It’s time to factor remote work into our urban planning

Let’s move past rush hour.
Let’s move past rush hour.
Image: AP/Nick Ut
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Crowded streets. Awful commutes. Stressed infrastructure. Poor air quality. High cost of living. While this does not describe every city today, it is a likely future for most.

By 2030, the UN predicts that 60% of the world’s population will be living and working where the best jobs tend to be—in large cities.

This feeds into a growing concern over overcrowding, which we have seen yield disastrous results. If cities are overpopulated now, where do we expect to fit even more people in the next 10 years?

Policy makers are trying to solve this problem by building more homes for people moving to cities, and designing better transportation infrastructure to get people to work faster. This addresses some major fallouts of overcrowding and congestion, but it doesn’t sufficiently get to the root of the matter.

If we really want to build a sustainable future for cities, then government and business leaders need to shift focus and incorporate remote work options into urban planning.

In this digital age, more people than ever can perform work with a connected device, from wherever they happen to be. Indeed, studies show more than two-thirds of workers worldwide are already doing their jobs away from the office at least once a week.

In the US, nearly 70% of young managers—mostly millennials—say they allow team members to work remotely. More than 56 million Americans freelanced last year, choosing flexibility over a traditional 9-to-5 job. US census data shows that the population of those working from home grew four times faster than the overall working population between 2005 and 2017.

Government and business leaders around the world can take advantage of these trends by putting flexible work at the center of discussions now. They can create more precise plans and creative incentives to make remote work more appealing for people across industries.

A few months ago, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, working with the George Kaiser Foundation, offered a limited number of remote and self-employed workers the opportunity to move to town for one year. Participants were offered $10,000 in cash, a housing stipend for a furnished apartment, and a desk in a downtown co-working space. Last year, Vermont established a similar program with its Remote Worker Grant Program.

We need more programs like these in secondary cities, towns, and rural areas around the globe. If this practice were more commonplace, we would see that a more established remote work culture can truly make a positive impact in wealth, health, and society at large.

Yet many companies are still reluctant to commit to flexible work models. In fact, some appear to be rebelling against the concept in a remote-work backlash, with companies like Yahoo, Bank of America, Aetna, and IBM bringing remote employees back to their offices. In addition, about 95% of remote roles require workers to be based in a single, set location so that they’re available for meetings and comply with local tax codes.

From a purely business standpoint, this trend makes little sense. By allowing people to work remotely, companies save money on commercial real estate, since they need less office space. They also don’t have to pay to relocate team members.

Meanwhile, studies indicate people in flexible work programs are happier, healthier, and more productive than their office-bound colleagues. So, while some big-name companies eschew remote work, many more, including Amazon, Apple, Dell, Hilton, and Microsoft, are embracing it. And some fast-growing tech companies are dispensing with offices in favor of fully distributed teams, such as Automattic, Mozilla, Basecamp, GitHub, Atlassian, Zapier, Buffer, and Upwork (my company), to name a few.

While the business case for remote work is strong, the benefits for society are even stronger.

By eliminating the need for people to congregate in one of a very limited pool of locales to access good jobs, cities are less likely to face demands for housing that exceed what they are able or willing to build. As a result, mortgage and rent costs stabilize. And those who truly need to live in big cities can do so more affordably, as opposed to what we see today: billions of urban dwellers living in substandard housing and struggling just to get by.

When team members work remotely, they also spend less time each week on local roads and highways. This means they’re happier, less likely to quit their jobs, and likely spending more time focused on their work. Fewer cars on roads and highways mean shorter commute times for those who have no choice but to drive to work, and—very importantly—less pollutants in the air.

A wealth of evidence supports the idea that remote work can offset our most pressing urban woes. Yet it’s rarely part of the conversation when government and city leaders sit down to brainstorm ideas for addressing the potentially serious effects of overcrowding.

Case in point: In India, more than 300 million people are expected to move from poor countryside communities to urban centers by 2050. This makes sense, because that’s where the jobs happen to be (even if they don’t pay enough for people to actually afford to live in the country’s major cities).

Urban planners recognize that the movement of all these people will exacerbate the nation’s housing crunch and bring heavy traffic congestion, which, in turn, could hamper worker productivity. But instead of trying to keep ahead of worsening urban crowding, state urban planners are still focusing on housing and faster commutes. Shifting to a formal remote work plan would not only solve the problem, but turn it into an opportunity by boosting development and economy outside major cities.

People will still choose to live in San Francisco, Mumbai, Hong Kong, and London. But if we’re going to make headway on this growing city-sustainability problem, we have to spur change by thinking outside of the box, creating new options, and making use of the technology we already have access to.

Remote work is the wave of the future. It’s time for governments and corporate leaders to recognize the opportunity this trend presents, and to start building a better future for urban dwellers around the world.