How Hybrid Work Can Make Our Cities Better

We can spread the wealth around a bit more and bring back our neighborhoods.

Closed Store on St. Clair

Lloyd Alter

The terminology keeps changing; people are talking less about "working from home" and more about "hybrid work" with a few days every week at the office for collaboration, learning, and just being in the company of colleagues. According to Jared Spataro of Microsoft, “Those impromptu encounters at the office help keep leaders honest. With remote work, there are fewer chances to ask employees, 'Hey, how are you?' and then pick up on important cues as they respond."

According to a study by Steelcase, "People want to feel a sense of belonging at work, which is not only good for their wellbeing but it also helps business results — feeling a strong sense of community is the top indicator of people’s productivity, engagement, innovation and commitment to the organization."

But over half of all those who could work at home expect to spend more time, as much as two or three days a week, working from home. Even when they go to offices, it will not be from 9 to 5; some building owners are thinking of having special rush-hour elevator charges to keep the crowds down. Companies are giving up millions of square feet of office space on the assumption that workers won't have individual desks, and are just keeping the meeting areas.

So the consensus these days is that most of the people who can work from home will be doing it most of the time. This has major implications for our cities, but also for our suburbs and towns within reasonable travel distances from the downtown office buildings. Over the last year we have written a number of posts suggesting that this could lead to a rebirth and revitalization of our Main Streets, small towns, and suburban communities – and about the 15-Minute City, which I describe as a "timely repackaging of Jane Jacobs, New Urbanism, and Main Street Historicism, in which daily necessities are within a 15-minute reach on foot or by bike."

Now a new study, Post Pandemic Places, produced by Demos, a British think thank, and sponsored by Legal & General, Britain's big insurer and mortgage company, has a series of recommendations to help ensure that this all turns out well. The key recommendation is that there should be an increased focus on improving services where people live and less focus on downtowns

"Our main conclusion is that people’s relationship with ‘place’ appears to have become stronger, and that there is evidence this will cause a change of behaviour, including spending, into the medium term. This in turn has implications for regional policy, company organisation and the way that land is used in urban areas."
more time in town graph

People have become more familiar with their neighborhoods and say that they intend to spend more time and money there. This appears to be universal, whether in the rich parts of the country or in industrial or commuter towns.

"Considering spending patterns, people are looking forward to spending more money in their local neighbourhoods and town centres when the restrictions are lifted than they did before the pandemic, with those who were required to work from home being even more likely to do so. This effect is positive in all parts of the country but particularly so in the most urban areas, that have higher proportions of people who were required to work from home."

People have become concerned about their local neighborhoods in a way they were not before. "The findings were very clear: a majority of people thought that each of their local facilities – from access to fresh air and good local shops through to transport services – had become more important to them because of the pandemic."

Demos has a series of policy recommendations that are focused on the U.K. but are pretty much universal truths:

Remote working should be promoted by governments as a way of regenerating areas outside of the urban cores, with the aim of making jobs "flexible by default, with location flexibility explicitly included."

As we have noted, this would take cars off the road, but would also reduce demand for rush-hour focused transportation, spreading it out throughout the day; so much of our infrastructure investment is focused on building highways and tunnels to move piles of workers in limited windows. We don't need to do that anymore.

"The pandemic, and shift to homeworking, presents a challenge to the concept of high population-density urban accommodation. Demos has previously argued for future homes to be built with a mix of local amenities. Recent experience accentuates the need for ‘15 minute neighbourhoods’ with places to meet and work - including remote working - as well as outdoor public spaces for leisure and recreation."

We have also discussed this before, noting that little is done to support the development of businesses on Main Streets. Taxes are disproportionately high on non-residential space because politicians don't want to anger homeowners, making it hard to start a business. Bike lanes and pedestrianization projects are opposed because they might add two minutes to the time it takes for commuters to get home.

change in attitudes

Their last recommendation is the most interesting, based on their finding that people are desperate for some fresh air and green space.

"All urban centre tenants and residents should have a new right to a modest outdoor space for their own use should they want it, whether to garden, play or simply relax. This does not necessarily need to adjoin their home but, like an allotment, should be within a reasonable travel distance. Local authorities should be given the responsibility for fulfilling requests, with different solutions possible in different parts of the country."

Homeworking as a Regeneration Tool

Store on Dupont
Lloyd Alter

The key takeaway from this report is that we have an opportunity here to refocus on neighborhood regeneration, about making our suburbs and small towns come alive again. People have worried that all those restaurant workers and service employees downtown will have less work if there are fewer people in offices downtown, but those workers are often traveling hours every day to get to where the office employees are. Imagine, instead, that they can work closer to where they live, because that is where the customers are now.

None of this means the end of downtowns and the emptying of office buildings, the Kushners and the Brookfields will do just fine. It is just spreading things around a bit, and creating opportunity for those who previously were locked out by circumstance.

"In time it could improve economic participation. It will start to shade to grey the previously black-and-white choice between being at work or being with family that has required women disproportionately to seek part-time work, exacerbating the gender pay gap. ... the potential prize of making it easier for parents of young children to work the same number of hours as their colleagues could be a transformational first step. 
But the benefits are not purely felt by those with caring responsibilities. By lowering the premium on commuting, more jobs will be available to those with mobility disabilities and indeed to all people who for reasons of health or stamina prefer to work near to where they live."

There are so many reasons that this revolution in the way we live and work post-pandemic could be a positive thing, not the least of which is the dramatic reductions in emissions from transportation and the ridiculous duplication of space. And it's about time; as Bucky Fuller wrote in 1936:

“Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time.
Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time.
Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time.
It’s time we gave this some thought.”
View Article Sources
  1. "The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work—Are We Ready?" Microsoft.

  2. "Work Better." Steelcase.

  3. Ussher, Kitty, et al. "Post Pandemic Places." Demos, 2021.