It's time to stop going to work

A villager during the Roman Empire lived no further than a one hour round trip by foot from the center of town. A couple of thousand years later, with cars and trains at our disposal, we cover much more ground but we still spend one hour each day traveling. This fragment of time even has a name. It’s called Marchetti's Constant and it has persisted across eras, cultures, and geographies. Modern transportation technologies like cars, trains, and planes ferry us across ever-expanding distances in that hour. They created megacities and birthed the suburbs, defining the modern landscape and making transportation the most disruptive technology of the last century.

But the communication revolution has chipped away at that dominance for the last couple of decades and now COVID may be the inflection point that makes communication the technology leader that will reshape the world’s landscape. COVID’s impact on physical presence was immediate and brutal. We instantly stopped visiting friends and family, taking vacations, and shopping. We also stopped going to the office, and that change will leave the longest-lasting impact on our landscape. It’s time to re-evaluate our assumptions about centralized offices and their place in the landscape of the future.

Virtual offices are the platform for the next century

Centralized workplaces beginning as far back as the East India Company brought employees together around shared resources. Accounting ledgers, manuscripts, legal agreements, employee records, inventory, mail, copy machines, meeting spaces, telephones, faxes, other people you need to talk to, etc. People went to the resources because those resources were intrinsically immobile. Today, every single one of those resources is shareable and available to anyone from anywhere in the world. We don’t need to congregate in the same place to perform accounting, send mail, review legal documents, answer phones, talk with colleagues, or make software for millions of people to use. But this isn’t the only reason to re-evaluate the centralized office.

Today, every single one of those resources is shareable and available to anyone from anywhere in the world.

Old style management techniques pioneered by companies like The Ford Motor Company during the industrial revolution equated butts in seats from 9 to 5 with productivity. Today, modern approaches based on operational science, accountability, goals, and strong team fundamentals transcend physical space, exhibiting greater outcomes for companies and producing happier employees. Those employees — particularly younger workers, who watched their ancestors strain at the yoke of oppressive office environments without sufficient reward — demand greater autonomy and flexibility in their work life.

Physical offices are resource hogs

The lack of autonomy and flexibility manifests in the daily grind. The average worker wakes up in their home each morning, commutes 30 minutes by car, then spends 8-12 hours in the office before hopping back into traffic for another 30 minutes behind the wheel. That is a lot of space, energy, and angst apportioned for one person’s GDP contribution. At the office they need a parking spot, desk, place to eat, convenient restroom access, conference space for meetings, fitness facility, and seating areas — that ironically look and feel a lot like their living room at home — to chat with colleagues. On the road, they contribute to the four billion tonnes of greenhouse gases emitted per year by commuters that threaten human existence. And mentally they strain under the rigid work schedule to thrive with families, friends, and hobbies at home. At the macro level the allocation of resources is inefficient, with space, time, and energy underutilized and misallocated. The toll of maintaining physical offices on individuals and the world in aggregate is enormous.

I can access everything I need and cast my influence anywhere in the world at the speed of light

Digital communication is the ultimate transportation system. With it, I can access everything I need and cast my influence anywhere in the world at the speed of light and at a fraction of the cost of planes, trains, or automobiles. From my home in San Francisco I can connect with people in New York, London, Nairobi, Moscow, New Delhi, Beijing, or Tokyo in the blink of an eye. I can access any resource I need from my phone as I walk to the store. I can get more of my time back and extend human existence on the planet. As much as 40% of the workforce can perform their jobs from places like homes, neighborhood co-working spaces, and for some intrepid explorers, exotic seaside cafes.

The digital revolution gives us a unique opportunity to fashion a landscape that recaptures autonomy, makes better use of space, and reduces our dependence on transportation and its harmful externalities. Abandoning our outdated strategies around centralized offices and moving to a digital first world is fundamentally the right path forward for humanity.

It’s time to stop going to work and have work come to us.

Written by
Chris Bourdon
Illustrated by
Farrah Yoo

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