Over the past few months, COVID-19 has greatly altered the way we work. Forced into lockdowns all around the world, many of us have abandoned our traditional offices, instead connecting with people through digital services such as Zoom, Skype and FaceTime. If such patterns were to persist, the consequences for cities could be major. Certainly, a lot of real estate would be freed up — something that might be bad news for developers, but not so bad for citizens, as large metropolises could become more affordable for the young and less wealthy. More importantly, new living patterns might redefine the prevailing modes of human habitation. As it was during the mid–20th century, suburbia might again become a preferred urban form — with drastic repercussions for our global infrastructure.
The key question is: Will we still go to the office? Some multinational companies (Twitter and Shopify among them) have bet that this won’t be the case, granting their employees the right to work from home — forever. Are we witnessing the prelude to the death of the modern office? I do not believe so. Even if we were able to solve all the issues with home working — from faltering Internet connections to the pesky intrusions of scantily clad passersby in live Zoom sessions — we would still need physical places to meet and interact with our colleagues.
Our initial analysis of digital telecommunications on the MIT campus, where I work, suggests that the lack of physical interaction (both pre- and post-COVID-19) is making our social networks more fragile. As investigated almost 50 years ago by Stanford University sociologist Mark Granovetter, fragmented social networks tend to make “strong ties” even stronger, but undermine those occasional “weak ties” that play a key role in human well-being and idea generation. Physical space, in other words, is still the most effective antidote to the polarization of online networks. The case for the office is therefore stronger than ever — and will be even after the pandemic.
Architect and educator Carlo Ratti is a founding partner at innovation and design firm Carlo Ratti Associati and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, he directs the Senseable City Lab, a research group that explores the relationship between new technologies and urban design.
Don’t count the communal workplace out just yet, says Italian architect Carlo Ratti.