CEO of a 400+ employee business says WFH is working well, he may not renew his SF lease to save $10m a year (office + lunches etc) and instead do a couple of all-hands offsites a year (much cheaper). Lots of others must be thinking similarly- CRE could be permanently altered.— Sheel Mohnot (@pitdesi) April 10, 2020
One of the most passionately advocated solutions to two of our most pressing problems (global warming and the housing shortage) has been ever increasing urban density unleashed by market forces. It is one of those positions that cuts across ideological lines and is so ensconced in the conventional wisdom that even an unsubstantiated (and, as it turns out, false) rumor of opposition is enough to have one labeled a traitor to the environment.
But what if the central assumption -- that people need to physically travel to their place of work on a daily basis -- is wrong? What if more and more jobs can be done from anywhere? What if Arthur C. Clarke was right? (Just off by a couple of decades.)
Wednesday, March 18, 2020
Will Covid-19 finally bring knowledge work practices into the Twenty-first Century?
I don't have numbers but I'm reasonably certain this is the largest number of Americans working from home since the advent of the internet and the smart phone.
There's no good technological reason why most knowledge workers need to live within a hundred or even a thousand miles of where they work. The obstacles are cultural but they are still formidable. Despite a tight job market and a growing housing crisis centered around a handful of overcrowded and overpriced cities, employers have been slow to consider alternative models.
Now new models are being forced upon everybody. New things will be tried. Adaptations will be made. Bugs will be worked out. Attitudes will shift.
Fifty years from now, this might be what Covid-19 is remembered for.
Friday, November 10, 2017
Why do we still have cities?
Following up on "remembering the future."
Smart people, like statisticians' models, are often most interesting when they are wrong. There is no better example of this than Arthur C Clarke's 1964 predictions about the demise of the urban age, where he suggested that what we would now call telecommuting would end the need for people to congregate around centers of employment and would therefore mean the end of cities.
What about the city of the day after tomorrow? Say, the year 2000. I think it will be completely different. In fact, it may not even exist at all. Oh, I'm not thinking about the atom bomb and the next Stone Age; I'm thinking about the incredible breakthrough which has been made possible by developments in communications, particularly the transistor and above all the communications satellite. These things will make possible a world where we can be in instant contact with each other wherever we may be, where we can contact our friends anywhere on earth even if we don't know their actual physical location. It will be possible in that age, perhaps only 50 years from now, for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London. In fact, if it proved worthwhile, almost any executive skill, any administrative skill, even any physical skill could be made independent of distance. I am perfectly serious when I suggest that someday we may have rain surgeons in Edinburgh operating on patients in New Zealand. When that time comes, the whole world will have shrunk to a point and the traditional role of a city as the meeting place for man will have ceased to make any sense. In fact, men will no longer commute; they will communicate. They won't have to travel for business anymore; they'll only travel for pleasure. I only hope that, when that day comes and the city is abolished, the whole world isn't turned into one giant suburb.
Clarke was working with a 20 to 50 year timeframe, so it's fair to say that he got this one wrong. The question is why. Both as a fiction writer and a serious futurist, the man was remarkably and famously prescient about telecommunications and its impact on society. Even here, he got many of the details right while still being dead wrong on the conclusion.
What went wrong? Part of this unquestionably has to do with the nature of modern work. Clarke probably envisioned a more automated workplace in the 21st century, one where stocking shelves and cleaning floors and, yes, driving vehicles would be done entirely by machines. He likely also underestimated the intrinsic appeal of cities.
But I think a third factor may well have been bigger than either of those two. The early 60s was an anxious but optimistic time. The sense was that if we didn't destroy ourselves, we were on the verge of great things. The 60s was also the last time that there was anything approaching a balance of power between workers and employers.
This was particularly true with mental work. At least in part because of the space race, companies like Texas Instruments were eager to find smart capable people. As a result, employers were extremely flexible about qualifications (a humanities PhD could actually get you a job) and they were willing to make concessions to attract and keep talented workers.
Telecommuting (as compared to off shoring, a distinction will need to get into in a later post) offers almost all of its advantages to the worker. The only benefit to the employer is the ability to land an otherwise unavailable prospect. From the perspective of 1964, that would have seemed like a good trade, but those days are long past.
For the past 40 or so years, employers have worked under (and now completely internalized) the assumption that they could pick and choose. When most companies post jobs, they are looking for someone who either has the exact academic background required, or preferably, someone who is currently doing almost the same job for a completely satisfied employer and yet is willing to leave for roughly the same pay.
When you hear complaints about "not being able to find qualified workers," it is essential to keep in mind this modern standard for "qualified." 50 or 60 years ago it meant someone who was capable of doing the work with a bit of training. Now it means someone who can walk in the door, sit down at the desk, and immediately start working. (Not to say that new employees will actually be doing productive work from day one. They'll be sitting in their cubicles trying to look busy for the first two or three weeks while IT and HR get things set up, but that's another story.)
Arthur C Clarke was writing in an optimistic age where workers were on an almost equal footing with management. If the year 2000 had looked like the year 1964, he just might have gotten this one right.
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