How Cities Are Transforming for Remote Workforces

March 2020 saw the world of work change drastically, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced many companies worldwide to close their offices and equip their employees to work from home. Many companies and workers believed that this shutdown would be temporary, lasting three to six months at the most. It is now more than one year later, and millions of workers are still working remotely in lieu of working in person. Some companies are even making plans to permanently change their workplaces to 100 percent remote, both now and after the pandemic. Others are offering employees choices, allowing them to work on-site some of the time and remotely some of the time.

Pre-pandemic, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that 4.7 million people in the U.S. (comprising 3.4 percent of the country’s workforce) worked remotely. This number had increased by one percent since 2015. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, 88 percent of companies worldwide made it optional or mandatory for employees to work from home, remotely. According to Owl Labs, as of 2021, 52 percent of employees worldwide work remotely at least once per week, and 68 percent work remotely at least once monthly. Additionally, 2.9 percent of the U.S. workforce, about 3.9 million people, now work remotely for at least half of their work time. In the U.S, per Global Workplace Analytics, remote work has increased by a whopping 173 percent between 2005 and 2018 (remember, that’s pre-pandemic). These numbers seem to indicate that remote work did exist before the COVID-19 pandemic, that it seems to be here to stay, and that remote work will likely continue to grow.

One aspect of remote work that has not often been considered is its effects on cities and planning. If a large majority of the workforce is no longer commuting to cities and urban areas to work, how will this affect the infrastructure of cities, both now and in the future? Urban, regional and city planners must take these changes into account when planning future spaces, as they are also simultaneously trying to solve the problems of urbanization, transportation issues, and designing new cities outside of existing metropolises. Future city planners must accommodate remote workers through a variety of designs and means. This includes, but is not limited to, spatial planning, urban planning, and transportation planning. Let’s delve into this subject further.

Remote Work Creating a Shift to Periphery Cities

The shift to remote work has already drastically changed much of the atmosphere and, some would say, the ambience of major cities. Not only is rush-hour traffic and congestion much lighter, but some retail stores and restaurants that were favorites of office workers have closed (or have very limited hours). Additionally, those who no longer need to live within the centers of cities in order to be close to their jobs or close to schools while studying urban planning degrees, are moving outside of them, into the less expensive suburbs, or periphery cities.

How would modern-day cities change if remote work were to increase, permanently? Experts theorize that there would be three main effects of this phenomenon (which we have already seen occur in many cities):

  • Residents would move out of the centers of cities, while jobs could move in (or stay in).
  • Traffic congestion in cities would ease, and commuting times would decrease drastically.
  • Real estate prices within urban areas would decline. Real estate prices in periphery cities and suburbs would increase as more people moved out of the centers of cities. One study has projected that real estate prices in the Los Angeles area could decrease overall by six percent if residents shift from living within urban centers to living in peripheries.

Remote work does not necessarily spell bad news for cities, however. There are many positive effects of remote work:

  • Migration from congested urban areas causes a whole host of dominoes to fall:
    • Less urbanization and overcrowding of larger cities as jobs, and housing, moves into periphery cities
    • As a result, the spread of infectious disease in cities potentially slows or stops
    • Traffic congestion is relieved, which could have many positive effects
  • Better physical and mental health: A study conducted by Gallup noted that those who worked from home for at least some part of their work week are more engaged, positive, energetic, enthusiastic, and productive. They are able to achieve a better work/life balance and, subsequently, tend to suffer from fewer mental and physical health problems.
  • Reduction of emissions in cities: The reduction in commuting reduces emissions, which creates environmental benefits as well as public health benefits. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office estimated in 2015 that remote work had already helped to reduce emissions by 44,000 tons. Imagine how much greater reductions of emissions could be through more people working remotely.
  • Employers and employees are both saving money due to remote work:
    • Employers’ overhead costs are reduced as space in office buildings is no longer needed.
    • Less energy is used if office buildings are not fully being utilized.
    • Reduced travel and commuting expenses as well as child care costs help both employers and employees to save money.

What does all of this mean for urban planners who are planning and designing our cities’ futures? They must learn to meet the new challenges that will now be involved in designing cities, urban areas, regional areas and periphery cities to be friendly to this new crop of remote workers. This will involve coming up with innovative solutions that will help employees, employers and cities to grow and change amid this ever-evolving environment.

Public Transportation and Commuting

It is clear that the pandemic has had a negative effect on public transit. Remote work has resulted in a sharp decrease in commuting and fewer people using public transit.

  • More than half of Americans reported in a Moovit transit app survey that, since the pandemic, they are using public transit less, or not at all.
  • Up to one-third of people in some worldwide cities have stopped using public transportation completely, worrying about the spread of infection and disinfection policies of these transport methods.
  • Public transportation companies are therefore losing money as commuters who must still travel back and forth to essential jobs are utilizing public transit less, so as to avoid crowded spaces in which viruses and infections can proliferate and spread.

Transportation planners must come up with solutions to these problems if public transit is to survive in the current and post-pandemic era. Some proposed solutions include:

  • Increasing the number of trains and buses available within public transit systems. This would help commuters to avoid overcrowding and decrease the potential spread of infections.
  • Having uniform disinfection methods in place that public transit companies must follow is also high on the wish lists of those who would use public transportation.
  • Commuters having the ability to access real-time data on whether public transit services are full, and whether there are areas within trains and buses that are less crowded, is highly important for many potential users of public transportation.

Some areas of the world are designing transportation methods to be proactive to riders’ concerns. In South Korea, for example, a smart bus stop is used to check the temperature of riders before the board the bus. It will only allow them on the bus if their temperature is below a certain number.

The U.S. Department of Transportation hopes that commuters will eventually return to using public transportation, if only to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and decrease the rate of climate change. Public transit is preferred over driving individual vehicles to work, as most public transit methods provide a lower emissions alternative, facilitate compact land use, and minimize the carbon footprint. If just one person who owned a private car switched to public transport for their daily commute, they could reduce their household’s annual carbon footprint by over eight percent.

How Can Cities Accommodate Remote Work?

Because remote work seems to be here to stay, cities must change in order to accommodate remote workers, as well as to attract and retain them. Smaller cities and communities must now develop and build economics based on remote workers in order to compete with the large cities that have traditionally housed our business and technology centers. Periphery cities are also becoming known as “Zoom towns,” as workers living within them are connecting to their business’s headquarters virtually via Zoom and other means. In the future, city planners must be able to accommodate remote work through a variety of ways. These include, but are not limited to, planning secondary cities or suburbs around metropolises, careful and strategic city planning, and putting public policies in place for remote work employment.

Spatial Planning

Spatial planning, otherwise known as GIS planning, involves gathering, analyzing, mapping and planning data using Geographic Information System and spatial location. These planners work with other types of planners to plan for the future use of land and space.

  • Redesigning spaces in urban areas: As spatial planners know, an intricate relationship exists between a region’s population, its housing market, and its level of employment. Remote work can completely change the balance of this equation. Although people won’t completely abandon living in cities, as there are other reasons why people choose to live in cities besides employment opportunities, spatial planners must learn to design city housing around aspects and ideas that are going to be important to those planning to live in the city. These include things such as retail opportunities, restaurants, health care and child care.
  • Prioritizing and accommodating other modes of transportation, such as bicycles, will become more important than prioritizing vehicles and cars. This will have a positive effect on the environment as well, as fewer emissions-producing vehicles are expected to be traveling within cities.
  • Finding new uses for office buildings: Spatial planners must help to find new uses for abandoned office buildings within the hearts of cities. Some empty office space could be converted to residential use, as housing is often lacking in cities. Planners must remember, however, that it is possible that fewer people will want to live in the middle of cities than before, with their jobs now being remote. Government incentives and changes to public policy may also be needed in order to repurpose some land and existing buildings.

City Planning

City planners will hold the responsibility for delegating their use of land and resources within a metropolitan area. This might include using city space for smaller company offices with fewer employees, rather than larger buildings meant to accommodate thousands of employees. Workplaces with fewer workers may be redesigned into co-working areas or residential areas as required.

Building information modeling (BIM) becomes important here in that it can make it easier for urban designers to design buildings that are adaptable to different uses. Environmental metrics, energy consumption, and patterns of human activity in a space can be tracked and analyzed to improve efficiency and accommodate social distancing. Entire neighborhoods can be planned in this way in the future.

Strategic planning of our communications infrastructure also becomes highly important when planning for remote work. Many Americans still lack access to high-speed Internet and therefore cannot work from home. Our digital infrastructure and support structures must be improved and expanded to increase access for all.

Urban and Regional Planning

Urban and regional planners must rethink the cities, towns, and counties (which comprise the suburbs) around metropolitan areas to accommodate remote workers. It is likely that job headquarters for remote workers will move out of the centers of urban areas and into periphery regions around cities. These suburbs and periphery regions will also become attractive to those who wish to move out of cities and into less expensive housing. Within regions, an increase in remote work may foster the dispersal of housing options throughout that region.

Many cities rely on sales taxes and income taxes to support their infrastructure and services. Working remotely may shift such resources away from cities into areas that do not have these taxes. The rise in remote work frightens many city commissioners, who worry about losing revenue from city workers. Planners must take matters such as these into account when planning for urban and regional areas of the future.

Public Policy

Equity becomes even more important in planning spaces and cities for remote work. The shift to digitization of office jobs will impact everyone, not just those working within those offices. Not everyone will necessarily benefit from remote work at first. Communications infrastructure, housing and transit options and the location and availability of services are also crucial to a successful future in which everyone, if they so desire, can perform remote work. Public policy may need to be put into place to guarantee these for all.

We must also have these services in place for those who must continue to commute to work and access services in person. Changes in public policy will, once again, be necessary in order to accommodate remote work, public transit/commuting, and for the new suburbs of cities. Planners must serve all residents and be mindful of social justice impacts on these changes in the ways in which we live and work.