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The rise of smart phones and WiFi mean we can now work from anywhere. Should that turn the entire built environment into an office?

Technology has blurred the walls of the workplace in at least two dramatic ways. People who once worked inside the clear confines of a cubicle, inside an office, within an office tower in a commercial district, can now work from nearly anywhere. And because the spatial distinction has been disappearing between work and home (and everywhere in between), neat divisions in time are now eroding, too.

Even if you do still have an actual office where you commute every day, you have probably experienced how these lines have softened simultaneously: You've walked out of your building and into the subway, pulled out your phone, and gone right back to triaging email.

These sweeping shifts in where and when work takes place have been brought about by much more than just the Internet. Credit the portable laptop and the smartphone, WiFi and fiber optic infrastructure, computer security from VPNs, high-quality teleconferencing and the cloud. As for your computer itself? "It’s just a shell," says Adam Stoltz, a real estate workplace strategist based in Washington. "It’s the thing that enables me to get to the data."

We normally talk about all of this as a revolution in technology, or in the nature of work itself. But something else also happens when technology enables people to change where they work and how they use time: The environment around us needs to respond, too.

For decades, cities have reflected the neat separation of work and home, with residences in one part of town, offices and industry in another, and infrastructure (highways, parking garages, hub-and-spoke transit systems) built to help connect us between the two around what has been for many people a 9-to-5 work day. But what happens when more people start to work outside of offices, or really anywhere – at all times?

Suddenly, we need WiFi in parks, and certainly in underground subway systems. We need more physical spaces that serve this new lifestyle: co-working offices and live/work apartments. People who once drove to work may now find that they want more productive commutes; now it makes more sense to ride a commuter rail car that enables the work day to start an hour earlier. Whole private networks of transportation have arisen around this idea in San Francisco. Coach buses there now collect workers to take them to Silicon Valley offices, but they're outfitted like mobile offices in the expectation that employees will start working en route.

Some cities like New York have even begun to change how they think about intersections and roadways in a world where pedestrians are more likely to be looking down at smartphones than up at the environment around them.

Likely other adjustments (large and small) will be needed as well. Our built environment has been designed to accommodate the ways that people worked (and lived) 20 or 50 years ago. So now what happens when our behavior changes, when the ways that people move through and need to use space across cities no longer matches some of the ways we've built them?

Stolz raised the question this week at an Intelligent Cities unconference in conjunction with the annual American Planning Association meeting in Chicago. As others pointed out, some of these evolving work patterns aren't really new; they're a return to the ways people worked before the Industrial Revolution, when shopkeepers for instance lived in apartments above their stores. We may look back on the 9-to-5 workplace not as the norm, but as a relic of the last century.

As we move away from it, it's interesting to think not just about the implications for how we use our time and how we define the idea of "work," but also for what all of this might mean for cities.

In the future, Stoltz asks, "If you’re planning a city, should there actually be places where there is no WiFi?"

Top image: Anatoly Tiplyashin/Shutterstock

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