Virgin on Business: The Future Is Not Now

October 20, 2015

Bill Virgin


Among the many broken promises the future made to the present was the end of the commute. No longer would the working masses pack themselves into wheeled metal boxes twice a day, burning hours and fossil fuel to reach their places of employment in a centralized location.

Instead, they could work from home, at whatever hours and in whatever state of undress they chose. Through the miracle of telecommunications, they could converse and collaborate with colleagues as though they were in the next cubicle, even if they were actually on the next continent.

Indeed, the future did deliver many of the tools necessary to make that glorious vision a reality: computers, cellphones, internet connections, email, video conferencing software.
And how are we working today?

Were packing ourselves into wheeled metal boxes twice a day, burning hours and fossil fuel to reach our places of employment in a centralized location. Gee, how 19th century of us.

Whats astounding is that the industry most resistant to adopting the new model of work is the one most responsible for making it possible: tech.

Amazon gets most of the attention and blame for the ant-colony model of urban employment, but its hardly alone and not the first example. Whether its the big established names or the small startups, everyone wants to congregate in an area measured in a few square miles, triggering a construction boom that eclipses just about every previous boom seen in these parts, as well as unprecedented levels of wailing and garment rending over the lost soul of the city.

The tech industry rationalizes that it thrives on the sort of lively exchange of ideas and inspiration that only clustering can bring. Why a company would want its employees freely gabbing to potential competitors about what theyre doing has gone unexplained, but for now thats the conventional wisdom, and tech is more prone to crowd-think than many.

It wasnt always thus. Waves of industries, jobs and residents moved out of the central city years ago. Manufacturing and distribution were among the first to go, since they work more efficiently horizontally than vertically.

It wasnt always thus even for the tech industry, which in this region grew up not in gleaming high-rises or funky converted warehouses downtown but in Eastside office campuses of low-rise cookie-cutter buildings.

But its the way it is now for tech, with employers insisting that the workers of tomorrow want it that way. As for the congestion, soaring home prices and long commutes that result from squeezing so much growth into one small area, the answer is to give up the car, the single-family home and live smaller and closer to work.

That may be the answer for some, but the joys of living in a pricey breadbox may be lost on those who remember why it was that their parents and grandparents headed to the suburbs in the first place.

At some point, astute employers maybe even a handful in the tech sector are going to figure out that they can get good employees and less expensive office space without Seattle hassles, prices or politics, and with no discernible negative effect on business. It might even be beneficial.

Astute leaders of nearby municipalities are also going to figure out they can help their towns by recruiting these companies, with the dispersal of work shortening commutes and lowering congestion. It might not get us all the way to a future in which every home office really is the home office and the long commute as a way of life is extinct, but a least well get closer to what life was supposed to be like in the late 20th century.

Monthly columnist BILL VIRGIN is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News.