The ‘death of distance’ was predicted more than twenty years ago. It was a dream of equal access to jobs and opportunities, no matter whether you lived in a global city or a rural ‘telecottage’. Until now most of us have remained very much tied to the office, even with ever faster telecommunications. Now COVID-19 has shown us that much work can go on even without the office or a physical place for people to congregate. The technology had developed to allow us to interact and collaborate online, what was missing was the cultural and business norms to allow many of us to try this.
We are now seeing a massive social, economic and environmental experiment play out where people have time-shifted and place-shifted their work to accommodate their family lives, and keep themselves safe from the virus. What will happen after the immediate crisis has passed? Will these changes stick?
Some CEOs are beginning to muse that things are working so well that they will need less real estate in future. So changes to the office environment seem likely. If we imagine that more people may work flexibility, in time as well as place, there will be implications for city systems and places. For example, we know that small changes (less than 5%) in the peak use of transport can make big differences in how the system operates. More working from home could create more demand for retrofit of homes for comfort as well as energy efficiency. More online working across geographies could mean less business travel. There will also be implications for gender equality – working from home means a ‘merging’ of the professional and family life which will be familiar to women and carers who work but for some it will be an eye-opener.
We need to explore and understand these trends so that we can design policies and systems which support people to maximise the positive social, economic and climate impacts of these changes. Who knows, the telecottage (suitably insulated and connected by sustainable transport modes) may yet have its day.