The future of work: Not the office or home
The now-common term “work from home” belies an important phenomenon in today’s economy: many people, when given the option to work remotely, are actually working from somewhere else. Before the pandemic, most people did not get to choose where to work. Now, the popular narrative is that many people are dividing their working hours between exactly two locations: an employer-provided workplace or the home office, whether that is a refined salon with specific thousand-page books or the humble living room couch.
People across the country are in fact choosing a wide variety of locations to take Zoom calls and answer emails, including friend’s houses, coffee shops, libraries, community centers and co-working spaces. These days, the phenomenon is largely driven by individual preferences such as the need for a better wi-fi connection or a more social working environment. But a coordinated effort by employers, real estate developers, transportation services and public agencies could transform the rise of “working close to home” into a happy compromise between a return to the office and working from home, balancing the environmental and individual benefits of remote work with the serendipitous social and economic benefits of face-to-face interactions.
Researchers from Stanford, the University of Chicago, Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México and MIT have found that more than one-third of all remote hours are now spent in a location other than the home. These working hours are spent at “third places,” a term used in sociology to represent non-work, non-home locations. Some third places, like libraries and cafés, were designed to serve as potential workplaces before the pandemic. Others have adapted existing spaces for the new remote work boom. Hotels have recently begun offering daytime-only booking of vacant rooms for local remote workers. In Japan, karaoke parlors are promoting their small soundproof lounges as the perfect locale for video conferences.
Men and women choose similar amounts of remote work overall, but men are much more likely to frequent third spaces than women. One explanation could be the disproportionate burden of household maintenance tasks and childcare faced by women, both of which are easier to fit in between Zoom meetings if working at home. High-income groups use third places, particularly co-working spaces, more than low income groups. Remote workers in states won by President Biden in 2020 are more likely to use third places than those won by former President Trump. Third place use might also be weather-dependent; remote workers in Texas and California were more likely to use third places in November and December of 2021 than those in Massachusetts.
What incentivizes people to leave the comfort of their homes and travel to third places? Some homes are not suited for remote work; imagine focusing on a task with erratic internet or a leaf-blowing enthusiast next door. Third places may bring benefits that outweigh the inconvenience of getting dressed and heading outside. The neighborhood cafe has comfortable chairs and a great playlist where one can make new acquaintances, or the local co-working space is easily accessible and has a quiet room for making conference calls.
The rise of third places as remote work locations could have a profound impact on the demand for urban space. Co-working spaces are already beginning to focus more on suburban areas where they can be accessed more easily by much of the remote workforce. Connecting residential neighborhoods with suburban centers via transit, walking and cycling will encourage sustainable travel modes for third place commutes. Replacing longer commute trips with shorter or non-car trips would curb highway traffic and greenhouse gas emissions, a centerpiece of climate change mitigation plans. People are more likely to make discretionary trips in diverse neighborhood centers, boosting demand for local markets, retail stores and sandwich counters and realizing the urbanist dream of “15-minute cities,” where most daily activities can be accomplished within a short walk or bike ride.
How employers react to the rise of third places remains an open question. Remote work locations are largely left to the worker’s discretion, so long as it does not have a noticeable effect on productivity or run afoul of labor laws. But employers have already started to interfere; many large employers are subsidizing co-working subscriptions for employees, perhaps to influence their remote work location decisions. The third places provide opportunities for “creative collisions” that may ultimately improve productivity and morale.
The MIT working paper “Why Working From Home Will Stick” demonstrates that working from home will indeed stick — but so will working from other places. Third places have only become more popular of late; usage of third places was greater in December 2021 and January 2022 than in November 2021. Whether this phenomenon ultimately results in happier employees, sustainable transportation choices and a more creative economy will depend on the response from private and public institutions. If employers provide the necessary flexibility to their staff, and policymakers engage in smart land use and transportation planning for third-place trips, the result could be a rare win-win-win for workers, businesses, and the public good.
Jinhua Zhao is an associate professor of transportation and city planning as well as director of MIT Mobility Initiative. Zhao is conducting this research with his students Nick Caros and Xiaotong Guo
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