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).