A photo of the Lord & Taylor building on Fifth Avenue.
After more than a century on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor sold its flagship building in the center of the city to office-space-sharing company WeWork last year. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Work Habits Are Changing: Cities Need to Keep Up

What does work sprawl mean for urban planning?

Changes in the world of work are well-documented. Smart technologies, AI, cloud computing, wireless mobility—you name it—all have a profound impact on how work is being performed. Recent research shows that remote work has been on a steady rise. Should cities care?

After all, companies are the front-line of changing work practice: managers, real-estate specialists, information technology departments and HR personnel; they balance various types of work contracts—project-based gig work, flexible and remote work—and they manage related cultural changes. Among the issues: How can teams function without regular social interactions? How can privacy, confidentiality, and record-keeping be reconciled with electronic communications and home-offices? These are business considerations, not urban ones.

Yet cities should care because these changes affect where we work, what activities occur in different places, and how buildings, transport networks and public spaces are used. It is increasingly recognized that “the office” is changing: what this means for cities is still unclear. So far, planners and geographers have not yet elaborated how cities will function or generate economic value once it is recognized that economic activity is no longer tied to specific locations.

Our work suggests that large companies—and occupants of sizable office spaces—are implementing flexible working arrangements and are doing so for three reasons: to reduce the costs of renting offices; to provide a work environment and culture attractive to millennials and younger workers; and to make full use of the possibilities offered by digitization. All these motivations imply consequences at the urban scale.

Reducing the need for office space can either be complete (some organizations have gone entirely virtual, with no permanent office space) or partial (other, usually larger, organizations consolidate their main offices while closing down secondary locations). This is happening in most North American cities. In the aggregate this will reduce demand for secondary locations like branch and back offices. Well located, highly accessible office buildings will therefore continue to find occupants, but those that are less adapted to front office activities such as high-level command and control, and direct client-customer interaction will suffer from increased vacancy.

The traditional 20th century office was basically a communication and coordination tool; the best way to ensure that a manager could speak to members of his or her team was to know their physical location between 9am and 5pm. Mobile communication technologies now play this coordination role. When economic activity required physical coordination, communication, and interaction the traditional office made sense: but since these activities no longer require specific locations, the nature and role of agglomeration changes.

Planners and policymakers have subscribed to the idea that the spatial behavior of firms and sectors can be distinguished, mapped, predicted and prescribed. But they need to take stock of the rapidly changing relationship between economic activity and the city, and begin to rethink some of the fundamental concepts that structure the way they (and we) think about cities and the urban processes that generate wealth.

Knowledge-workers generate value by writing, thinking, networking, discussing and negotiating. These people have traditionally been assumed to perform their economic activity at the address of their employer, and this assumption still pervades most analysis of the urban economy, but this type of activity is increasingly permeating the city.

These workers move throughout cities, alighting from time-to-time in an office, café, meeting place or airport lounge. Their work will still be organized spatially: meetings will be coordinated so that they occur in pleasant and accessible places; co-working spaces and flexible offices will compete for the best urban locations, probably around transport, leisure and retail nodes; and residential neighborhoods with good cafés, Wifi access, and easy (and digitally connected) transport links will be more sought after.

Secondary offices may be the new “warehouses,” cheap space that creative workers or artists can take over. Some of the ever-multiplying co-working spaces could also benefit. These spaces vary by the type of workspace provider as well as by the type of work and worker that they attract. Operated by either multinational companies (WeWork, Regus, Breather), or Airbnb-like platforms (ShareDesk) and collectives, co-working spaces are rapidly spreading across the globe—yet these are just one manifestation of the changes that are afoot.

Some activity is still fixed: receptionists, baristas, restaurateurs, factory workers (as well as surgeons, hotel managers and air-traffic controllers) still perform their work principally from fixed or well-defined locations. And some activity takes advantage of the new possibilities described earlier (mobility, flexibility, digitization), but in a limited or a constrained way: dog-walkers, at-residence personal grooming, house cleaners, food deliveries, taxi (and ride-hailing) services—all are deeply affected by mobile communications, but the workers are not liberated by it: rather, it forces them to be on-call, to accept zero-hour contracts, and to compete more for low-wage gigs.

With these evolutions, is it still reasonable to zone cities and regions as if economic activity only occurs in specific places?

How do clusters and “cool” neighborhoods develop and function? Should they be planned for the co-location of interconnected establishments and activities, or for accommodating people passing through? How should transport networks adapt service hours, pricing, comfort and waiting spaces to the new activities that occur along them? How can one plan for dispersed networks of activity that span the city (and beyond)? Do cities need to expand or roll out Wifi in public areas and transport networks, or do cell-phone networks do the job? Do cities with their own connectivity function better as wealth-generators? Building codes, which specify use, occupation and layout, should be rethought since it is difficult to foresee how many people will be working in a flexible space.

Rather than answering these types of questions piecemeal, city planners would benefit from reconceptualizing the link between economic activity and urban space. While practical answers are important, it is also necessary to rethink the city in a wider sense.

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