I was discussing remote work with a friend a couple of months back and ended up coming to a couple of interesting conclusions about how remote work would cause societal change if it were to become mainstream. The discussion was motivated based on the idea of a completely distributed office with no centralized location. I thought these two ideas in particular were worth sharing.
More diversity of everyday encounters
The first effect that we had come up with was a sort of increased social liberalization. This would come from increasing the diversity of viewpoints you'd encounter within a typical day. I've made an assumption here that certain types of work (e.g. engineering) generally attract certain types of minds (e.g. so-called left-brain types), and further that those methods of thinking are correlated with political viewpoints. Encountering only people who do your type of work should thereby put you in a lighter form of political echo chamber.
As it stands now, having a remote office means having your employees work out of coffee shops. Since coffee shops don't discriminate based on the type of work being done, there should be more diversity of backgrounds, occupations, and political viewpoints in such a place. Here there's another assumption: that there will be conversations had there - but I don't think it's too far to go to suggest that coffee shop remote workers will get lunch together at some point. I did state a more serious caveat, though. Coffee shops may not discriminate by types of work, but the budding business of co-working spaces may. They may organize purposefully around types of work, but I find it more likely that they'll organize based on convention - if you work for an SF-based startup, you'll have a better time at WorkTogether since they've got a sizeable population of remote workers in that space already. Or even more likely, the types of work that can be - or tend to be - done remotely will have a negative effect on the viewpoint diversity you'll regularly encounter. I'm curious to see how this one will turn out. I could see it going either way.
More self-contained small communities
As it is, cities tend to be divided into mainly-living and mainly-working spaces. Mainly-living spaces tend to have a high density of housing, but may only have a small corner convenience store that provides both services and local work opportunities. Mainly-working spaces have high-rise buildings and relatively few apartments and will be completely dead on the weekend. Remote work provides a pressure for mainly-living spaces to have coffee shops and co-working spaces available. Once those are in place, there's pressure to have good happy-hour bars in the area too, since no one wants to commute to a happy hour. And so there's less and less reason to go into the mainly-working spaces once the draw (high-density corporate space) is gone. This should result in more distributed cities with more, smaller, centers of activity. Neighborhoods will have more of an identity than they do now, even in smaller cities, and there will be more of them. Overall this sounds like it will be positive since we won't have to commute, which will reduce pollution, increase happiness, and give us more of our lives back.
I think this cause-and-effect narrative is pretty convincing, but I haven't considered that is is probably already happening anyways (I'm thinking of the drive of folks my age to support local business and extrapolating from there). Remote work should boost the pressure, but it might not be noticeable. Also, mainly-working spaces that have established cultural hubs (bars, art galleries, restaurants) don't quite fit this mold. It will definitely take them longer to succumb to the pressure of distributization (distribution? I don't think so). I'd expect they would become denser hubs of the decentralized model, seeing more high-density residential development. I'd say this result is probably inevitable in the long term, but it's just a bit more than a toss-up in my mind whether or not remote work will be a serious driver.
I think the diversifying efforts of coffee-shop-based work, matched by the natural tendency of people to seek out people who are like them, won't result in much change for the average person. I do see the creation of many, smaller, hubs to be a natural effect of remote work, but I think we'll probably see that anyways based on current cultural pressure.
What do you think? Off-base? On-point? Got any predictions of your own? Let me know in the comments.