Will cities survive 2020?

Iowa State University economist Matt Clancy is much more bullish on remote work’s prospects. In City Journal’s Spring 2020 issue, he argues that companies’ use of software like Slack, which relies on informal message-based communication, does a much better job of simulating casual hallway conversations and random collaboration than did the old remote-work infrastructure, like email and phone calls. Increasingly customizable emojis and gifs, and growing comfort with their use, he says, are an effective substitute for the social atmosphere that offices traditionally provided.

Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford, stakes out something of a middle ground. He thinks the pandemic has lowered the traditional stigma of working from home and argues that the money and time people have put into setting up home workspaces will make them unwilling to completely abandon them. A year of social distancing may also make people less keen on crowding into downtown office towers.

But there’s still a problem with full-time remote work, he says: “It’s full-time.” Being constantly plugged in can produce loneliness, and it requires parents to simultaneously juggle work and childcare responsibilities. “It’s not that working from home during COVID is fantastic,” he says. “It’s just that the alternative is even worse.”

Bloom believes the most likely outcome will be a hybrid arrangement, where people work one or two days a week at the office and the rest of the time from home. People’s experience with social distancing will also encourage companies to switch to low-rise suburban office parks that don’t rely on mass transit and crowded elevators to get people to and from their desks, he says.