What does the erosion of cities mean for the future of work?


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If you haven’t heard, New York City might be dead forever. That’s the conclusion of a now viral essay lamenting what appears to be a permanent exodus from New York by many residents amid COVID-19. 

Cause of death? While the author, James Altucher, blames the shuttering of cultural institutions and restaurants during lockdown for some of New York’s decline, the nail in the coffin has been the rapid shift from working at the office to working from home.

“Even in the 1970s, and through the ’80s, when NYC was going bankrupt, and even when it was the crime capital of the US or close to it, it was still the capital of the business world (meaning: it was the primary place young people would go to build wealth and find opportunity),” Altucher writes. 

Now, he says, “businesses are remote, and they aren’t returning to the office. And it’s a death spiral: The longer offices remain empty, the longer they will remain empty. In 2005, a hedge fund manager was visiting my office and said, ‘In Manhattan, you practically trip over opportunities in the street.’ Now the streets are empty.”

How COVID-19 eroded cities

But it’s not just New York. When the coronavirus pandemic sent employees home to work in March, the move prompted many workers to re-evaluate their living situations. In San Francisco, the number of houses listed for sale has doubled year over year. Seven of the 10 most expensive cities for renters in the US have seen year-over-year decreases in housing costs, further demonstrating the exodus from once-bustling centers of business. 

Meanwhile, places like Phoenix—formerly a haven for retirees—are booming, with demand for single-family homes leading to strong growth in the rental market

The reasons for this are fairly obvious. After the pandemic unshackled workers from the office, they could choose to live wherever it made the most sense. In the short term, moving to a place where the risk of coronavirus seems lower can be alluring. But even once the virus abates, things like lower housing prices and cost of living, lifestyle, and proximity to family may all play a role in eroding the appeal of big cities.

The urban exodus and the future of work

Though the pandemic will hopefully not last forever, the shifts to how people live and work appear to be long-lasting. In May, Facebook and Twitter both announced that some workers would be allowed to work remotely forever. And a PwC survey of hundreds of US finance leaders found that 54% plan to make remote work a permanent option for employees. This has big implications for the future of work.

1. Cost savings

Moving away from the office has the potential to yield major savings for businesses and workers. Especially in top-tier cities, commercial rent and the cost of maintaining offices is a significant operating expense for many businesses. 

As well, 32% of workers say they’d consider a pay cut in return for being allowed to work remotely on a permanent basis. In San Francisco, 61% of workers said they’d be willing to reduce their salary in return for permanent work from home. 

Moving away from big centers can certainly make a pay cut more palatable. Not only can employees save money on housing, food, and other expenses if they move to a city where the cost of living is cheaper, but working from home also cuts expenditures related to commuting, work clothes, and meals.

2. Employee happiness

The fact that many workers would be willing to take a pay cut if it allowed them to relocate highlights the appeal of WFH arrangements. There are several ways offering remote work can make employees happier. For example, no one enjoys wasting time traveling to and from work each day. But workers in big cities (or those who commute into big cities from nearby urban centers and suburbs) have longer commute times—40.8 minutes on average in New York City and 34.6 minutes in Chicago. 

The commute time when people work from home? Zero minutes. Remote work also allows people to live where their needs are best met—whether that’s near family or the mountains—boosting wellbeing.

3. Need for new tools

Shifting teams from the office to disparate locations across the country requires more than simply packing up and moving the contents of people’s desks. As employees spread out to the places that suit them, they require new tools and processes that support remote collaboration and communication. To meet the needs of remote teams, employers must implement technology that makes working together from their new locations as seamless, accessible, and organic as it was back when everyone was in one place. 

Setting up workers for remote work success

In a COVID-19 world and beyond, the nature of work has changed—likely forever. This is having a ripple effect on where people live. 

Simply put, where work gets done matters far less than it used to. Employees on the same team can be multiple cities or time zones away, living where they feel most comfortable and productive. It’s up to employers, then, to support those remote workers and maximize their potential. That starts with the right technology.

Unified communications solutions like RingCentral support the needs of remote teams by combining team messaging, video conferencing, and phone within a single app. Employees can access all of their collaboration essentials using any device, from any location, and at any time. By eliminating the barriers to effective remote communication, your organization is ready to usher in the post-COVID future of work.

Originally published Aug 27, 2020, updated Jan 18, 2023

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