In the late 1990s the Internet was, some said, about to reshape urban life and city planning in ways so dramatic and far-reaching they could only be compared to the rise of the automobile. Just as cars allowed for suburbs and urban sprawl, the Internet would allow us all to work in virtual offices, from home, from anywhere. Rush hour would be history, commercial real estate demand would plummet and we would all be happier and more productive.
Needless to say, it didn’t happen. Technology has allowed many more people to work more flexibly but the impact has not been transformative for urban planning by any stretch. In most cities, droves of workers still flock to and from CBDs and office parks at the same times each day and planners still have to accommodate the commuter rush. But wouldn’t it be better if more of us worked from home? Would we not be more productive, as many studies (like this one) seem to show?
Not according to Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, who has recently banned all staff from working from home unless absolutely necessary. She believes being together in the office will create more innovation, more fruitful collaboration and fewer delays among her workers. If the world follows Meyer’s lead then we will need other ways to fight rush hour. If working in the office, in person, eyeball to physical eyeball, is genuinely an irreplaceable and fundamental ingredient in good business, then Meyer will be vindicated. Working from home will likely become frowned upon.
However, many influential leaders still believe we can virtualise the office tower. Vodafone released research this week (based on a survey of 500 business decision makers) which finds that British businesses could save £34bn a year through freeing up desk space and reducing overheads. Meanwhile Bill Gates has said, in an interview with CNNMoney, that Mayer’s decision runs “counter” to the trend to “give employees more flexibility.” He went on to say that: “if you’ve got development centres all over the world, you’ve got a sales force out with the customers, the fact that tools like Skype, digital collaboration, are letting people work better at a distance, that is a wonderful thing.”
A wonderful thing indeed, but not wonderful enough to negate the need for more mass transit, highways and skyscrapers. But perhaps we have called it too early. Perhaps, as is often the case, the technology required to change the game is just taking longer to emerge (or mature) than we initially thought.