Ever since I moved into my first apartment I’ve always had a place at home to work. Sometimes it was a desk, but more often it was just a comfortable chair where I could use a laptop for hours on end, usually to write. My present employer had a liberal telework policy even before Covid-19, so I requested the opportunity to have a scheduled work-from-home day once every two weeks. I’ve been doing that level of teleworking for the last four years, and when I would mention it to coworkers they would remark that they couldn’t work from home. “There are just too many distractions,” they would tell me. As you might expect, those same coworkers have not been faring too well these last three months. Other coworkers had told me that they didn’t have a place to work at home. Though several of them have since made spaces, some have just committed to working at the kitchen table. Some haven’t had a choice, as the work-from-home pandemic has resulted in a shortage in office furniture as demand has skyrocketed, but also as raw materials (i.e. plastic) are diverted to PPE production.
The pandemic is nowhere near ending, so the white collar masses are unlikely to return to business spaces anytime soon. Some are arguing that maybe we shouldn’t – or won’t want to – return to the office in pre-pandemic numbers. Now that mass telework has been forced on employers, some are seeing benefit and opportunity, especially the massive social media companies that other corporations tend to watch. Facebook announced in July that within the next ten years they expect half of their employees to be on permanent telework. In May, Twitter said that many employees could work from home “forever.” Back in late July, one month after New York City officials gave the green light for employees to return to work, more than 90% of Manhattan office workers were choosing to continue to work from home.
I have a number of friends with jobs that saw them predominantly, or entirely, teleworking in the years leading up to the pandemic. That percentage of the work force had been growing steadily, but post-pandemic many are expecting that we will have jumped years ahead in the trend. This change has the potential to be transformative. I have a few coworkers that had never worked from home and quickly came to love it. My wife professes to enjoy seeing me more, and having complete control of my environment has helped lessen the frequency of my migraines.
If we don’t have to go to the office, how many of us will choose to? If, say, 20% of the white collar workers in rent-bloated cities choose full-time telework, why wouldn’t they move out of the city to get more space for less elsewhere? Since the majority of Democratic voters are concentrated in cities, what would a mass office exodus do to political demographics? Many of our housing decisions are based on where we work. If work will allow us to live hundreds of miles away, then how will we choose where to live? Some would undoubtedly still choose cities, but there is a difference between living in a city of half a million inhabitants and living in a metropolis with eight million other people.
Science fiction writer and editor Frederik Pohl is attributed with saying, “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.” The earliest written appearance of this concept seems to be a 1953 essay by Isaac Asimov where he said “It is easy to predict an automobile in 1880; it is very hard to predict a traffic problem. The former is really only an extrapolation of the railroad. The latter is something completely novel and unexpected.” (Yes, I can connect almost anything to Asimov. He wrote so much, and about so many things, that it’s not that hard.) Science fiction predicted the rise of computers, but famously underestimated their impact. Interestingly, Clifford Simak, my favorite science fiction writer, did predict the death of the city, not through telework but through another dystopian motivation. In the short story “City,” which constitutes the opening chapter of his likewise titled novel, the protagonist argues with the few remaining residents of his city:
"The city failed," he said, "and it is well it failed. Instead of sitting here in mourning above its broken body you should rise to your feet and shout your thanks it failed.
American cities may become deserted. Not because they are easy targets for nuclear weapons, but because they are easy targets for viruses. Some countries can’t afford to disperse; they need cities to house their populations. The United States has two and a half times the population of Japan, but twenty-four times the surface area. We could space out, lessen the spread of infectious diseases that are only going to get more prevalent, and fundamentally change the way we live and work as a society.
Then again, if Simak had one flaw it was his unwavering belief that the best life – maybe the only life worth living – was the country life. I don’t roll that way. I lived that life for a few years and didn’t care for it. Cities won’t die as Simak hoped, but they could definitely stand to be less densely packed. If you can choose to live in a megalopolis or a moderate sized city, why choose the megalopolis when rent is three and a half times as much, especially if you can make the same money?
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.