable, and humane. To get this transformation right, we can learn from the world of open-source software. 

II

What drove us to work in offices in the first place? For most of its history, the physical workplace served essential, utilitarian functions. DJ Huppatz and Agustin Chevez explain that “the office” began as a place where peace and solitude would allow for concentration and where important and rare works on paper could be safely stored: 

“The origins of the modern office lie with large-scale organizations such as governments, trading companies and religious orders that required written records or documentation. Medieval monks, for example, worked in quiet spaces designed specifically for sedentary activities such as copying and studying manuscripts. As depicted in Botticelli’s St Augustine in His Cell, these early ‘workstations’ comprised a desk, chair and storage shelves.”

Sandro Botticelli St Augustin dans son cabinet de travail or St Augustine at Work. Wikipedia Commons

Technology played a pivotal role in the development of the office. Computers once required entire floors—hell, entire buildings—to house their processing power. They shrunk over time, but offices still provided a venue for workers to access hardware that was unaffordable or impractical for use at home. Huppatz and Chevez point to 1964, when IBM introduced a magnetic-card recording device into a Selectric typewriter, as a tipping point. From there, the functionality and convenience of a small army of devices—copy machines, fax machines, server racks—gave employees good reasons to work from an office.

Even when code could be written at home on a PC, working from home as a programmer wasn’t necessarily practical. When I spoke with Paul Ford and Sara Chipps about their early careers in the 1990s, they recalled sitting in an office where versions of a software project were passed around on a physical disk. Essential backups of key files and data? Sometimes it was a few hard drives in a briefcase that you carried home at night. 

As a journalist, I worked for many years in fancy offices that served an essential function: a hub for physical work—collaborating on a newspaper or magazine printed on ACTUAL paper—and a place to access a company-owned PC where my work lived on local storage that wasn’t backed up to any cloud.

By 2015, however, I was acutely aware of the many hours a day I spent commuting and how unnecessary the commute was to completing my work—how, in fact, it often made completing my work harder. By that time, my work happened almost entirely in chat, emails, and online documents. Most desks still had a landline, but they sat unused, a relic of a different era of newsroom. 

I felt at the time that seeing people in person, especially my bosses, was key to advancing my career. I was told explicitly by my manager that I was expected at the office at least three days a week. Yet there were many days when I would arrive at the office and hear no chatter around the coffee machine, see no inspiring collaboration happening around a drawing board. Each worker, even in an open office plan without cubicles, was living completely in their own world: headphones on, multiple tabs open to Google Docs, Slack, Email, Spotify, Twitter, YouTube, and a dozen others. We sat or stood, our attention fixed on the screen, office banter happening in private messages and across Twitter canoes, not in the break room. 

For software developers, the advances of the last decade, especially the advent of cloud computing and version control, meant that asynchronous contribution to a code base was just as practical from home as the office. Pre-pandemic, however, the majority of large tech companies invested heavily in real estate and dictated that employees spend at least several days a week in the office. The transformative shock of our recent quarantines and the rapidly growing success of companies founded around open-source projects, however, is finally catalyzing a change away from this archaic approach.

III 

The pandemic exposed an unspoken truth. People were not less productive working from home; in fact, many got more work done. What gives? Well, subtract an hour of commute each way. Subtract another hour spent walking to grab coffee, snacks, and lunch. Remove an hour here or there for all the collaboration that happened around the ping pong table or Xbox. Take out the stand-ups, check-ins, and meetings spent on chit-chat and vague ideas which, ya know, could have been an email.

Why did so many companies, including supposedly forward-thinking tech companies, insist on a heavy investment in office and real estate even as most office work moved to portable devices tied to the cloud? And why are so many of the most valuable tech companies in the world still battling to get workers back into the office now? 

As Huppatz and Chevez write, the office acts as a “visible statement of prestige and power.” Companies that have invested heavily in fancy office parks want them bustling with employee activity when clients, partners, or journalists come to visit. Another imperative for management, usually left unsaid, is that the office allows them to implement monitoring, surveillance, and control. The pair write:

Various management theories also had a profound impact on the office. As Gideon Haigh put it in The Office: A Hardworking History, the office was “an activity long before it was a place”.

Work was shaped by social and cultural expectations even before the modern office existed. Monasteries, for example, introduced timekeeping that imposed strict discipline on monks’ daily routines.

Later, modern theorists understood the office as a factory-like environment. Inspired by Frank Gilbreth’s time-motion studies of bricklayers and Fredrick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, William Henry Leffingwell’s 1917 book, Scientific Office Management, depicted work as a series of tasks that could be rationalized, standardized and scientifically calculated into an efficient production regime. Even his concessions to the office environment, such as flowers, were intended to increase productivity.

For obvious reasons, physical products in development and proprietary technology need to be safeguarded. Work on these projects might require an office or workspace separate from the home. But the vast majority of code can now be written safely and securely from home. The tension between employees and organizations boils down to management’s fear that over time remote workers will be less productive and predictable. Given what we’ve seen during the pandemic, however, the onus is on leaders to show that working from home is less productive before insisting that working from an office is somehow superior.

Think about the value created by products like Linux and Python, Bitcoin and Ethereum, GoLang and React. Sure, people sat in rooms over the years and worked together to drive these projects forward. But it wasn’t the frisson of IRL interactions that turned them into the global juggernauts they are today. Quite the opposite: it was the ease with which anyone around the world could contribute to the project without needing any special permission. 

Tech companies have become the most valuable organizations on earth, and the folks who write code at these companies command, on average, the highest salaries of any profession. I won’t try and predict what the future will hold, but I think it’s safe to say that coders are capable of building incredibly impactful and profitable tools, platforms, and business models without leaving the comfort of their pajamas. Increasingly, workers in finance, entertainment, education, and other industries are finding ways to do the same.

We have an opportunity for a radical rethinking of the office—and the city beyond. 

IV

Before we go on, I want to offer an aside to make one thing clear. I’m not denigrating work that doesn’t involve code or that can’t be done remotely. The pandemic reminded us of another important truth—that our society can’t function without farmers and doctors, truckers and teachers. While a lot of ink has been spilled on the future of work, the majority of Americans, and most people around the world, can’t actually do their jobs remotely. This being Stack Overflow, however, where we serve a community of developers and technologists, it makes sense to focus on the option of remote work and what the expansion of that kind of work might mean for our society. I’ll also acknowledge that I’m an American and the perspective here is centered on the US. To the degree that it’s similar or different from the experience in other locales, I would love to hear from readers with more knowledge and experience than me.

So, back to the issue at hand. The question we should be exploring is not how we can force people back into offices to save the old model of a city, but what cities can become now that so many workers who once had to congregate there to make an impact have the option to work remotely. What would a reimagined urban center look like for these professions? 

We know, from decades of research, that urbanization tends to exacerbate income inequality. In countries like the United States, a decades-long trend also saw manufacturing move away from smaller cities towards international hubs, leaving hundreds of mid-sized cities and their surrounding suburbs struggling with urban blight and rising poverty, which grew fastest in suburban areas during the period following the Financial Crisis of 2008. 

For areas outside the biggest metropolitan areas, hybrid work has been a huge boon. Take Troy, NY, a city of 50,000 close to my new home in the Hudson Valley. As The Globe and Mail reported

For years, these small legacy cities – gutted by a loss in manufacturing, pockmarked by abandoned industrial spaces, and hampered by a dwindling population – have struggled to make a sustained economic recovery. Yet the tides may finally be shifting. The rapid expansion of hybrid and remote workplaces during the pandemic, along with a climate crisis that has underscored the vulnerability of our bigger cities and laid bare the necessity for community resilience, has suddenly made places like Troy ripe for adaptation in the 21st century.

The well-established concept of “rewilding” urges societies to return lands back to their natural state, rebalancing environments where plants and animals were shunted aside in favor of human civilization. Hybrid and remote work provide us an opportunity for a re-widening, a dispersal of human capital that unwinds some of the concentration to urban areas we’ve seen over the last century, restoring a better balance.

Imagine a world in which massive office districts of major cities are remade to attract residents with remote or hybrid jobs who choose their home based not on its proximity to their corporate office, but what it offers in terms of great schools, hospitals, arts, entertainment, parks, waterfront, and community. Giant office buildings could offer flexible work space that can be rented short- or long-term by individuals or organizations.

Converting office districts to live-work zones would offer a much needed influx of new residential space, helping to combat the rising cost of homes and rentals. Citizens who do work essential to the livelihood of a community, such as teachers, healthcare providers, and service workers are provided with tax breaks, as needed, to ensure they can afford to live alongside those whose work can be done fully remotely.

Knowledge workers like me, who move out of the city, make urban spaces more affordable for essential workers who staff hospitals and restaurants. Meanwhile, small towns and cities that were hollowed out by deindustrialization over the last 30 years get an influx of new residents to support their tax base. Again, the majority of jobs don’t allow for remote work, but a great deal of wealth is concentrated among the jobs that do. Empowering or even encouraging those workers to live wherever they want could have a positive impact on the affordability of cities and the economic health of rural communities.

Forward-thinking cities can still focus on attracting top-tier workers in areas like finance, technology, and law, but they will do so by making themselves wonderful places to work, live, and play, not by insisting on the primacy of an antiquated 9-to-5 office culture.

The lesson I take from the open-source revolution and the last two decades of software development is that the platforms and tools with the least friction tend to win out. A “butts-in-seats” mentality that demands a regular commute on a rigid schedule creates a ton of unnecessary friction—in our jobs and in our lives. The city of the future, I hope, will be a place where anyone can safely and securely contribute their ideas or apply their skills. Make the permissionless innovation of open source the bedrock ideology of the next generation of urban centers, and we can start to build a new metropolis better-suited to our post-industrial age of information.

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