Telecommuting will make Boston share the wealth
Old ways of working and living will give way to a ‘polycentric’ region.
By Jeff Howe
There’s a saying in technology circles, commonly ascribed to the futurist Roy Amara, that we tend to overestimate the short-term impacts of a new technology but underestimate its long-term consequences. The telephone, commercial air travel, and even the Internet all failed to live up to their initial hype but ultimately transformed our culture and the economy.
Amara’s Law goes a long way toward explaining our current moment. Futurists have been pronouncing the coming ascendancy of “telecommuting,” as it was quaintly called in the age of “Web logs” and CD-ROMs, since the early 1980s. But just because we could didn’t mean we would, and for decades the number of remote workers remained marginal. Human behavior, not technology, ultimately determines the impact of any given innovation. In 2019, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, only 7 percent of Americans even had the choice of working from home.
Oh, the difference a year makes. Last fall, Gallup found that 58 percent of US employees were always or sometimes working remotely. In Massachusetts, the prevalence of remote work in the second half of 2020 was the third-highest in the nation, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics compiled by the freelance-work platform Upwork. And major employers indicate that the number of remote workers is unlikely to drop substantially any time this year.
“COVID was basically an inflection point, a giant nudge, and the behaviors it changed won’t change back because everyone gets a vaccine,” says Susan Lund, a partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company and the lead author on a recent report on the future of work.
Companies discovered that contrary to initial worries, productivity did not decline and in some cases improved; many employees enjoyed the freedom and the time saved by not commuting. Kathleen Federico, a senior vice president for staffing and corporate strategy at the Bedford-based government contracting firm MITRE, expects some 70 percent of the company’s 8,200 employees will be mostly remote from now on. Other big regional employers, like John Hancock and the investment company Loomis Sayles, are making similar moves. The last time this high a percentage of Americans worked from home, the tricorne hat was still in fashion.
The effects will be felt not only in companies but in the urban fabric itself, as the model of central cities swollen with workweek commuters gives way to something else. It’s not that there will be a wholesale corporate exodus from the urban center; instead, the result will be something more complicated and, in the long term, more interesting. The hub-and-spoke model of urban settlement will give way to a “polycentric” setup — a collection of newly empowered regional centers that could include so-called gateway cities like Lowell, Springfield, and Worcester.
True to Amara’s Law, these radical changes in how — and where — labor takes place don’t constitute an entirely new direction but an acceleration of dynamics that were developing rather slowly. “I would estimate that we saw the equivalent of five years of change in the course of one year,” says J.D. Chesloff, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable. Chesloff cannot think of one of his member companies — which together employ 250,000 people in the state — that isn’t adopting a hybrid-remote mode of production. “The reality for most people will be flexibility — coming in a few days a week — not the complete abandonment of the workplace,” says Adam Ozimek, Upwork’s chief economist.
According to the real estate firm Newmark, downtown Boston now has more than four million square feet of vacant office space, which is more than at any time since the recession of 2008. It may not be showing up immediately in rental listings; the rates that landlords are asking for office space “haven’t declined the way you’d think — maybe 3 or 4 percent,” says Newmark’s research director, Liz Berthelette. “But what we’re seeing is companies willing to negotiate steep discounts in a way we weren’t seeing before.”
As prices continue to drop, downtown could become more residential and more accessible to smaller, more adventurous retailers and startups. Rents for one-bedroom apartments are down 16 percent in Boston generally and, according to one study, as much as 25 percent down in the vicinity of T stops like Government Center and State Street.
Data from the McKinsey report shows that the exodus of professionals from cosmopolitan hubs like San Francisco and New York City is also occurring in Boston, but not at the same scale — with a 13 percent net loss in residents compared with 25 percent for New York City. The difference, McKinsey’s Lund believes, can be attributed to Boston’s eds-and-meds economy, which also explains why some of the nodes in our region’s emerging polycentric network are already roaring back from a brief pandemic pause. Google is expanding its presence in Kendall Square. Last month a parcel of land in the budding life-sciences district in Allston sold for $67 million.
And for all the talk of people taking their laptops and absconding from the Seaport for more spacious digs in Austin or Charlotte or France, in reality many more people are choosing to relocate to places like Weston or Lowell or Worcester. “If you look at rents in Boston, they’re down, but almost everywhere else across the region, they’re actually up,” says Luc Schuster, director of Boston Indicators, the research arm of the Boston Foundation. He notes that cities like Lynn have heated up enough to be having “tough conversations about gentrification.” In Worcester, developers are snapping up derelict areas in the expectation of turning them into attractive residential properties.
If managed correctly, Schuster notes, the evolution of a polycentric region could do much to address the yawning inequality that has beleaguered Boston, where a red-hot housing market has squeezed the middle class. An outgoing tide into cities like Lowell and Worcester — which become more appealing for someone commuting to Boston only twice a week rather than every day — would have a leveling effect, geographically redistributing more of the income that flows to high-paid professionals. Some of the very places the information age has left behind could reap the benefits in the form of property taxes, local spending on goods and services, and, ultimately, the kind of innovation dividends previously concentrated in the toniest regions of Greater Boston.
Amara’s Law doesn’t just describe the rapid acceptance of remote work. It also applies to the very nature of our relationship to public spaces: where we live and where we work and play, and how we travel between these places. The pandemic might well be an inflection point in that regard too.
“I think we’re entering a period in which we see a radical rethinking of the built environment,” says Michelle Laboy, an architecture professor at Northeastern University who studies resilience in urban landscapes. “The new economic reality in which the daily commute basically disappears will create a demand for a lot of related changes.” Laboy envisions offices built not for cubicles but for being social, and streets designed around rapid electric bus transit that can quickly take riders to a range of destinations, not just funnel them toward a congested hub.
Laboy, who stuck out the pandemic in the South End, is bullish on the survival of Boston itself. “People were imagining an apocalyptic environment where the city becomes a ghost town, but I don’t think it will be like that.” Far more likely, she says, is that all those empty floors in office buildings will be subdivided and snapped up by startups and other outfits that were previously priced out of the urban core.
We could, she says, be on the cusp of a greener, fairer, more equitable Boston. Polycentric cities have lower infrastructure costs and greater resilience to environmental and economic threats. Having more mixed-use clusters of retail, residential, and commercial space would reduce transit and generally provide a better quality of life.
It’ll take some political imagination — and money — to guide the transformation. Some wealthier enclaves will have to change their zoning laws to allow more multi-unit dwellings, so that real estate prices aren’t inflated through artificial scarcity. But we can do these kinds of things. After all, we’ve learned something about change and adaptation.
Jeff Howe is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University. Follow him on Twitter @crowdsourcing.
This article was updated on April 19 to correct Kathleen Federico’s name and title.