Like other countries across Europe, the hollowing out of once vibrant villages and small towns has contributed to wider social divisions, and scholars and public policy experts have warned that the split could become a major source of tension in Western democracies. Ireland’s proposal, “Our Rural Future,” is one of the most ambitious efforts announced in Europe to address the issue, prompted by the changes brought about by the pandemic. Among other things, it proposes legislation that would give employees the right to request to work from home, the establishment of a network of 400 remote-working hubs, and funding for better internet connectivity nationally.
A year after the coronavirus sparked an extraordinary exodus of workers from office buildings, what had seemed like a short-term inconvenience is now clearly becoming a permanent and tectonic shift in how and where people work. Employers and employees have both embraced the advantages of remote work, including lower office costs and greater flexibility for employees, especially those with families. Beyond New York, some of the country’s largest cities have yet to see a substantial return of employees, even where there have been less stringent government-imposed lockdowns, and some companies have announced that they are not going to have all workers come back all the time.
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“We believe that we’re on top of the next change, which is the Distributed Age, where people can be more valuable in how they work, which doesn’t really matter where you spend your time,” said Alexander Westerdahl, the vice president of human resources at Spotify, the Stockholm-based streaming music giant that has 6,500 employees worldwide.
Work, too, has been transformed. Suddenly, hundreds of millions of people around the world had to figure out how to get things done without going into the office. It turns out that for many white-collar jobs, this is not just possible; it comes with a variety of upsides. Commutes, to take one example, are unhealthy—they waste time and potentially increase our sedentary time, which is associated with many adverse health outcomes, and perhaps worst of all, driving is among the most dangerous activities we undertake each day. The competition to try to avoid long commutes distorts property values and can worsen inequality, as those with money pay extra to live near centers of work, while other residents can no longer afford to live there.
Pandemic social distancing restrictions served as an organizational change intervention, forcing knowledge industry organizations to reassess their cultures and beliefs about how work gets done. Pandemic restrictions virtually overnight switched off the gravity that pulls knowledge workers into a centralized, commute-in office workspace. As those restrictions are lifted amid mass immunization campaigns, knowledge organizations continue to confront these fundamental questions.
For most knowledge organizations, their cultures are strongly rooted in the belief work is being definitively performed when people are present in the office, reinforced by social connections made there and functions such as group lunches and celebrations. The organizational hierarchy is visually represented and reinforced in the office layout, with managers assigned corner and window offices and the rank and file in cubicles on the inside of the floor. A knowledge worker’s manager is clearly identified on the organizational chart. Clocks on the wall define when work is expected to be done.
A decade before the pandemic, author Dave Rolston in his 2013 book Four Dead Kings at Work predicted the death of these anchors that traditionally defined the boundaries of knowledge work in the Industrial Age: 1) One centralized workplace; 2) A single manager; 3) Performing a single defined job and pay grade; 4) At the same time each week.
The pandemic hastened their death requiring organizations to flex or abandon them. The elimination of the centralized office workplace and the erosion of the 8-5, Monday through Friday work time diminished the first and last of the kings, bookended by the daily commute. After more than year of foregoing commuting, knowledge workers have realized the enormous personal time burden it imposes, taking time away family, community, and health promoting behaviors such as adequate sleep, exercise and home cooked versus takeout and restaurant meals. Not to mention clothing and transportation costs.
This realization within knowledge organization has major implications for where knowledge workers will live in the coming decades and for traditional urban planning predicted on centralized settlement and development patterns forming sprawling metro areas requiring ever longer commutes.