The true promise of remote work

Increasingly, our society is transitioning to a knowledge economy, with jobs performed via computers. Combine this with improvements in communications technologies that allow collaboration via the Internet, and suddenly, you have the ability to do your job away from the office. Enter the trend of remote work, or work from home.

When a small percentage of employees work from home, we end up where we are now – most people live in the same city as their employer and occasionally work from home, and a few live elsewhere, fully remote. A small percentage of these remote employees have embraced trends such as digital nomadism, but most simply stay put and live wherever they want to.

Everyone loves being able to work from home occasionally. But remote work opens the door to a new question: What happens as we scale up the number of fully remote employees in society?

What happens when the number of fully remote people increases from 1% to 10%?

To 50%?

What would it look like if everyone in society were fully remote?

The conservative answer is just that more people work from home, saving on commuting costs, decreasing traffic jams, and getting back an extra hour each day. That would be great. I think, however, that the implication is much bigger.

Remote work is going to let us reorganize our cities.

For most all of human history, cities have been organized around economic activity – jobs. Cities were often physically arranged to support the jobs of their residents – large highways led in and out to the suburbs with manufacturing pushed out to the edges. Just as important as their internal organization, though is the way jobs affect city organization on a macro scale.

Cities act as schelling points. They solve an employer/employee coordination problem – workers want to be where the companies are, and companies want to be where the workers are. The answer is for everyone to just stay in the same place, or move to one of a few predetermined destinations.

What happens, then, if all of society can move simultaneously? Suddenly, you’ve solved the coordination problem.

When everyone can relocate easily, it becomes possible for cities to quickly attract a lot of residents. Entire friend groups and communities can move together. The role of the city as a people attractor intensifies tenfold.

As workers become more liquid, cities will compete for residents, with the cities implementing the most innovative, people-friendly policies rising to the top. When they work correctly, competitive processes optimize our society. Market competition results in better, cheaper products. Democracy (when set up correctly) results in leaders implementing policies to benefit their constituents.

Given the outsize impact that local policy has on people’s lives, imagine the innovative policies that will result when cities are competing for residents.

Why stay in the bay area with its complicated housing policy and associated sky high costs, when you can try out a new location with better, cheaper housing that would let you build wealth faster. At the same time, you’ll pick a city that specializes in the things you care about.

Maybe you’ll move to a city for its proximity to nature, or maybe you move to one with really good local voting systems. Maybe you care most about walkability, so that’s how you pick where to live.

More likely though, a truely enterprising policy maker crafts a city that gives you all three, and then a whole lot more.