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.