The past year has offered a glimpse of the nowhere-everywhere future of work, and it isn’t optimistic for big cities.
Some evenings, when pandemic cabin fever reaches critical levels, I relieve my claustrophobia by escaping into the dreamworld of Zillow, the real-estate website. From the familiar confines of my Washington, D.C., apartment, I teleport to a ranch on the outskirts of Boise, Idaho; to a patio nestled in the hillsides of Phoenix, Arizona; or to a regal living room in one of the baroque palaces of Plano, Texas.
Apparently, many of you are doing the same thing. Zillow searches have soared during the health crisis, according to Jeff Tucker, the company’s chief economist. “We’ve seen online searches for Boise, Phoenix, and Atlanta rising fastest among people who live in coastal cities, like Los Angeles and New York,” Tucker told me. Higher search volumes on Zillow have coincided with a booming housing market in the South and the West, as rents fall in expensive coastal cities.
Zillow tourism and a few affluent workers decamping for Atlanta might strike you as a fad—kind of like this whole remote-work moment. Indeed, if you’re lugging your computer to the living room every day to sit on the couch for eight hours, you might not be thinking to yourself, I’m practically starting the next industrial revolution.
But maybe you are. As a general rule of human civilization, we’ve lived where we work. More than 90 percent of Americans drive to work, and their average commute is about 27 minutes. This tether between home and office is the basis of urban economics. But remote work weakens it; in many cases, it severs the link entirely, replacing spatial proximity with cloud-based connectivity. What knock-on changes will this new industrial revolution bring?
The best argument against the remote-work experiment having a durable impact on our lives beyond the pandemic is an appeal to human inertia: For decades, the internet was a thing and remote work wasn’t, and after the pandemic, it’ll just feel like 2019 again.
But the impediment to widespread remote work in 2019 and before wasn’t technological. It was social. According to the economist David Autor, remote work suffered from a “telephone problem.” Seven decades after the first telephone was patented in the 1860s, fewer than half of Americans owned one. Behavior dragged behind technology, because most families had no use for a telecom machine as long as [ … ]