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The death of the office.
Well, probably nothing quite that dramatic (yet), but it has been a wild few days. I’ve been writing a lot about remote work, but the dominos have begun to fall at a torrid pace that frankly, I wasn’t expecting.
Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook will move towards a more remote workforce, expecting to shift over 50% of the company to remote in the next 5-10 years.
Shopify will be significantly re-designing their office, and employees can choose to WFH indefinitely. Spotify also announced their intentions to go remote. I mentioned Twitter last week, but Square will also be implementing similar polices.
I previously explored a few trends that could emerge from a new remote workforce as they relate to mountain towns and smaller communities. I want to take a minute to talk about a few of the greater work and societal affects this could have as well.
First, I want to say that holy smokes, this is going to be an extremely complicated shift, and I really have no idea how it’s going to play out. Neither does anyone else.
And with that, read on 😁.
🌉 Fewer people will leave cities than we think
Many people right now (including myself) are writing about the “exodus from cities”. While I still think this is likely to happen at some level, a more conservative take is that most people are pretty sedentary. San Francisco is a pretty awesome place to live, and if rents start to get back to reasonable rates, it might get better. Same logic applies to New York. Many people just like living in cities, regardless of any downsides.
Not everyone is so focused on money that they’ll upend their life just to live in a “tax haven”. People have spent years building their lives in these places, and may not want to pick up and leave to build a new community somewhere else.
🤷🏻♂️ Salaries will change
We’re likely to see a period of salary fluctuations, as tech-hub centered companies stop wanting to pay SF salaries for employees living in Kansas City. These cost-of-living adjustments will be an interesting component of a remote work shift. The social media company Buffer, which has already been remote for a long time, has a public salary calculator that is based on what positions would pay in SF and adjusted for location. I imagine that spreadsheet is getting inundated with traffic right now as companies scramble to figure this stuff out. Facebook has already made it clear that remote workers should expect salary adjustments as early as 2021.
👍🏻 Democratization of opportunity
This is perhaps the biggest potential upside of remote work. Much of the potential opportunities in the tech sector have been limited to being in expensive places. Sure, SF is a vibrant place with companies, capital and job opportunities. But most people can’t exactly pick up and move to a $1600 apartment they share with 4 other people in Lower Haight in order to “be where the jobs are”. Will worker migration + remote hiring contribute to a changing face of Middle America? (Related, will the Republicans ever win another election if mostly liberal tech workers actually move to flyover states?) Time will tell.
😕 Companies will get more efficient
A lot of jobs have been lost due to COVID, and many of them aren’t going to come back. Not because the companies don’t recover, but because they realize that they had an oversized org chart and it’s possible to operate more efficiently both personnel and salary-wise.
💸 Places like SF & California could be in trouble (tax-wise)
SF's economy is propped up by massive tech salaries (and low supply/high demand). What the pandemic doesn't kill (local business-wise) could be done in by enough folks leaving for greener pastures. As I said above, I think that less people will pack up and leave than we think (CA is still a great place to live), but what is that number? If folks head for other states, CA could be in trouble as a significant source of income tax revenue begins to decline.
🏚 The shopping mall scenario
Remember shopping malls? Those massive monuments to consumerism and suburban lifestyles used to be a staple of communities and now live mostly in shows that need you to know they’re set in the 80’s. Developers and architecture firms have struggled for years to fill the leases or or re-invent mall real-estate into mixed-use spaces.
Ok, but why am I talking about malls? Let’s look at downtown San Francisco. If you look at Market street and SOMA there are dozens of massive offices that may soon be obsolete, or half-empty. What is going to happen when these leases expire? How do you fill 890,000 square feet of office space at 1355 Market Street (which had been vacant for decades before Twitter moved in)? It could be a significant cultural and design challenge to figure out how to prevent these spaces from becoming mostly vacant eyesores (again).
I’ve seen a few people comparing remote work to the “open office” trend. It was amazing and popular for a few years, and then eventually everyone realized it was bad for productivity. Personally, I think the future of remote work will need to involve a bunch of small satellite offices or some sort of shared spaces. I'm not sure most people are ready psychologically or logistically to handle full time remote work (long term). At the end of the day, it’s not going to be a style of work that works for everyone — and there’s a very real possibility that in the next few years having a centralized office becomes a new “perk”.
Full time WFH (like actually *at home*) has a ton of benefits, but also downsides -- mostly in the amount you work (more), the lack of personal/professional life separation, and isolation. Additionally, a lack of in-person work interactions might lead to less camaraderie amongst teammates, resulting in less loyalty (easier to switch jobs when you have less emotional connection to co-workers), or a preference by management to promote employees that are still in the office.
Obviously, I’m still super bullish on remote. Been doing it for a long time. But also interested to see how companies adapt and what new companies arise to address some of these issues. Monthly satellite off sites? Office rentals (2-3 days at a time)? Indie co-working (with friends)? It’s a new world.
I stumbled across Gather this week — they’re building “a video-calling platform where you walk in and out of conversations by moving around on a 2D map”. I love the approachable 2D video game aesthetic and honestly, it looks significantly more usable than a lot of other “virtual conference” software going around.
And as if I wasn’t missing travel enough already, Lake Wanaka just dropped this short spot. And now I just want to go back to NZ and ski.
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