A look at how Zoom-era deurbanization could make office inequities worse

Harvard economist Edward Glaeser walks through the research on what remote work means for who succeeds and who struggles.

The tradeoffs of living in a city like Washington D.C. or San Francisco or New York can feel a bit tilted these days. The high costs of living and daily hassles are still there, if not intensified, and the great things about urban life — from mixing and mingling with a delightful assortment of people to great restaurants to a quick commute to work — aren’t as meaningful as they are in times when we’re not struggling with a pandemic.

Ed Glaeser is both a champion of cities and the chair of the economics department at Harvard. He’s out with a new book, with health expert and fellow economist David Cutler, called “Survival of the City: Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation.” It’s a good read all around, but I reached out to Glaeser because I wanted to dig into the parts of the book that deal specifically with what remote work might mean for the future of American cities. 

Glaeser had what I think were some fascinating things to say about what a shift away from cities and the centralized workplaces that help define them could mean for how we build careers — specifically who wins and who loses in an era where many of us are working alone at home.

We spoke around lunchtime first by Zoom, and then, once we’d seen each other’s faces and our Internet connection proved too wobbly to actually hear each other, by old-school phone. I think you might find Glaeser’s insights of interest as we think through the future of work in the Zoom age. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.) 


Glaeser: “You’re shutting down a learning channel that has always for me seemed to be the most important reason why cities came back after the 1980s. We’re still a social species, and we get smart by being around other smart people. You lose that when you’re all by yourself. ” 


Scola: That’s much better. 

Glaeser: Now I can hear you perfectly. And on top of that, you can’t see me eat. Although I’m afraid you will hear some.

Quite alright. The book reads like a pushback on the idea that the pandemic’s proven we can work well, if not happily, remotely, and so cities won’t necessarily be the magnets they once were. What is that way of thinking missing?

I think there has been two major aspects to the demand for urban space. One is related to work and productivity and the second is related to human connection and fun. In the productivity sphere, there are dynamic costs to not being close to one another that are missed by the fact that many jobs can be done perfectly well remotely. 

The dynamic costs are illustrated by papers both by Nick Bloom, and by Emma Harrington and Natalia Emanuel, about how even in call-center work, where being sent home makes you perfectly productive, your probability of being promoted drops by more than 50 percent. 


Glaeser: “Young people starting out have no idea what it is they don’t know. They don’t know who they’re supposed to be following around…

There’s a lot of being a young person in an organization which involves just listening and watching and learning from it.”


What being promoted means for call center workers is you get assigned to handle the more complicated, pain-in-the-neck calls. Now, how would you learn how to do that if you’re all by yourself? How would your boss learn if you’re any good at doing that if you’re all by yourself? 

You’re shutting down a learning channel that has always for me seemed to be the most important reason why cities came back after the 1980s. We’re still a social species, and we get smart by being around other smart people. You lose that when you’re all by yourself. 

There’s a great paper by Sonia Jaffee and her co-authors in Nature which looks at relationships at Microsoft. It finds that remote work is associated with a radical decrease in the tendency to form relationships across groups and the amount of synchronous communication. So, basically, people are no longer talking to each other. They’re just writing emails.

Furthermore, it’s hard for me not to at least somewhat analogize from the school environment. We know that Zoom schooling has been a disaster. In terms of just the ability to acquire new knowledge, when you’re not in the same room with one another, it just seems to be much harder, especially if people aren’t highly motivated. 

A third fact that is important is the shutdown in new hiring for remote jobs. [A paper by Carlos Daboin Contreras and José Morales-Arilla] shows that for the jobs that had to be done live, you had a real drop in employment early in the pandemic that was accompanied by a drop in postings on the Burning Glass aggregator, but both of them came back by the summer. By contrast, remoteable jobs, it’s really stunning. Employment stayed constant, but new hires dropped by 40 percent. 

So even though Microsoft tells us that its programmers are perfectly capable of doing stuff at home, overall, new postings for programmers are down by 40 percent.


Glaeser: “I think a future dominated by remote work will be vastly more unequal than even the recent version of the future that was pretty darn unequal anyway.” 


In my own experience, it seems like in-person work tends to have an advantage for people who might otherwise lack status in an organization due to race or gender or whatever. You can be more persistent; I can wait outside an editor’s door in a way I can’t do remotely. Does that show up in the data? 

Yup. It’s related to the fact that these in-person benefits are stronger for the young and the people who are trying to learn stuff. High-status people typically have either learned what they need to know or can command other people to show up for them. And they probably know who the people are they need to learn from.

Young people starting out have no idea what it is they don’t know. They don’t know who they’re supposed to be following around, and they certainly can’t command the editor to show up. There’s a lot of being a young person in an organization which involves just listening and watching and learning from it. 

That seems connected to something you write about in the book: the “terribly unequal nature of the switch to remote work.” The people who can do their jobs remotely tend to be well-off and educated, and know how to do their jobs well already.

You also write about people whose jobs we always said were protected from automation — the charismatic bartender, the people who get paid because people like interacting with them — are now finding both they can’t do their job remotely and are also dependent on people returning to face-to-face interactions. It seems like they’re getting the short end of the stick twice. 

I think a future dominated by remote work will be vastly more unequal than even the recent version of the future that was pretty darn unequal anyway. 

The more we retreat into our homes the more the urban service economy gets hit. Restaurants and bars have business now, but the sector of the urban service economy that’s really devastated is the stuff that’s related to business travel. It’s the hotels and restaurants that service business clients. 

You can see this real bifurcation in the New York data. The stuff that’s very local-oriented services is doing okay. The stuff that’s about outsiders coming in — business travel is just way down. And I would not be surprised if that becomes a fairly permanent phenomenon. I mean, I’m delighted that I’m coming back to the office. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to see my students face-to-face. I’m not really feeling bad about the fact that I have been engaging in vastly fewer trips to Chicago to give a two-hour talk. 

We saw tech companies like Facebook and Twitter on the front end of working remotely, and now some are staying remote. Part of their push is, ‘We get criticized for not being diverse, and if we actually work remotely we can diversify our workforce.’ Plus, we’ve seen so much tech money pool in San Francisco, New York, Boston, and this could distribute some of that to other places.

Is there any hope of all that working? 

I think it’s possible, but because remote working is such an education-skewed thing, it’s more likely going to happen to smaller, well-educated places. So, like, Austin is a decided possibility. I think the idea that central city Detroit is going to come back from this feels to me much more implausible.

But to put it another way, I don’t think in the long run that model means that all those workers who are in a different location are actually going to lead remote lives. I think the more plausible thing is that Twitter buys office space in whatever mid-sized city — Madison, Wisconsin? — and they’re going to have people who are sometimes at home and sometimes are in the office, but they certainly have some live connection. That feels like a much more plausible model to me. 

Or, the more extreme thing, which is the whole company. So, looking at a tech startup of 20 young people doing whatever the new new thing is, I find that completely implausible that they would just say, ‘Oh, let’s only meet by Zoom from now on, and hang out in our suburban homes.’

I find it much more plausible to say, ‘Look, we all like skiing, so let’s move to Vail. We all like lower taxes, so let’s move to Austin. We like surfing, so let’s move to Honolulu. We’ll continue to come to the office but meet with our VCs over [video].’ 

That feels much more plausible to me, in the same sense of, like, Twitter having stronger branches outside of Silicon Valley that actually do have people coming in with some degree of regularity, but that also get connected to the rest of the organization via Zoom.

Great. That’s all I had. Maybe you’ll have a bit of time before class to get some food in you. 

I’m glad to be able to eat my lunch without you hearing me chomping. 

Find out more on Glaeser’s new book, “Survival of the City,” here.


Share


Reading around

“Central Asian leaders want to tighten grip on social media. Russia’s playbook blazes the trail,” Isabelle Khurshudyan, Washington Post:

The messaging app Telegram, especially popular in former Soviet republics, was blocked along with Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and others on Wednesday over a new law demanding local storage of data.

Social media users were furious, and the government quickly backtracked. In a message posted, fittingly on Telegram, the president’s spokesman said the actions of the country’s Internet regulator were “ill thought out.”

“FTC’s Wilson blasts chair,” Leah Nylen, POLITICO:

‘Revolutionaries don’t make good bureaucrats.’

“In hard-hit Romania, the virus is surging as vaccine hesitancy spreads,” Andrew Higgins, New York Times:

The bishop is now under criminal investigation by the police for spreading dangerous disinformation, but his anti-vaccine clarion call, echoed by prominent politicians, influential voices on the internet and many others, helps explain why Romania has in recent weeks reported the world’s highest per capita death rate from Covid-19.

“Prince Harry says he warned Twitter CEO of U.S. Capitol riot,” Danica Kirka, AP:

“Jack and I were emailing each other prior to January 6 where I warned him that his platform was allowing a coup to be staged,” Harry said at the RE:WIRED tech forum. “That email was sent the day before and then it happened and I haven’t heard from him since.”

Twitter declined to comment on Harry’s remarks.

Questions, comments, concerns? Get in touch: nancy@nancyscola.com.