Do you want to continue working from home? Is it past time to return to the office? How much collaboration can you do remotely? How much screen time are you wasting in the office?
This has become a contentious debate between senior management at large companies and their staffers; it is an issue for younger employees.
As is so often the case, there are much broader factors driving this issue than what appears on the surface. Much of this has been in the making for decades. Indeed, the entire post-war era, including the rise of suburbia, car culture, the rise of superstar cities, and the end of walkable towns has led up to this moment.
One of the big reveals of the pandemic was just how much time we collectively waste commuting from ever longer distances. The shorter the commute, the more expensive the housing, and vice-versa. Not many companies cared much about this before. Now, its become a problem for corporate America, and so it is slowly moving up the priority list.
Is it a paradigm shift or merely a reminder of older problems?
In the before, people figured out ways to “optimize” their commute: Listening to books on tape when they drive, logging into their office via a laptop on the train, doing paperwork, podcast, conference-call replays — whatever could be done to make use of the hour or more each way so many workers endure to earn their daily bread. It’s far from ideal, but how else to make use of otherwise wasted time?
At least until all those hours were reclaimed when we were forced to work from home. Commuters realized (remembered?) that even the best adaption strategies were still a workaround, second best to a more civilized use of precious time. Too many commutes were a dispiriting time sucks, reducing the quality of life, and damaging satisfaction and happiness. It was a colossal pain in the arse.
In some ways, Europe has managed through the post-pandemic era better than the United States. Credit shorter commuting distances, better mass transit, and more walkable cities and villages than we enjoy in the states.
Amazingly, post-war factors still have a lingering impact on how and where we live, work, and play. If you want to fall down the rabbit hole of how things have evolved here and elsewhere – “what might have been” – check out the YouTube channel “Not Just Bikes.” Canadian Jason Slaughter lives in Amsterdam and focuses on urban planning, suburbia, and city design (more on Jason here). He created the channel Not Just Bikes on YouTube and produces all of the videos there.
Which brings us back to our topic “Return to the Office.” There are many good reasons to want to see people working collaboratively together in the office. It’s hard to train and harder to mentor new, young employees. But there are many reasons that make this so problematic.
My sneaking suspicion why RTO has been so difficult is that the traditional urban/suburban business district/bedroom community in the USA is broken. Too many special interests have put their fingers into how we live and get to work, how are communities are designed and our mass transit is built. The result is deeply compromised, with severe negative ramifications for society.
Removing commuting from one’s daily schedule seemed so intuitively right. It’s why the reluctance to go back to the 9 to 5 grind has grown so large. Millennials who had yet to embrace this absurd lifestyle recoiled; those of us who have grown used to it had the scales fall from our eyes.
Want to get people back to the office?
It won’t be easy; it’s going to require a wholesale change to the infrastructure of your region, from where people live and work, to how walking and bike-friendly those areas are, to how we can deemphasize the car culture with which I grew up in and have come to love so much.
Things are changing; The key question is how quickly these changes will take place.
Can We Untie Real Estate and Employment? (March 21, 2022)
How Everybody Miscalculated Housing Demand (July 29, 2021)
What Makes a Community Attractive? (December 20, 2021)
Back in the Saddle (May 4, 2021)
Jonathan Miller Explains Post Pandemic Real Estate (May 1, 2021)
1. Other videos worth checking out include: There’s Something Wrong With Suburbia, Why Many Cities Suck (but Dutch Cities Don’t), Great Places Erased by Suburbia, Suburbs that don’t Suck, The Best Country in the World for Drivers, Stroads are Ugly, Expensive, and Dangerous. It’s quite the rabbit hole to go down, but it’s measured, well thought out, and high quality.