In Defense of Cities & Large Offices
I once had a client who was a commercial airline pilot living in San Francisco. As a pilot, he could live anywhere in the U.S., so he decided to sell and use his equity “to pay cash for paradise” in Tennessee.
He lasted two years.
He moved back, at an enormous cost, b/c he missed all of San Francisco’s urban amenities much more than he thought he would.
I have seen similar situations repeat many times over the last 25 years, and I thought of them all when I was blogging last week about the expected “Great Housing Migration” in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
I think we will see a migration but it won’t be as far-reaching or as long-lasting as many people expect b/c there are still many advantages of “city living” and/or large offices, and below are just a few.
I started college at a university with over 30,000 students and during my first week, my roommate and I hopped into a pickup basketball game next to our dorm. One of the players was a 6 foot, 9 inch forward on the university’s basketball team, and another was a running back on the football team who ran a 4.25 second 40-yard dash. Both could dunk at will, with the latter dunking from the free throw line at a full gallop.
That was my first (shocking) exposure to a “Big Pond” and it forced me to become far more competitive if I wanted to keep playing. As an aside, my roommate, who thought he was pretty good at basketball, cried when the game ended and ultimately washed out of school.
Anyway, this is the type of “Big Pond” competition that is often only found in big cities and that NYU Professor Scott Galloway often references in his blogs. And, it is the type of competition that elevates everyone.
On Friday I had dinner with a software engineer/manager who said that remote work is working OK for her team but that they greatly missed the casual, impromptu collaboration that they had in the office – the type of collaboration that just spawns naturally from overhearing conversations and interacting directly. She thinks learning opportunities and creativity are curtailed by remote work.
This is another point that NYU Professor Scott Galloway makes. Big cities (and big offices) attract talent and spawn creativity in ways that small towns and remote work often can’t.
People moving to suburbs can still take advantage of many of these amenities but people moving to the hinterlands usually cannot. The convenience of nearby airports, cultural and sporting events cannot be overstated. The client I mentioned above, for example, was a big 49ers and Giants fan who missed going to games, and his wife loved the theater. And my Korean wife would go nuts without her vast array of Korean, Thai, Peruvian, Burmese, Japanese, Chinese, and Mexican restaurants at the ready via DoorDash.
Another factor that remote work advocates often don’t account for is culture. It is an extremely important contributor to productivity and employee-retention. Whether or not firms can maintain strong cultures with remote work setups remains to be seen.
At JVM, much of our office will continue to work remotely and I am watching closely to see how it might affect our culture, as we are so oriented around our team-interaction and fun events including dart gun wars, flip cup games, picnics, happy hours, and contests of every sort (last Friday was chalk drawing).
We also just like to get together for the occasional “team photo” or “stupid-human-trick” like the photo below of the skeleton crew who stayed in the office during the COVID-19 crisis. 😊
I still like working in an office.
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