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Summary:

The rise of remote work may mean teams can spread out far and wide from corporate headquarters, but ironically, the increasing prevalence of telecommuting could actually lead to denser communities rather than atomized workers as work and life are integrated in one space.

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Will the rise of remote work mean we’re more spread out or more densely packed together? Obviously the latter, you could argue, pointing to the fact that logging in to work via the web allows colleagues to be spread from Abu Dhabi to Austin. But there is a case to be made that when the trend towards remote work is far enough along, the result will be denser communities of workers.

The Atlantic Cities explained this second point of view recently, noting data that points to a renewed and rising interest in downtown cores and trends towards more urban-style suburbs where residents live closer together and rely less on cars for transportation. Citing a post by Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, that appeared on the Huffington Post, the Atlantic piece argues that as telecommuting becomes more common these trends towards denser communities will accelerate.

With the rise of the contingent workforce, people will also live and work in ways we haven’t seen for a very long time. We have developed our cities based on the old economy, with residential, commercial, and industrial areas kept separate and ‘pure’ through single-use zoning. That made sense in an economy that divided our work lives from our private lives, and that spawned large-scale noxious industries that no one wanted nearby. The next economy, though, may look more like the way in which people lived and worked prior to the industrial revolution, in which home, office, and shop co-exist in some combination of physical and digital space. This may require rethinking our zoning laws to allow for a much finer-grain mix of uses and re-purposing buildings designed for single functions that will have no tenants or buyers if they remain that way.

The Atlantic points out, knowledge work requires creative, thoughtful professionals who in turn need stimulating, densely populated spaces where they can run into and bump ideas off others of their kind. Remote work won’t eliminate this need. It’ll just shift where these interactions happen from the water cooler at the office to the street outside your house.

This idea that the changing nature of work will alter how we envision and build our communities has come up on WebWorkerDaily before. Coworking advocates, for example, have noted that, as people stay closer to their houses during the workday, they demand more from their community (and also offer it more) spurring development around their homes and coworking spaces.

Jerome Chang, an architect and owner of BLANKSPACES coworking in Los Angeles, noted that Zappos, ahead of the curve as usual, is already trying to put these insights into practice, building a new corporate campus that the company hopes will encourage employees to mix their work and personal lives in the same downtown area.

Do you think the rise of remote work will spur us to rethink our communities?

Image courtesy of Flickr user shotmeshotyou.

  1. I’ve observed a change even in more remote, lower density communities. My subdivision is far from the city core and the homes are far from densely packed, but there are a LOT of people who are in their homes and around the neighborhood in the daytime. A few years ago, you wouldn’t have seen this – the community would have emptied out every weekday except for a few stay at home parents. This shift hasn’t resulted in a greater sense of community yet, IMO, but I’m seeing a few tentative signs that home office workers are networking more with others nearby who also work from home. Ultimately, one hopes, these outposts will become stronger communities themselves.

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  2. Great article. We see this as part of a broader trend we call “The Paradox of Place”, which is the Internet is making place both less and more important. We think it’s having a huge impact on communities.

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  3. I wish I lived in this GigaOm dreamworld where remote work was so commonplace. However, in reality these jobs are too few and far between to actually make an impact on the broader population (for now, at least).

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  4. As a Remote contractor for over 7 years I agree that as this trend grows it becomes obvious that our human instinct to Herd comes into play. I find I do miss the human interaction of an office. I think that is why so many remote employees end up at the local Coffee shop for a few hours each day. We are trained to ‘Go’ to work. Personally I enjoy the quiet working from home affords me. And the lack of interruption. I get plenty of interaction via webcam.
    One of the funny side effects of your neighbors knowing you work from home is the constant flow of requests to ; accept package deliveries or “can you keep an eye out for the cable guy” like I don’t have anything better to do….lol…this is my argument for less dense communities….lol

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