Over the last year, many companies have ended their liberal work-from-home policies. Firms like IBM, Honeywell, and Aetna joined a long list of others that have deemed it more profitable to force employees to commute to the city and work in a central office than give them the flexibility to work where they want. It wasn’t supposed to be this way—at least according to Norman Macrae.
Macrae foretold the exact path and timeline that computers would take over the business world and then become a fixture of every American home. But he didn’t stop there. The spread of this machine, he argued, would fundamentally change the economics of how most of us work. Once workers could communicate with their colleagues through instant messages and video chat, he reasoned, there would be little coherent purpose to trudge long distances to work side by side in centrally located office spaces. As companies recognized how much cheaper remote employees would be, the computer would, in effect, kill the office—and with that our whole way of living would change.
As readers of this blog know, I am firmly in Macrae’s camp. I have a couple of issues with this analysis by Greg Rosalsky. It contains the implicit assumption that knowledge workers commute in order to have real time, face to face conversations with their colleagues every Monday through Friday. The value of these co-located daily discussions is cited to justify the daily commute.
That might hold true for those working in intense think tank work environments like Google’s Moonshot Factory where the job is a group exercise of spitballing and deeply analyzing concepts for their practicality and most importantly, their potential monetization. That’s more akin to a live-in academic residential fellowship than the usual type of work most knowledge workers perform with most of its components and deliverables in digital form accessible from most anywhere. In fact, many of them find they are more able to think and concentrate outside of centralized, commute-in office spaces such as in quiet home offices and communicate quite easily with colleagues using online collaboration tools.
Rosalsky’s article also repeats the “urban centers are cool and people want to live there” to partly explain why we continue to commute to centralized offices in metro areas. But as Rosalsky also notes, the cost of living there is quite high. It’s often out of reach for all but the highest paid knowledge workers and is itself a factor driving lengthening commutes to distant locales where housing is affordable.
To Rosalsky’s credit, he does mention the personal costs of commuting borne by knowledge workers — and indirectly by their organizations due to the adverse health and wellness impacts of daily commuting. I would argue that the maturation and proliferation of information and communications technology has brought us to the point predicted by Macrae where for the vast majority of knowledge workers, the costs of daily commuting can no longer be justified nor the expense of maintaining centralized, commute-in office space for their organizations.