Is Remote Work Viable?

No, not in the long run.

This has big implications for cities in the future, because it means firms will want to cluster more near production amenities – that is, other high-productivity firms. A city like New York manifestly has very weak consumption amenities, because in the spring it proved that its government is dangerously incompetent in a crisis – but its production amenities are likely to grow, because more firms will want to locate there and in other big, rich cities.

Remote work and the tech industry

The tech industry has long been familiar with remote work. The big multinationals have offices worldwide and some teams are remote, and some small firms are even all-remote. Much of this is an adaptation to the industry’s inability to bring everyone to San Francisco and Silicon Valley, where housing is too expensive and work visas are scarce. This has led to a big internal debate about the future of work; for decades now there have been predictions that the Internet would facilitate remote work and therefore reduce the need for cities to exist as office work centers.

The industry also reacted to corona slightly faster than the rest of the Western world. I’m not sure why – usually the American tech industry sneers at anything that comes out of Asia. But for whatever reason, Google sent its workers home in early March, and has been on work-from-home since, as have the other tech employers.

However, this was always intended to be a temporary arrangement. Workers were told to go back to the office when the crisis ended, at a date that keeps being pushed back and is now September 2021. Moreover, it appears that the industry wants to consolidate rather than disperse: Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple are all buying up office space in Manhattan, planning to add 22,000 jobs there. This is not San Francisco, but it’s the closest thing: New York is the United States’ second richest metropolitan region, and (I believe) the second biggest tech job center, with New York hosting the largest non-Bay Area Google office.

The problems with remote work

I have asked a number of people to talk to me about their experience with working from home. All are American professionals; this is far and away the easiest socioeconomic class to do an ethnography of. At no point did anyone ever tell me that everyone in their office is as productive working from home as they had been working as a team at the office. The work from home productivity loss is real; it does not affect everyone, but it affects enough people to be noticeable.

Specific problems I was told include,

  • Corona specifically is a very stressful event, so everyone is on edge and less productive than the usual.
  • Without continuous office work, it’s harder to onboard junior workers, even when senior workers are fine at home. Junior workers also lose the benefits of close mentoring.
  • Parents with children have to take on additional care duties, and without a stay-at-home parent this is difficult.
  • I believe in one case I was told the opposite of the above – that given that children are at home, it’s easier for parents than for non-parents.
  • At least per the CEO of United, who is obviously biased on this, firms perceive in-person sales to be more successful than virtual ones. In general, I’ve been told that work facing clients is less productive when it’s virtual and law firms can work remotely in the short run with their existing client base but in the long run they need the office.

The standard production theory, articulated for example by Alain Bertaud, is that working from home is less productive because there are no spontaneous interactions, and this seems true although I don’t recall anyone telling me this exact thing literally, but very similar problems are apparent.

What does this mean for cities?

Before corona, it was not always clear whether advances in telecommunications would make remote work viable. It increasingly looks like the answer is no, and therefore the most productive firms are likely to center around their usual clusters, just as the tech firms are buying up Manhattan office space. The upshot, then, is that high-cost, high-productivity city centers are likely to see more commercial demand in the medium and long runs.

One model that I’ve heard from multiple sources is mixed, for example 2-4 days a week at the office, 1-3 days remote. If this happens, then it will mean that people commute fewer days. This has opposite effects on office and residential geography: fewer commutes mean it’s more acceptable to live farther out and have longer work trips on work-at-office days, which encourages either suburbanization or hopping over to the next city over; for the exact same reason, it’s also more acceptable to site offices in areas with more traffic congestion, that is city center.

What does this mean for public transportation?

More urban job concentration universally requires better public transportation, since rapid transit is far and away the most efficient mode of transportation measured in capacity provided per unit of right-of-way width. However, the details are subtle. Most importantly, the American upper middle class mostly does not work 9 to 5 at the most productive firms. The tech industry tends toward shifted hours, especially on the East Coast in order to overlap Silicon Valley better, and even for the same reason in Israel. So the impact of more tech employment in Midtown is not that New York desperately needs more subway capacity, but rather that it needs to broaden the peak to last until 10 in the morning rather than 9. This conclusion does not depend much on whether workers show up at the office every day or only 3-4 days a week, because 60-80% of rush hour traffic still requires peak or near-peak train throughput.

There were many Americans who, back when corona seemed to be first and foremost a New York problem, predicted the end of cities, or the conversion of cities to spaces of consumption. Joel Kotkin even blamed New York’s density for corona and praised Los Angeles’s sprawl; now that Los Angeles is running out of hospital beds, nobody in the US blames density anymore. (One could also point out Seoul and Tokyo’s density, but not even 460,000 deaths and counting will make Americans say “our country needs to be more like other countries.”)

But this is not looking to happen. The most productive firms in the US are urbanizing – and those are the most productive firms in the world; it averages out with horrific American public-sector inefficiency to about the same GDP per hour as in Germany. And this means that going forward, the richest, most productive, and most expensive cities will remain spaces of high-end production, and will need to build sufficient numbers of office towers and residences and improve public transportation infrastructure to accommodate.

102 comments

  1. Yinan

    Density might be one of the variables, but more importantly, the governments should be blamed of their late response and prejudice (if you have a look at Macao, Hong Kong and Taiwan), even in New York City, which has been much better than LA recently. BTW, as a new employee in my new research team, I have a strong feeling of the lack of mentoring when working onsite becomes dreamy. Much more time has been wasted via Zoom talk and emails, leading a situation where I feel even more afraid of asking questions.

    • Joseph

      This is also my experience. As a new employee I feel cut lose. I also miss socializing with coworkers, overhearing good ideas, looking at products in person, etc. It’s nice that I save time from commuting but my productivity and sense of teamwork have taken real hits.

  2. shakeddown

    “usually the American tech industry sneers at anything that comes out of Asia” – What’s this based on? This is the exact opposite of my experience, especially since something like 40% of tech workers *are* either Asian immigrants or Asian-American.
    Is this based on Elon Musk being weird about transit? Because Elon Musk is definitely not representative.

    • Bobson Dugnutt

      Elon Musk though has cultural power, and he may be able to kill Silicon Valley dead by encouraging others to leave California for Texas as he is doing. There might be more corporate relocations out of California after his announcement.

  3. Erick

    Not being in the US perhaps it’s different. But even before the pandemic, working at the office was also working remotely. My employer is national in scope and public sector. Hence meetings meant teleconference even with colleagues within the same city because they were in different buildings.

    Most units or teams are too small to actually allow me to work with my people in my unit. My actual colleagues were all across the country even though they belonged to a different part of the organization.

    What I am hearing from friends working in the private sector (white collar jobs) is pretty much the same. So it’s not employer specific but really the type of employment you have.

    I also keep hearing that we might go back to the office 1-3 days a week. However it’s also clear that there won’t be enough spaces for the whole unit to be there. So what’s the point? I’ll be at the office but my colleagues in my unit whom I am meant to interact with will be at home. Or in a different building.

    Worse, I won’t have an office per say, so I might go to an office where I have a meeting that day. Maybe my unit base or a different building. The idea is to save time commuting.

    I hear the same story from my friends in the private sector in different industries.

    Most organizations were bad at transmitting corporate knowledge and training junior staff. Working remotely doesn’t change this nor makes it worse.

    If anything with fewer distractions our productivity has shot up, way up.

    With better tech I can now see what my colleagues look like with better audio.

    While I use my example, like I wrote before this is also the story of most of my friends.

    The office, with bad air quality, bad lighting, bad ergonomics, constant noise, has long been a significant distraction. Working remotely addresses that and then some.

    And ironically for my organization which while civilian is quite hierarchical, we have been in closer contact with middle and senior management and that too has improved the quality of work.

    The media keeps repeating that workers want to go back to the office but polls below that. Politicians and business people really want office workers to go back to offices in the CBD and suburban office parks. And that is not coming back.

    From previous experience, those who were working remotely but still came to the office once or twice a week tended to work intensively while at the office (no socializing and no mentoring) and could relax at home.

    The implications are significant for CBD and transit. But working remotely has been a huge improvement for too many organizations that there’s no coming back.

    Of course education, sales and a few other type of work works better on person, but most other work better from home.

    • Diego

      For me the work environment at the office is much better. I have access to extra screens, the scanner/printer, better internet and yes, better ergonomics*.

      In my experience, work that could be done with local colleagues went much faster than whatever needs to be done remotely. I’ve had particularly bad experiences with remote managers, giving slooow feedback and you have no way to accelerate it. It can work, if you have a good relationship and impromptu skype chats are the norm. But when it doesn’t, it really doesn’t.

      *Normally I spend a lot more time sitting in a chair at work than at home, so the investment makes more sense at the office. Plus a large employer should know a lot more about buying comfy chairs than me.

      • Erick

        I think you have a good employer then. Meanwhile studies after studies demonstrated that most employers are ignorant of good ergonomics and usually is not a factor when purchasing office furniture.

        If most of the colleagues you actually work with are in your unit then perhaps being at the office might work. But it still doesn’t account for the bad lighting bad air quality and constant noise.

    • plaws0

      > And ironically for my organization which while civilian is quite hierarchical, we have been in closer contact with > middle and senior management and that too has improved the quality of work.

      OMG, yes. My public sector employer is spread out over one large campus and two smaller satellites, one ~150 km away, but now I actually interact with all the members of the team I’m assigned to and a good fraction of people in other groups that I’d only known as names in email (aside: email is nearly 100% spam now instead of the previous 95%, not because there is more spam, but because everything real is transacted via zoom-n-slack).

      Here in flyover territory, public transit is not a serious factor in anything. I would take the train or bus in a heartbeat but that’s not an option here given where I chose to buy a house (even if it does have FTTH) and even if I lived in the more urban part of the area … it’s still not really a choice. I DO want to keep WFH forever if allowed. I’d even settle for 2-3 days/week of WFH because it cuts my stress level (see above, re: list of bads in an office) and cuts my vehicle-related costs.

      I am in IT, though, and I have that privilege. Most of the work isn’t really team oriented, so productivity has not changed much modulo ongoing stress from the deadly global pandemic.

      Seems to me the best response from transit might be to take some of that extra capacity put on at peaks and spread it out over the rest of the day … That would probably cut their overall unit cost since the peaks are expensive.

      • Bobson Dugnutt

        @plaws0, this is what Jarrett Walker (humantransit.org) is pressing for. He’s redesigned transit systems and has proved that improving baseline service is less costly and more productive than peak-oriented systems. Other transit systems that haven’t hired his consultancy have taken his theories and found the same increases in ridership.

  4. Bobson Dugnutt

    The peril of remote work is that the richest, best-capitalized firms will become richer and transplant headquarters to low-cost or red-state areas. Tech workers will now be experiencing transplant stress that manufacturing workers experienced 1-2 generations ago. Texas specifically becoming a beneficiary of this outmigration from Silicon Valley (Elon Musk intends to HQ all his business interests in Texas, along with Oracle and HP to name a few) carries a political message. The tech firms leaving California shows a palpable wokelash.

    • Alon Levy

      Oracle and HP are at this point second-tier firms; people speak of FAANG and FAAMG, not of any abbreviation with HP and Oracle.

      • Onux

        McKesson left San Francisco too, and they are #8 on the Fortune 500. Apple has more employees in Austin than anywhere except Cupertino, and is expanding its campus to make it the largest employer in the city (15k). Google leased an entire 35 story building under construction in Austin last year. Zuckerberg has said if he were starting Facebook today he wouldn’t do it in Silicon Valley. Tesla is up and coming. If enough tech jobs move to Texas (or NY, per your article) it will create a critical mass of talent that makes it better for other companies to relocate/expand there, or for startups to begin. That is a problem for Silicon Valley/California.

      • Bobson Dugnutt

        But tech companies are leaving, and in the Bay Area they are responsible for creating the housing cost problem. Tech is overall a small percentage of the Bay Area’s workforce but the industry distorts the housing prices and rents that all 8+ million Bay Area residents must overpay for. (And yes, state and local governments share the blame for not getting housing built in quantities and qualities needed for the economy. Silicon Valley also hatched Airbnb, which facilitates real estate speculation under the guise of “sharing.”)

        Something to also watch for: the housing market is red-hot despite the crappy economy. We’re seeing the Bush Bubble and the Great Recession occurring simultaneously. If companies make good on the threat to make remote work permanent, and if many workers are going to tie themselves into a mortgage, then urbanism will fall out of favor as it did in the mid-20th century.

        The 2020 census figures might be sobering. I’ve also noticed the news narrative settling on “Are cities dead?” takes. There’s no standout article; all are pretty much worthless clickbait designed to juice Google’s and Facebook’s algorithms. The timing is, shall we say, interesting. The media began giving that question oxygen well past March after the declaration of the pandemic in March — it was seen as a New York or San Francisco thing at that point. There is a daily bombardment of the question asked and re-asked after the George Floyd killing and the proliferation of Black Lives Matter movements.

        Makes you wonder.

        • Eric2

          “Tech is overall a small percentage of the Bay Area’s workforce but the industry distorts the housing prices and rents that all 8+ million Bay Area residents must overpay for”

          I don’t think this makes sense. If tech is not many people, that means they don’t use many housing units, so they add little to demand and do not affect housing prices very much.

          • Bobson Dugnutt

            You’ve seen those articles about how techies can put down payments on homes with stock options? Yes, there are very few people that actually do that, but technology as a sector is overinvested and any job within a tech company can offer better compensation than a non-tech job. This isn’t just for coding jobs, either. A FAANG accountant, in-house counsel or HR professional will probably have better wages, benefits and a more fun work environment than a non-tech worker in those fields.

            In most Bay Area cities, the largest employers are not tech but government. The state, the counties, the cities, the school districts, the transit systems, the community colleges and the public universities. Governments cannot match the compensation offered by tech companies, and for comparable professional jobs they are losing talent due to the “pension jail” vesting requirement.

            Because tech has similar jobs to non-tech jobs but offers better pay and compensation, property owners and landlords can hold out for this small pool of talent and price real estate accordingly. Workers in tech set the price for housing, making housing costs miserable for most everyone else.

          • Eric2

            If there are only ~300k tech workers in the Bay Area, then at most 300k home owners can hold out for a tech buyer/renter. The millions of other home owners would be wasting their time to do so, and they know it.

          • Bobson Dugnutt

            @Eric2, you believe that the Bay Area housing market is limited to just homeowners and prospective techie homebuyers?

      • michaelrjames

        “Companies are leaving CA due to housing costs”

        Almost the only half-rational reason to relocate to Texas, IMO. And probably only half true because the best areas of big cities are always premium priced. An invasion of techies from the Bay Area is only going to make that worse. Some management might relocate with Musk but the bulk of his workforce will be recruited in Texas where he will be able to pay them even less and with fewer nuisance regulations (his next logical step, at least for manufacturing, is across that southern border just like his biggest Tesla plant is actually in China).

        Some of the commenters here appear to have bought into the whole remote work nonsense. Re children, ask any parent if they want to be within the same four walls 24/7 with their children, or even (or especially) spouse … Even without that factor, cabin fever sets in, and in fact has set in during the months of covid-confinement. There are reasons why writers or artists often have a ‘working’ space distinct from home, sometimes renting office space or loft or having a cabin on their own property, or an attic room etc where they can lock themselves away. Or like Hemingway, an agreeable cafe/brasserie, but he was careful to choose as one of his favourites–Les Closeries des Lilas at the far eastern end of Blvd Montparnasse almost one km away from the group of other intello cafes (La Coupole, Le Select, Le Dome) so he could get his work done in the mornings without interruption by anyone he knew.

        Re the concept of 3 days at work and the rest at home etc, that effectively is what some people did in the research lab I worked in briefly in Tokyo. That was a strategy to cope with Tokyo’s horrendous commutes but it was an extreme version with a handful of people sleeping (and working) 3 nights in the lab (allowing 4 work days). It wasn’t sustainable beyond the year or two (if that). As a workaholic much of my career I know the value of that separation of workplace from home, and even Microserfs get to regenerate from even a brief respite at home. Not having it will drive many crazy.
        I am not convinced much of this will come to pass but it might be one more inching towards a shorter working week which has gained traction since the GFC.

        • Erick

          If I ou for socialization development purposes, the children are going to daycare and eventually school. I keep hearing this comment about children. But this applies during the pandemic only because daycares are often closed. As for cabin fever a walk in the neighbourhood will resolve many things. As if no one needed to escape the cubicle farm

        • Alon Levy

          Musk also wanted to open a Gigafactory just outside Berlin, but an AfD-affiliated organization in Bavaria launched a nuisance lawsuit, its real source of opposition being that the workforce would include Polish immigrants. It’s been in litigation for maybe a year now. This isn’t about serfdom, it’s about consequence-free lawfare.

          • Alon Levy

            What? No. His father is probably a big fan, but Elon doesn’t even speak to his father. Elon’s politics is… probably FDP? Less for its present-day AfD-lite aspects (except the corona denialism, which Elon is a big fan of) and more for its we-used-to-be-liberal-but-we’re-captured-by-industries-that-pay-us aspects.

          • Bobson Dugnutt

            I also think for Musk and many other techbros, it’s also ideological.

            Scott Alexander, the guy behind the Slate Star Codex blog, coined a term for the ideology of Elon Musk, Peter Thiel (who are the idealized avatars of this community) and their ilk: the grey tribe. It’s like a more fully formed libertarianism, but also includes in its stew New Atheism, futurism, transhumanism, Ben Shapiroist “facts don’t care about your feelings” conservatism, and less intelligent and socially adjusted fellow travelers on the alt-right.

            Elon Musk strikes me as a really wealthy, really charming 4channer. He has some self-awareness that he’s a demigod in the grey tribe, and knows he’s a fully sentient meme. A lot of his public behavior plays to this crowd. I don’t think decamping to Texas reflects a canny, calculated business decision.

            He’s aware that his California workforce in Tesla and SpaceX is generally liberal or more left and is supportive of MeToo, Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements. This is anathema to the grey tribe, and Musk is afraid of losing his standing. He’s in the position to do something about it, and he has Beyonce-like cultural power very few executives have.

            I think a large part of businesses leaving California is a values conflict between the workers and the executive and owner class.

          • Eric2

            The grey tribe actually has a very strong presence in tech (just read Slashdot comments sometime) and I think this includes the Silicon Valley tech scene, though probably not quite as much as elsewhere.

  5. SB

    Most companies don’t try to maximize productivity but maximize profit.
    Even decrease in productivity could offset by not spending time commuting (either by cars or transit)

  6. Matthew Hutton

    The big issue I’ve seen with remote only work is that when there’s a deadline things become much more difficult than they’d be in the office. There’s a big communication overhead as well, it’s not the same.

    I’d say a model with some time in the office carefully coordinated with the whole team and some time at home is probably the future – with as Alon says a focus on London.

  7. adirondacker12800

    The big multinationals have offices worldwide
    Try to arrange a teleconference or even just a telephone call with someone in Australia sometime. Or Hong Kong.

    • michaelrjames

      If it’s American they simply ignore the time differences and expect the others to comply to whatever head office wants. Funny, I’ve just realised that is very similar to the way the CPC imposes a single official time zone across its 5 time zones, at least for its civil servants who must be able to operate on Beijing time even if they are 3,500km west of Beijing. I suppose it makes train timetables simpler!

      • yuuka

        Pre-2018 Russian Railways also operated exclusively on Moscow time. Must have been fun with Vladivostok being 9 hours ahead.

        • michaelrjames

          @yuuka: “Pre-2018 Russian Railways also operated exclusively on Moscow time. Must have been fun with Vladivostok being 9 hours ahead.”

          Perhaps that was “official” but the Trans-Siberian train didn’t operate like that when I took it (west to east) in 2000. On board they changed clocks as they passed thru time-zones. It tended to catch passengers out because there was little to tell you when, and the restaurant staff used to take malicious delight in telling you that the kitchen service had already finished because today the time zone had changed! (I tended to eat late to avoid the crowds, and then stay on in the resto car to read because it was empty by then.)

          • michaelrjames

            That’s curious. At first I wondered if it was something Putin brought in but the answer may be more prosaic.
            First, I made an inadvertently misleading statement when I said “they changed clocks as they passed thru time-zones”. Because the reason one got messed up on times was that there were no clocks. I can’t remember if there were clocks at the stations. So what I meant was that the staff operated on their virtual clock which they ‘changed’ somewhat randomly as we progressed thru the time zones. Here is what travel writer Ben Groundwater wrote:

            Your body clock’s all out of whack. You’re passing through unmarked time zones at random intervals. There’s no one around who speaks English to tell you whether it’s time to eat, sleep, get off at a station or just start drinking again.

            So, I suspect it is like what I suggested. Officially it is Moscow time but locally people operate on non-official neo-realtime, though because it is not official they choose the times! Especially on a moving train.

            I still have my old guides so I’ll have a browse later.
            Later: if I had, or have, a Trans-Siberian guidebook I can’t find it. It was not with my few books on Siberia but they are books not guides eg by Thubron and Newby, so too laborious to search. FWIW, I did find this from Eric Newby:

            In the course of this immense journey the train crosses nearly a hundred degrees of longitude in Europe and Asia and traverses seven time zones. By the time it reaches the Pacific it is seven hours ahead of Moscow time: but it has observed Moscow time throughout, as have the clocks on all the stations along the route. The journey for a Soviet citizen takes seven twenty-four-hour days, or to be more precise 170 hours and 5 minutes, if it is on time, to cover the 5810 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok, on the Sea of Japan, where it arrives soon after noon on the eighth day.

            That was in 1977 (published 1978) when he took the train.
            Here is seat61:

            All times shown below are local time… Russian trains used to run to Moscow time whilst in Russia, even if local time was 7 hours ahead of Moscow. However, but RZD Russian Railways ended this century-old practice from August 2018 and now use local time in all their timetables and booking systems.

            He doesn’t mention the thing about the restaurant, possibly because his journey was when this new practice (local time) was adopted.

            FYI, my intention is to take the east-to-west train for my next European trip.

      • adirondacker12800

        My head office wanted the Australians to be available when our Australian customers were awake. They worked 9 to 5-ish local time. They worked 9 to 5-ish, local time, in the rest of the world too.

        • michaelrjames

          Then like yourself, that company was enlightened! But I’ve had Americans (Californians even further behind timewise) call at early am (at home, because yes one gave them the number) because, well, they didn’t give it a thought … (talking Europe not Oz).

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, this is a well-known problem in Israeli tech, to the point that a few years ago I saw a firm advertise itself to workers as family-friendly, saying explicitly “we start work at 9 so you can get back home to your families at a reasonable hour, not at noon so that you have to stay until 8 to conference call with Californians.”

  8. Nicolas Centa

    What if the cost of urban concentration was considered to high compared to the loss of productivity caused by working remote?

    What if spontaneous interactions were possible via Slack or Teams?

    What about the example of Linux (and others in the free and open source software world) where people only meet at a couple of events every year and still develop very successful software?

    They have been at it for such a long time over newsgroups, mailing lists and IRC channels, with people from the industries telling them their projects were doomed, until suddenly everyone got it running on their smartphones.

    For me the way of working at the office for the FAAN(M)Gs is just a remnant of the past, the only question is how long it will last.

    The only reasons you mention that are not directly COVID-related are:
    – childcare: it could and should be solved by public action
    – onboarding of juniors: it is much more a problem of education, with people expecting to be told and to tell instead of getting used to read and write good comprehensive documentations (as in successful free and open source projects)
    – sales efficiency: like there were travel agents before Expedia, it’s not going to be for ever.

    • Erick

      I agree. Before COVID my organization had already started to hire staff with the expectation they would work from home because they were outside the city where HQ is. I already had colleagues in my unit 4000 km away. This trend was accelerating before COVID. Now that management had experienced working remotely there’s no going back. And I don’t even work in tech.

    • Eric2

      Actually, a significant fraction of Linux code is contributed by corporations, presumably by workers in offices. As for the coders who are scattered across the internet, I imagine they are contributing because they WANT to contribute, they have identified a specific problem which interests them and are motivated to solve it. This is different from corporate workers who need direction from other workers in terms of motivation, skills, and which problem to solve.

      • yuuka

        That doesn’t explain why Linus Torvalds has a reputation of ranting in mailing lists.

        The Linux Foundation doesn’t give him, or his right-hand men, any offices for them to work together in, do they?

          • michaelrjames

            I suppose yuuka is saying that if Linus had an office he would have worked out his (frustration/anger?) issues with colleagues face-to-face. OTOH, many people do wildly unacceptable things in electronic communications (incl. Twitter etc) that they would never do face-to-face. But we do tend to work such issues out more amicably face-to-face, though I’ll admit the last few decades has seen dominance of managerialism that brooks no dissent or deviation from their narrowly defined path.

  9. bruce hain

    I think the difference in fatalities is because NORMAL countries are using Hydroxychloroquine – but it’s practically illegal here because of the anti-Trump thing – I shit you not. None of the dally exposed hospital workers are getting sick, and they’re refusing to take any vaccinations in large numbers – but when people come into the emergency room they just send them back home so they can get sicker first. Then take heroic measures. Because that’s what the CDC et al says to do! I’m trying to get some Ivermectin. It hasn’t been outlawed yet as it’s not directly associated with Trump. If you wanna look at my most resent over-optimistic rail pipedream concerning MassDOT’s East-West Passenger Study it’s available here: rail-nyc-access.com/boston-and-albany-railraod

    • Rico

      I don’t want to get things off the rails…but really? A little google is a dangerous thing. You should follow up your research with a few deeper questions. What do the actual studies show and in which countries is it actually used in significant amounts and how do they compare to countries that don’t use it in significant amounts. Unfortunately after all that the most likely cause of the US covid-19 deaths is basically the non-response at several levels.

    • Alon Levy

      Nobody here uses hydroxychloroquine. A bunch of French conspiracists use that and the same conspiracists also seeded France’s second wave. If you want to know how countries actually suppress corona, I’ll be happy to talk to you about the strategies employed by Thailand and Singapore, where my family lives. For example, Thailand just announced an indefinite lockdown, when the daily number of infections hit 250 after months of no domestic infections (there was an outbreak that came via Myanmar), and this is on top of mandatory hotel quarantines for all people who test positive; France and Germany kept saying there wouldn’t be a second lockdown with 5-figure daily numbers, and there is no centralized quarantine in non-Australia/New Zealand Western countries.

      • michaelrjames

        In fact I believe the slightly nutty French doctor (Didier Raoult) who started the hydroxychloroquine thing, is being prosecuted in France for giving misleading information re a pandemic. Of course this action and all the scientific studies showing no positive effect of hydroxychloroquine (examples or links below) are just markers of the deep state, n’cest pas Bruce?

        [04 June 2020]
        No evidence for hydroxychloroquine protection
        A large clinical trial has found no evidence that hydroxychloroquine protects people from COVID-19. The gold-standard trial randomly assigned 821 people to take either hydroxychloroquine or a placebo within 4 days of exposure to SARS-CoV-2. There was no statistically significant difference between the two groups in the number of people who developed COVID-19 within two weeks, but those taking the drug did report more side effects than did those taking the placebo. People were not tested unless they showed symptoms, so the study doesn’t take asymptomatic cases into account. NPR | 4 min read
        Reference: New England Journal of Medicine paper

        Hydroxychloroquine does not cure Covid-19, say drug trial chiefs
        Major study of thousands of patients led by University of Oxford shows drug is ineffective
        Sarah Boseley, 6 Jun 2020

        https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/29/covid-19-surgisphere-hydroxychloroquine-study-lancet-coronavirus-who-questioned-by-researchers-medical-professionals
        Covid-19 study on hydroxychloroquine use questioned by 120 researchers and medical professionals Surgisphere issues public statement defending integrity of coronavirus study published in the Lancet Melissa Davey, 29 May 2020

        https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/25/who-world-health-organization-hydroxychloroquine-trial-trump-coronavirus-safety-fears
        WHO halts hydroxychloroquine trial for coronavirus amid safety fears
        Malaria drug taken by Trump could raise risk of death and heart problems, study shows
        Staff and agencies, 26 May 2020

  10. CJ

    Seattle is the second biggest tech center in the US, at least if we’re talking tech jobs at tech companies. New York is probably up there if you look at all companies just because of size. Obviously Amazon and Microsoft are the biggies, and the second largest offices for Google, FB, Apple and most of the smaller Silicon Valley companies (Salesforce, Adobe, etc) are in Seattle.

    The Google office in New York is the second largest single agglomeration of Google employees, but pales in comparison to Seattle’s total if you combine the four different campuses in the Puget Sound.

  11. Seth H

    Historically Cities empty out during plagues, and come back larger afterwards. Same for Rome, London and will be the same for NYC. What’s difficult now for NYC is separating the damage the plague has done, with the damage De Blasio and the current rent stabilization laws.

  12. Matthew A da Silva

    I largely agree with you, but this is missing a key component of firm location theory that has been demonstrated in real life. Elite preferences in the C-suite have an outsize impact on firm location, to the extent that firms often make decisions that make zero sense for productivity/retention of the rank and file employee but cater to the CEO’s lifestyle. It’s stuff like this that led to Merck moving to Hunterdon County near horse farms, brought Morgan Stanley to Purchase to be near Scarsdale and Greenwich, and has put much of Austin’s tech scene in the Northwest Hills instead of downtown. It even led to the Jersey-based leadership at Goldman to try to hop the Hudson, until traders revolted. This upper class elite has emptied out of cities, much like they did in the 1960s-1980s. Firms will follow just like they did then, because the firm location decisionmakers are irrational actors. If the boss and his senior advisors all live in the Hamptons full-time now because they ditched their Upper East Side penthouses, they start thinking “why don’t we move HQ to Riverhead?”, not giving a shit that their workers that live anywhere besides Long Island would be screwed over.

    • Alon Levy

      No, but in mid-March it was already clear that Asia was in control of this and yet there was zero interest in learning. Sarah Feinberg for example came up with the nighttime closure idea in total ignorance of how cleaning is done in Taipei.

      • plaws0

        Now, stop. The end of “service at all times” was all about the homeless and had nothing to do with cleaning the cars …

        • Alon Levy

          Nobody in democratic Asia would think to use the corona closures as an excuse to implement other policies, is the difference. In Europe the one example I can think of for this is France using state power against Muslims in the month after the Samuel Paty murder, and even that was not really about corona, but more perhaps the French state feeling wounded for not having broken the (white) denialists in previous months before France turned into Europe’s corona capital.

      • adirondacker12800

        Cleaning is security theater. Sterilize the train, the first passenger you allow on spews all sorts of stuff all over it again.
        It’s not springtime anymore. California which was doing so fabulously back then compared to awful terrible New York is running out of hospital. Partly because they can’t supply enough oxygen. Statewide New York has 31 percent of it’s ICU beds available.
        https://forward.ny.gov/early-warning-monitoring-dashboard.

        Go ahead, harp on how terrible it was weeks into it. When no one was sure what was going on. I’m still not sure if it’s that people west of the Hudson don’t exist at all or that you don’t care.

        • Alon Levy

          The top two US states in confirmed deaths per capita remain New Jersey and New York. Obviously this was a pan-US failure, and also a pan-Western failure (excess deaths in Europe are lower than in the US but not by that much, it’s around 12.5% vs. 16.5%). But New York’s failure was above and beyond the American failure. This wasn’t about nobody knowing what to do, because Taiwan provided us with a blueprint in January, and the Hong Kong protest movement provided another in February, and South Korea provided a third in early March. They were just ignored, because why should proud Americans or Europeans learn from Asians, and why should proud New Yorkers learn from literally anyone else.

          • adirondacker12800

            But they did learn. Just not fast enough for your omniscient omnipotence. Other places in the U.S. not so much. Are people west of the Hudson invisible or is it that they don’t matter?

          • michaelrjames

            OK, I’d say there is some validity to both your points of view. I’d probably give adirondacker the edge because Alon has a bee in his bonnet about the NY leadership. And as Alon says himself the Europeans are only doing a little better. In particular the failure of France and Germany is disappointing and tempers my judgement of NY who got hit early and hard for the reasons we know. OTOH the UK mess is exactly as expected (and they are worse than France & Germany), and puhleese no one praise the UK because of the Oxford vaccine (approved last night) because that is due to scientists (like me; Sarah Gilbert worked in a lab below mine in my Oxford institute) not the class of politicians and patrician class warriors, or indeed the great unwashed deplorables who voted for Brexit and want to blame everyone (esp. EU) but themselves for their predicament. (Having said that, Sarah Gilbert and probably Adrian Hill will doubtless receive a gong in a near future honours list; they deserve recognition but I’d have much more respect if they declined such honours because it is a big part of the toxic class division in the UK.)

          • Matthew Hutton

            The UK isn’t significantly worse than the rest of Europe. The whole of Europe and America is a shit-show because we haven’t learnt from Asia.

            If you go to Asia these days you have to quanrtine centrally, followed by quarantining at home.

          • Joseph

            No, we haven’t learned. People are still having parties indoors, while in Australia people get fined. There are maskless people on the subway while in Taiwan that will get you arrested (after they offer you a mask, and failing that ask you to leave). There is no clear publicity campaign explaining that indoor gatherings are dangerous, and no effort to limit crowding in stores. If anything New York has unlearned the little it did right over the summer.

          • adirondacker12800

            States that don’t have mask mandates don’t have to worry their pretty little heads about enforcing it.

            Looking at the 7 day averages for positive test results, the worst parts of the state don’t have subway.

            https://forward.ny.gov/percentage-positive-results-region-dashboard

            or here

            https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#cases_casesper100klast7days

            63.5 cases per 100,000 in New York State, that isn’t in New York City and 52.6 in New York City.

            The only region in the state doing better than New York City is the Southern Tier.
            Fining people costs money, cops don’t work for free. Neither do contact tracers. And testing people so the contact tracers know who to track. New York State can’t print money. Neither can any other state. Republicans in Congress don’t want to spend any.

  13. Lee Ratner

    Remote work doesn’t really work well for law firms becuase in many fields of law you are still dealing with physical files, especially in the different fields of real person law, and don’t want clients to know where we live. Having an office to hold files and meet with clients is very important. Some bar associations also don’t allow for home offices, especially for file storage, because they are seen not safe for things clients are entrusting lawyers for.

    I think a lot of companies aren’t really going to trust their low and mid-level administrative staff to be remote either.

  14. Oliver

    Honestly, this is very muddled thinking, Alon.
    1) Biggest objection is that most of the people now wfh have no experience of it and do it under duress, so of course they bitch and moan. I don’t remember them having any sympathy for those of us who found the office unendurable, btw. Likewise most companies haven’t made the shift to asynchronous and written communication needed to make the most of wfh. This all takes time. So your 6-month mark poll? Meaningless for the long term. Like asking someone who just had dentistry performed how he feels 1 hour later. In fact considering the circumstances it’s notable how little outcry there is: the objections are rather muted.
    2) As other already pointed out children have no bearing on the wfh issue because they should be at school ffs! They only come into the picture now because schools are closed.
    3) Since when do companies, esp. american companies with their extreme contempt for workers, care about what the plebs prefer or think? If they find wfh (total or partial) advantageous they will impose it and it will just mean a different set of winners and losers, with the previously dominant office-loving types now disadvantaged. That’s life.
    4) Most junior workers are not mentorable anyway: they either don’t want to or can’t. wfh makes no difference to those and as for the others I find they can benefit from written instructions: makes everything clearer.
    5) Of course everything works better if you have a good rapport with your colleagues and can, e.g., pop unannounced on chat without being importune but that is equally true in person. In fact I find disagreeable or non-relatable people easier to interact with remotely because I don’t see their face and can ignore their facial clues of displeasure.
    6) etc etc

  15. Onux

    It wasn’t just Google that was ahead of the curve on stay-at-home in the Bay Area. On the day the shelter-in-place order was issued in March, commute volume into SF had already dropped by 80%. Virtually the entire tech industry and many others had voluntarily begun remote work over the previous two weeks.

    About half of your problems with remote work are specific to the pandemic. If there is no stress from Covid (plus the ability to eat out, go to a bar, etc.) and if kids are back in school then the downsides to home work seem to be bringing on new employees, client facing interaction, and spontaneity. It remains to be seen if this is enough to outweigh the costs of office space for a lot of firms. As others have noted, with the proliferation of GotoMeeting/Zoom etc the past decade huge amounts of work was “remote” even if employees were logging in from an office not home.

    Although you are correct this favors greater concentration in CBDs (maintaining small prestige office locations for client sales or bringing people from all over the country to one HQ for a few weeks of intensive on-boarding are both possible) I’m not sure the outlook is as favorable for transit. If employees come to the office an average of two days a week then total employment at those locations would need to increase 2.5x to maintain the same daily commute volume. This will not happen. Plus fewer people working downtown in offices means fewer clients for 2nd-order businesses (lunch at a cafe, after work dentist appointments, flowers to bring home) which will then relocate to demand elsewhere, driving daily CBD commuters down further. Places like New York would still have enough traffic to justify the subway, but not expansions, or any capacity improvement like signals for better frequency, POP to eliminate fare gates, or open gangways. For cities that don’t already have subways, taking 60% of traffic off of the roads will make car commuting the hands down winner at all times of day, and sap any incentive for new high capacity transit.

    Extending the peak from 9 to 10 and 5 to 6 isn’t much of an increase if the “peak” means 5-10 min headways even in NYC.

    • Matthew Hutton

      I’d expect the offices in big cities to be more we-work style things. And therefore the transit will be fairly full.

      • Onux

        If 250,000 people come to an office 5 days a week that is 1.25M commuters weekly. If 300,000 people come to a WeWork co-location space 3 days a week that is 0.9M commuters weekly. No matter how you slice it, any meaningful increase in working from home means fewer people on transit.

        • Joseph

          I was thinking maybe this could be resolved with higher single-ride fares. If you only need to take transit a few times a week, paying a bit more would be more acceptable. You could keep unlimited or heavily discounted fares for heavy users who are also more likely to do lower-paid service work.
          Otherwise as long as people don’t need to go far everyday it may make more sense to change our focus to walkable and micro transit-friendly neighborhoods. Transit would shift to connecting town centers rather than commuting. Of course this would still be much more difficult if cars lose one of their main disadvantages.

          • Onux

            You may be able to charge higher prices for fewer rides, but you still run into a math problem. 1.25M rides at $2 each is $2.5M in weekly revenue; 0.9M at $2.50 each is $2.25M. You may be able to keep getting corporate/institutional customers to keep paying the same same for transit (a company that buys employees monthly passes in bulk) but the average person won’t continue to pay the same weekly for something they use half as much.

            And the boilerplate numbers used so far assume an increase in downtown workers. If the number of downtown workers stays the same but they work from home more it is even worse for transit. On top of that, some people commute by car, even in Manhattan. If car commuters drop 40%, that removes a lot of traffic, which will entice some people from transit, lowering ridership further.

            Your scenario of transit connecting outlying areas/town centers is worst of all. Transit thrives in places with strong centers (see Calgary not just NY). Places that are spread out or poly centric like LA or the sunbelt are dominated by the car, because there is either not enough traffic in outer areas without everyone trying to get into the center, or even with traffic a point B to point C trip by car is still faster than transit going through point A.

        • Bobson Dugnutt

          @Onux, there might be an upside to fewer people on transit as you described. This means that there is fewer people that need to be accommodated during the peak. These expensive peak service resources can be redeployed to provide better service midday weekdays, weekends or at nights and grow ridership. This has been the experience in Houston (due to a redesign) and Phoenix (due to a tax increase to fund additional service), two areas where the density card can’t be played.

          • Onux

            Yes, but I’ve heard that peak ridership makes up 50% of all ridership. If 250k people switch to 3 days a week then you have to add 100k off peak riders just to stay even. As mentioned, transit ridership is highest in places with strong centers. Any shift to remote work that lessens travel to the center will likely hurt transit.

  16. Nathan Williams

    “Parents with children have to take on additional care duties, and without a stay-at-home parent this is difficult.”

    This isn’t about working at home, it’s about child care (broadly defined, and here including schools) being closed, which is a different kettle of fish. It’s true that with parents working from home and kids at home instead of at school or in care, the work that the parents are doing takes a hit (often exacerbating existing inequalities along the way). Notably, as long as child care is closed, parents *have* to have someone at home, whether that means working (with distractions) from home, or quitting (or maybe hiring a nanny or tutor, but the particular pandemic factors that cause child care to be closed make those options more difficult as well).

  17. Reedman Bassoon

    “Follow the money”.
    That will be the issue which determines whether remote work remains viable

    If you live and work from home in Nevada (zero state income tax) and your
    boss is in California (high taxes), the company headquarters is in California,
    and California says you owe them 10% of your paycheck, it is going to be a problem.

    If your company says Nevada has a much lower cost of living and says your salary
    is going to be 10% less than your coworker in California, it is going to be a problem.

    • Bobson Dugnutt

      @Reedman Bassoon, true. For people privileged to work at home, they’re not thinking about how their firms could use remote work as wage arbitrage.

      This has not been a problem in tech, primarily because it is overcapitalized as a sector of the economy. It happens to be in a sweet spot — the sector outgrows other sectors of the economy, investors are chasing growth, and tech overall is less asset-burdened than other capital-intensive sectors (particularly heavy manufacturing or oil and gas). Tech could tolerate Bay Area costs of business and other nuisances of California culture — any business or industry can with enough capital.

      Until it no longer can. Americans remember the quarter-century or so after World War II as an economic golden age and most workers built economic expectations around being a producer and exporter to the world. The US was the last power standing and had no international competition. Until it did. Americans bound their self-worth on the notion of an ethic of hard work being necessary and sufficient for material prosperity. Until Thatcher, Reagan and their acolytes in finance were able to wring the sufficiency out of the economy for personal gain.

      Sadly, the pandemic might mark the time that tech and/or California will be put through the wringer that the rest of the economy suffered through before.

  18. CJ

    > The industry also reacted to corona slightly faster than the rest of the Western world. I’m not sure why – usually the American tech industry sneers at anything that comes out of Asia. But for whatever reason, Google sent its workers home in early March, and has been on work-from-home since, as have the other tech employers.

    The thing you’re missing is that Google has offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taipei, which were all affected by COVID in late January/February, and several of its European offices were similarly affected (e.g. Zurich) in mid/late February. By that point, it was pretty clear that COVID wasn’t going to be contained anytime soon.

  19. A. Paddock

    I really should stop reading the comments. In all this talk about cities, it’s all tech workers and upper class people. As usual, we working class people are totally ignored. No one ever cares what our situations are like, that most of us don’t get to work remotely. No one cares what our preferences are, those of us who actually like the city, have family there, roots, connections, a relationship to the place. How about not wanting to live life as a hermit? Fuck Elon Musk, fuck Silicon Valley, and all they stand for! I don’t get why so many people are so eager to see cities fail. Does it not matter to any of you that people have lives there, homes, histories, relationships? Doesn’t any of that matter, or are efficiency and corporate profit all that matter? Of course not. If any of it did, there wouldn’t be so many decimated cities in the Rust Belt. Progress my ass…

    • Matthew Hutton

      No one wants places to fail, it’s just that keeping them going successfully can be hard. It is especially hard when the people who run our countries are all pretty mediocre.

      A lot of what Alon proposes should allow more places to be successful.

      • Bobson Dugnutt

        @Matthew Hutton, if the people who run democratic countries are mediocre, these are the ones who emerge at the top of the heap and the fault lies within the electorate. GIGO applies to democracy programming as much as computer programming.

    • adirondacker12800

      The people producing stuff for them to consume are invisible. Since they aren’t upper middle class symbol manipulators, they don’t count.

    • plaws0

      There’s an old meme with Yoda that says “If into the comment section you go, only pain you will find.” Always true.

      Many … Most? … people with privilege don’t know they have privilege. It’s a problem.

      There are a ton of jobs that can’t be done remotely. Those people will still be on the train.

      The question is what happens if/when the privileged people (I am one) that *can* work remotely, gain the ability to WFH for one or more days per week and what effect (if any) will this have on transit systems?

      Maybe it’s a case where all the people that can (and end up) WFH are the ones on the commuter trains which empty out and the ones who can’t WFH are the ones on the buses and trains and there is no effect on those modes. I don’t know the demographics of most systems by mode and that’s surely way too simplistic.

  20. James Graef

    I heard somewhere that companies find suburban office park jobs (especially things like call centers) work better remote than center city jobs because logically, only the jobs that benefit a lot from knowledge spillover are worth center city prices. So if knowledge spillover requires in-person work, transit could continue to serve center city jobs AND fewer people would need cars to access suburban work… or at least I hope.

  21. Yoav

    You mention the problems with Remote work, but there are also benefits:

    1) No / much less Office space. This removes a large source of costs/hassles. Especially for starting/small firms, this could be a make/break.
    2) No commute. Time not spent driving is time spent working/enjoying.
    3) Home office – many companies had open spaces/cubicles. Not the optimum, but let’s you pack a lot of people into a small space. Home offices are quieter, less distractions, have bigger desks, etc. This is of course not in all firms.
    4) some workers connecting to a live meeting is bad. It is hard to follow what goes on in the Room. All online is better then some in a room, some remote.
    5) Allows hiring workers from more places. You could hire worker all over the adjacent time zones. much bigger than one city/area, allows lowering costs or getting more talent.

    Do the benefits outweigh the problems? I guess it depends, but I think the problems would be mitigated over time:
    home offices would get better, people would get better internet connections, new technologies and methodologies for remote work, etc.

    • Alon Levy

      #2 and 5 are the big benefits, yes. But #1 and 3 aren’t – in the long run workers need office space separate from where they sleep, and one of the problems I heard from people who are working remotely because of corona is that their homes are not set up for this. And #4 is weird – generally all-remote doesn’t work as well as all-in-office, especially when it’s a small meeting.

      Zoom is a great new technology for remote work, but it only partly mitigates the problems. GatherTown tries to replicate the chance meeting aspect of a conference, but so far the tech has only managed to replace the live conference and not the live office.

      • Yoav

        I believe cost-reduction is a great benefit to a lot of companies. This puts the burden on the employee, true. But Employees would get better home offices in time. They weren’t prepared for the sudden shift, but it will get better. A lot of companies offer re-imbursement for home office supplies, etc. Still – much cheaper than rent.

        About home office / office – This very personal.

        4 – all in-office > all -remote > some in-office + some remote. If enough people are remote –> pushes more people to be remote.

        Remote work is also more hour flexible, allows more personal freedom, etc.
        I think after the pandemic subsides, some workers would go back to their offices, but not all of them.

  22. Omer

    with both #2 and #5- these are benefits of course, but:
    2- commuting- we need to talk on how much they will reduce peak time travel… My non-educated guess is that about 30% of workers in service/tech oriented cities can and will work from home also after the pandemic for about 30-40% of their working time, and also will be able to play a bit with their commute time. This will I believe relieve peak demand in those cities by 10-20% which is good because in those cities (london, NY, Tel Aviv- for example) infrastructure could not cope with peak demand anyway before the pandemic. This will allow those cities to invest now in non-peak demand transport infrastructure which is very good, but still I expect that when the economy bounce back (5-7 years?) even this reduction in peak demand won’t be noticeable anymore.
    5- To assume that people will work from home all the time- is nonsense in my mind… and I can elaborate on why if this is not obvious. I also don’t think that local working hubs in the style of WeWork will also be a viable solution in the longrun… But there was a trend before the pandemic, especially in the UK, for major companies to open small branches in midsized towns. This I believe can be accelerated post-corona. That means people could not live *anywhere* and work *anywhere* but it can cause a rise of middle sized urbanism (and suburban urbanism…) which I think can be major opportunity for these “third” places to really make themselves attractive.

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