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By Erik Brynjolfsson, Stanford University, Robert H. Brown, Cognizant Center for the Future of Work

In these times of contagion, one too-often-repeated refrain about cities is “It’s over.” San Francisco, New York, London … are no longer necessary. Time to head to the hills with a laptop, fat WiFi pipe, yoga mat and a good amount of social distancing.

Despite these “death of the city” proclamations post-COVID, urban centers will remain key to the future of new work. But for municipalities and commercial real estate alike to recapture the center of gravity (and for the businesses that inhabit them that yearn for a return to work, ASAP), they’ll need a rethink not only of their role in workers’ lives but also a technology prescription of prediction, prevention and early detection via pervasive health screening.

Done right, the result will be a physical rebirth and renaissance of communities everywhere, featuring newly hybridized spaces for safe and healthy working and living. The key will be keeping things human-scale even as technology takes center stage.

Measuring the impact

New research from MIT and Stanford (in partnership with the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work) will provide a definitive analysis of the impact of the remote models of work forced on much of the world’s population by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The concerns about infection and risk of disease due to the pandemic contributed to a large decline in global economic activity in 2020. As the pandemic shut down traditional workplaces, the share of Americans working from home soared from less than about 17% at the start of 2020 to nearly 50% by the middle of the year.

While earlier work by Cognizant documented clear correlations between COVID-19 and remote work, we now aim to identify causal relationships and understand the long-term implication of the pandemic. In particular, through a new representative survey of the US adult population, and taking advantage of individual, business and regional heterogeneity in pandemic exposure, our team will obtain causal estimates on a variety of economic and organizational impact metrics. We will explore the adoption of remote work, organizational changes, consumption choices of conventional and digital goods, and overall wellbeing and determine whether these changes will have long-lasting effects.

The land that time forgot ... or reimagined?

Months after the pandemic hit, many cubicle-filled office spaces still appear like a neutron bomb exploded, with unused desks and other March 2020 artifacts frozen in time and nary a person in view. While many businesses weren’t prepared when disaster struck, they still had to react, resiliently. And just as when the exigencies of any crisis pass, it’s now time to evaluate lessons learned to further future-proof business contingency plans for how best to keep workers motivated and productive wherever they may be.

In a post-vaccine, return-to-work world, technology-rich processes and procedures will be essential. Already, we’re seeing glimmers of a “clean regime” to make buildings ready for workers. And we expect city governments and corporate workplace environmental architects to promote strategies that highlight hygiene as a matter of public health. We also envision the rise of a new governmental body akin to a Health Security Agency, with a budget that dwarfs the airport-based TSA’s $7.7 billion.

To enter any building or space or country, people might be required to undergo an automated, self-administered, Star Trek-like “tricorder” scan (similar to a pre-boarding scan at an airport), and be turned away if evidence of pathogens are detected. At first, it’ll be likely that Health Security Agency staff will administer the scan, but over time, the entire process may become automated — with requisite scanning equipment in the air-lock lobby of every building.

Of course, the skyscraper, the iconic urban office tower, will still captivate by offering jaw-dropping views and the thrill of hovering in the clouds. From the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco to Hudson Yards in New York City, these vertical spaces may require floor-by-floor protocols to be established (e.g., separated, masked workers, extreme cleaning, etc.), even for half occupancy. What’s more, if perennial pandemics persist in making elevators a choke point (“after your congested commute by car or public transportation, enjoy the final shuttle to your floor”), cities might have to go from skyscrapers to “groundscrapers.” Or consider WeWork-esque alternatives like Second Home; if up-and-coming co-working spaces can create safe, healthy and well-ventilated workspaces that are documented (and guaranteed) to be safe from infectious disease, it’ll present even more alternatives for small businesses and freelancers alike.

#WFH “Forever”? How about #WFHybrid?

Led by the Silicon Valley tech giants, more and more companies have already extended their timelines for remote work — with some, like Facebook and Twitter, proclaiming at least some portion of the employee rolls could “work from home forever.” The implications of all this will remake models of space and place far into the future, using digital tools for remote work (a concept explored in depth in Cognizant's “Welcome to Remotopia” report).

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Virtual spaces are going to change the jobs of the future

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COVID has shown that “heads-down work” can be done anywhere (e.g., coding, writing, form-filling). It had already been happening, pre-COVID, across many roles for years, created by the maturation of cloud systems, smartphones, modern software, omnipresent Wi-Fi and high-speed networking, plus the need by employees (and employers) for work/life balance within their work lives. But customs, inertia, conservatism and “presenteeism” have kept many people stuck in their office cubicle.

By contrast, “heads-up work” is still best done face-to-face. Seamless videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom and others provide some semblance of much-needed social connection and #WFH pandemic productivity, but there is still no substitute for being “in the room” when you want to create, collaborate and close. The future balance rests on the calibration of remote/at-home and in-person/in-office hybrid approaches that deliver what makes people feel good about their work.

Technology only goes so far in supporting human bonding, and no technology can replicate the simpatico rapport and overall good vibes fostered by analog, human-to-human community. Sometimes technology can help, but it can’t do it.

Computer commuters

One aspect of the hybrid home-office workplaces idea has profoundly strategic consequences: the ability to live in an affordable locale. Reams have been written about the tech boom in the Bay Area, putting everything from housing prices, commutes, business locations and homelessness into an unsustainable pressure cooker. The irony cuts deep: “Silicon Valley, the place that couldn’t scale itself.”

However, while the typical car-centric suburb may have been rejuvenated by the many knowledge workers now working from home, its ongoing status remains an open question. (Indeed, looking back on the absurdity of hours-long commutes to maintain the suburban lifestyle, young people may also wonder why a suburban workplace was ever appealing.)

Part of the allure of the bright lights of the big city remains: the buzz, the energy, the networking potential, the hot startups, the hot restaurants, arts and nightlife. But if you’re blessed to be in a small town with coffee shops, restaurants, bakeries and libraries all within several blocks — the absolutely critical “Great Good Places” needed in Remotopia to foster non-screen-based, real-reality human connection — charming-yet-pragmatic features like these will likely be a springboard into the new hybrid model.

Spreading the work, spreading the wealth

Attractive towns and cities will endure, but the dominant model of suburban sprawl knit by car commutes needs a rethink. This is where the hybrid workplaces model is fit for the future. Already, urban and municipal planners are reimagining the “15-minute city,” where outdoor spaces and restaurant parklets are joined by grocers and childcare, all within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. Remote working is an essential part of making the most of more human-scale ways of living like this possible. (And arguably, this communalism is hard-coded into us; medieval cities of old consisting of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers generally were only a couple miles wide and could also be traversed in 15 to 20 minutes — all without automobiles.)

For other people, a variation might entail living the rural dream in pretty, post-pandemic revitalized villages, with a once-a-week departure (by flying car, perhaps?) to the centralized urban office nest, hub or “showroom” — a meeting place for heads-up interactions and meetings with clients or colleagues.

A new hybrid future

Putting all this together, we may dream and fervently hope that we’ll see forces like these push a renaissance in Tier 2 cities that are walkable, affordable and vibrant in their own way. Already, we’re seeing places like this emerge in up-and-coming locations like Sacramento, CA, and Portland, ME, to name just a few.

Where once working from home was a privilege for the few, it’s suddenly become a necessity for the many. With #WFH now widely implemented, it would be foolhardy to assume we’ll go back to the old ways of working. Welcome to the new hybrid future of work: sometimes remote, sometimes in the office, and all driving outsized business outcomes and impact in the process.

This article was written by Erik Brynjolfsson, Professor at Stanford and Director of the Stanford Digital Economy Lab and Robert H. Brown, Vice President at Cognizant's Center for the Future of Work.

To learn more read the latest Cognizanti Journal, "The resiliency reset," or contact us.