[T]he people who predicted that the internet would lead to the death of centrally located offices were wrong. Try to put your most complex thought into an email and then go meet someone and try to explain it in person, and think about the banter and the smiles, and gauge the effectiveness of seeing someone be excited when you’re onto something, and the polite head shakes when you’re not, and then ask yourself which of those two methods is a better way to communicate a half-formed idea.
Conor Dougherty, Golden Gates (pp. 21).
All the smart people seem to all know that cities are where it’s at. The bigger, denser, and more tightly packed with highly-credentialed creative knowledge workers, the better. Residents of superstar cities such as Boston, Chicago, DC, Miami, NYC, Seattle, and SF trade astronomically high housing costs for access to the best jobs.
Conventional wisdom is that the internet ended up increasing the returns to density. As digital information exchange became frictionless, the premium on face-to-face interactions only increased. Creative collaboration became understood as best supported in unstructured environments and serendipitous connections.
But what if the smart people are wrong?
Over the past couple of years, my closest colleague has worked at a world-renowned university in superstar city, while I continued to reside in a small college town.
The intensity and productivity of this creative collaboration did not seem to suffer from my stubborn insistence on living in a college town of under 12,000.
What has changed? Zoom.
I realized that sometimes I sound like a Zoom fanperson. My theory is that Zoom does not get enough credit for how the platform has changed the interaction between work and location.
The quality of the video and audio on Zoom is a devourer of distance. The reliability in which Zoom meetings work – the video starts and the audio is clear – brings the reliability of web meetings to something close to that of landline phone calls.
This is a real change. I’m not sure we have adequately grappled with the affordances that Zoom provides.
The iPhone put a computer in our pocket. But did it do anything to change the dynamics of real estate?
Zoom may make it possible to live and work anywhere – as long as the bandwidth is adequate. (Which as we know, this is not a safe bet in much of rural America).
If a small town can figure out how to get broadband, the evolution of Zoom may finally make it possible for the telecommuting creative class to take up residence.
I’m almost certain that our university leaders have not begun to grasp the potential productivity of Zoom-enabled remote employees.
How many schools are desperate to recruit talent in areas diverse as instructional design and data science?
Where universities, with our now decades-long experience in developing high-quality online education programs, should be leading the way in encouraging remote work, we still seem to lag many other industries.
University leaders should think about how tools like Zoom can enable a different sort of recruiting and retention strategy. Non-profit higher education will never be able to pay for-profit salaries. But we can offer work that is mission-driven, values-aligned, and deeply satisfying.
Wouldn’t it be great if university work could be combined with the ability to live in areas with reasonable housing costs?
A long list of superstar cities has become prohibitively expensive. High housing costs are likely discouraging baby-making (no room for the kids).
We shouldn’t have to suffer from insane housing prices to work at the most exciting of companies or the most dynamic of universities.
Can we rely on Zoom to not complicate their platform with unwanted features, and instead keep the focus on simplicity and quality?
Has Cisco, Adobe, Microsoft, Google, or other companies with competing synchronous video platforms been able to mount any challenge to Zoom?
Are there other technologies that enable a similar sort of collaborative intimacy and fidelity that Zoom affords?
Has Zoom – or other technologies – opened up new remote working possibilities for you?
Might Zoom driving down housing costs for creative workers – including some academics – not by reducing housing costs in superstar cities, but by enabling employees to work where housing is already affordable?
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