It seems that everyday we’re whiplashed by new safe management measures with names that serve to confound more than inform, and the government seems to be spinning its head on which model of work will remain. Meanwhile, it appears that remote work has won the case in the US. A PWC survey found that only 1 in 5 companies are returning to a fully in-person model of work, while Facebook’s Workroom product demo has rekindled the discourse on remote work technologies.

Is the work from home model here to stay in Singapore even after the pandemic is over? A look at how our city has changed over the two years might allow us to glean insight into this question.

Before the pandemic

Before the pandemic, most offices were located in clusters, i.e. business districts. This urban phenomenon has been described as urban agglomeration, where enterprises preferentially develop in clusters and form business districts or towns. Alain Bertaud makes the argument that urban agglomeration became the characteristic of modern big cities because close proximity generates knowledge spillovers, increasing innovation, productivity, reducing costs, i.e. producing agglomeration economies.

And agglomeration economies weren’t just attractive to corporations and industries, but also to people as well. The density and high cost of living of cities are testament to the fact that people actively seek out and participate in agglomeration economies.

When we were forced into our homes during the pandemic, this close proximity was replaced with virtual technologies, dubbed “working from home”. However, these new channels of communication proved an incapable medium for knowledge spillovers to take place. In the work from home model, agglomerative effects are lost, making an argument for offices to stay.

The city now

However, two years into the pandemic, we must acknowledge the extensive reconfiguration that has already been brought unto our city. Our urban activities have been so transformed by the past two years of lockdowns and safe management that urban life now strongly gravitates around the home. The city does not sit still to these changes, but adjusts and reconfigures itself. New affordances have emerged through new urban infrastructures, such as cloud kitchens and micro-fulfilment centres, to facilitate our new patterns of human activity through pandemic-introduced hostilities of safe management and limited entry. We’ve all developed new protocols for leaving the home and moving about the city. As Lydia Kallipoliti writes, “Our households have become spaceships, while urbanity has transformed into a constellation of ‘essential’ places”, and our new urban infrastructures further cements this.

But as our urban activities concentrate closer to home, the close proximity between us and our neighbours’ dwellings has also resulted in greater incidence of neighbourly disputes. As our personal activities are forced to overlap in time and space, it seems that some conflict is inevitable. Our homes do not always provide ideal conditions for work and so, some cannot wait to get back into the office.

Our reduced experience of the city thus brings forth conversations of the 15-minute city, characterised by the same reduced proximity of our urban activities. When you consider that mobility patterns in residential districts were quicker to recover from safe management measures than those in business districts, perhaps the 15-minute city model might be the best model for our current urban habitus, an opportunity to build urban resilience. While Singapore’s Land Transport Master Plan 2040 proposes the “45-minute city with 20-minute town”—where work is forty-five minutes away from home and amenities twenty, a work from home model contemplates the “20-minute city”—where offices might be relocated closer to homes. These residential-business towns might be able to ease the transition between office and home that a flexible model of work might demand, such as the proposed hybrid model.

The hybrid future

If a hybrid model were to take hold, the separation of work into the office space and home space demands a new set of expectations over how work is distributed across these spaces. What kind of work should be done in the office, and what kind of work should be done at home? How can we support a smooth transition of work between these two spaces?

This might depend heavily on the digital infrastructures that support work from home. The fact is that the current tech ecosystem of the work from home model, be it video conferencing technologies or the metaverse, are currently less than ideal. Our present technologies simply do not have the capability to support serendipitous encounters and cultivate knowledge spillovers, a benefit that provides for a convincing reason that the in-person work model should remain. These technologies have also added a lot of friction to work. Most of us are overworked, wrought with zoom fatigue, and refurnishing our homes to be more zoom-friendly. Our present reality is that the technologies we’ve employed to support work from home simply are costly and not sustainable in the long term.

What the post-pandemic city demands from us, is to examine and rehaul the existing infrastructures for work, to reconfigure them to support a more flexible lifestyle that will come to be the prevailing expectation of work.