September 2, 2013
What would happen if everyone had the freedom to work remotely? How would things change?
Many companies such as Lincoln Loop, Mozilla, Automattic, and MySQL AB are already distributed organizations. Central to that philosophy is that only what you do matters, not where or when. Obviously some work, like fishing and truck driving, can’t be done remotely, but in modern economies, a large number of people spend the bulk of their day sitting at a desk. What if they all felt free to work remotely? It’s a fun though experiment, so here goes – what changes might we see?
Less commuting. Commuting, for most people, is a reliable and persistent source of unhappiness (because it reduces the control you have over your own life). Less commuting also means less car miles driven, which means less death on the road. Less commuting means less pollution and lower demand for oil, with attendant geo-political consequences.
More community. Instead of just sleeping in our homes, we now live there, and become part of the community, indeed we create that community. You can pick up your kids from school at 4pm. You can attend the town hall meeting. You’re supporting the businesses near you. You actually meet and talk to your neighbours. You move somewhere where you like your neighbours :-)
Fewer meetings. Distributed teams have to be more explicit in their communication, which reduces the need for meetings. Remote work is less middle-management intensive, so we may see fewer management layers.
The most profound change might be the death of commuter towns, and the transformation of suburbia.
If many more people work near where they live, we should expect local services to cater to them. The most obvious would be co-working spaces, as “remote” does not imply “from home”. Large companies may choose to have their own private co-working spaces. Mozilla is a pioneer here, with their current offices funtioning as co-working spaces for distributed Mozillans.
If your employees are spread out, you don’t need an office tower downtown anymore. The spoke-and-wheel model of cities, with central offices surrounded by bedroom suburbs, would fade. Big cities would grow smaller and villages and small towns larger. Shops, cafes, and co-working spaces in these smaller areas would benefit, at the expense of downtown property owners.
A more even spread of population densities will make life more difficult for a few types of business. ‘Weird-and-wonderful’ shops and services would complete their move online, if possible, or disappear. Global-scale entertainers (music, sport, etc) may have a harder time filling stadiums. Local ones would benefit. Suburbs would turn into villages, most supporting similar proximity businesses (cafes, restaurants, hair-dressers, etc), at the expense of destination businesses.