Rituals to mimic the valuable aspects of a commute (without the actual travel time)

COVID-19 has disrupted the work patterns of many and this included the commute to and from work. Even as some relished the opportunity to work from home and avoid the time and hassle of a commute, the pattern could offer some advantages. Enter in alternative rituals to mark the beginning and end of a work day:

Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia on Pexels.com

I sought the advice of Ezra Bookman, a corporate-ritual designer (yes, this is a real job) based in Brooklyn. His work includes coming up with ideas like “funerals” for failed projects. “Every single conversation I have with corporate clients is the same,” he told me: “Employees are burnt out and have no separation between home and life.”

Naturally, he has come up with some rituals to replace the commute and mark the beginning and end of each day. The ideas he’s proposed to clients include lighting variations, warm-up stretches, cellphone-free walks, and, as he demonstrated to me over Zoom, shrouding your computer in a fine blue cloth when you log off, as if it, too, needs a good night’s sleep.

“Rituals are friction,” he told me. Like the commute, “they slow us down. They’re so antithetical to most of our life, which is all about efficiency and speed.” One ritual that worked for Bookman was changing his laptop password to “DeepBreath”: “It helps me to locate myself in time and say, ‘Okay, what am I here to do?’ ”

Iqbal, the Microsoft researcher, said that this was the same idea behind a “virtual commute” that her company has just released. An onscreen tap on the shoulder—“Ready to leave for the day?”—signals that it’s time to knock off. The shutdown sequence has you bookmark what you were working on. It invites you to “take a minute to breathe and reset,” in sync, if you like, with a calming meditation video. Because work is done.

The stark physical distance in the modern world between work and home is one that is relatively unusual in human history. In communities prior to the 1800s, many workers lived and worked in close proximity, often on the same property or land. The availability of new transportation options plus burgeoning populations and industries separated the two such that the physical distance between home and work increased.

These rituals hint at these physical distances while emphasizing the broader dimensions of not living and working in the same place. Humans fall into and often enjoy routines/rituals. Even if they are stressful – and commuting can be both in the moment and long-term – they can become needed.

At the same time, how exactly does replacing one ritual with another work? Here the issue is work and home life, trying to recreate patterns that allow for decompression and shifting focus. Yet, the new ritual is quite different: it does not involve the body in the same way – less motion, more emphasis on breathing – and happens at a different speed – commuting involves the possibility of higher speeds via car, train, and other means.

Does this always work? I am thinking of T. M. Luhrmann’s book on religious kindling which involves a lot of discussion of rituals. Replace a religious ritual with an action that tries to invoke something similar – say mindfulness – and does it replace the previous ritual or is it deficient or even better? How much time does it take to adjust from one important rituals or set of rituals to another?

Add technology to this mix – which could help pattern and establish new rituals as well disrupt old patterns such as making work possible at all hours and in all places – and lots of rituals may need reinforcing or replacing.

Reconsidering social media and Internet use after an online-filled COVID-19

The Internet and social media were critical tools for many during COVID-19 with uses ranging from connecting with family and friends to work to activism to going to school. As COVID-19 winds down, does this mean we should reconsider how much time we spend with these technologies? Here is one conclusion:

Photo by Andrey Grushnikov on Pexels.com

Two years ago, I was deleting and undeleting my Instagram account, begging every expert I could find to tell me exactly how to live healthily with the internet in my pocket. In 2021, to do the same would seem a little silly. Netflix’s subscriber growth may be slowing, and Tinder videochats may soon fall out of favor, but it’s hard to imagine that a Great Offlining is really in the cards. Instead, we could be heading for a Great Rebalancing, where we reconfigure how we do our work and how we organize our time on the internet. We’ve grown more aware of how we rely on one another—online as well as off—and of the tools we have or could build for responding to a crisis. The biggest tech companies’ accrual of power remains one of the most serious problems of my lifetime, but I no longer talk about the internet itself as if it were an external and malignant force, now that I’ve lived in such intimate contact with it for so long.

I’m sure I’ll change my mind about everything I’ve just said, but sometimes you just need to time-stamp the moment. Going back through my essays from 2019, I was struck by how easily I had misremembered what the cultural conversation was about back then. Jenny Odell never argued that people should go offline completely. Rather, she told me that deleting your apps or throwing your phone in the ocean would represent a failure to recognize that “we actually really need something like social media.” The desire to go online is human, and “there’s nothing wrong with that part.” We just have to keep reminding ourselves why we’re doing it.

I think it is always a good idea to ask this question about many things with which we spend this time: how important is this to me? Is my time use what I want or did I just fall into this pattern? For better or worse, sometimes it takes a drastic change or crisis to ask this question. It is one thing to use a computer for work or browse social media, another to be on Zoom for hours because you cannot be in the office or go to school. If COVID-19 offers people the opportunity to step back and think again about what they want to do with their time, that would be good.

And I would hope that many would say they do not need social media or the Internet as much as they did in the past year. There are many worthwhile things to do, ranging from movement and exercise, reading, pursuing a non-work project or hobby, playing a game, interacting with the people around you, among other options.

More broadly, it is relatively easy to slip into particular time patterns during the day that may or may not be desired. The average American watches 4+ hours of television a day; is that planned and/or desired or does it just happen? Do people take the time they want to eat or not? Is work more time-consuming that people want? If you add up all of these hours across days, weeks, months, and years, it can be shocking to see how much is spent on certain activities. If people have priorities in what they want to do in life, it should be evident in their time use.

(On the other hand, I do not think it is that useful to micromanage your time to the level some have. I recently read about someone famous who scheduled their day in five minute increments in order to make sure things got done. There is a level of attention and time needed to do this that I would not find worthwhile.)

Some evidence Americans are returning to cities in early 2021

Some Americans left cities during COVID-19. New data suggests some people are returning to those cities:

Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

Some data suggest a return is already underway. Cellphone tracking firm Unacast had earlier noted that phone users were shifting their overnight locations out of New York, but now sees them coming back.

“New York is growing again,” with the city adding a net 1,900 people in the first two months of 2021 versus a loss of 7,100 in the same two months of 2019 and the 110,000 estimated by the company to have left the city throughout 2020…

Similarly, Bank of America economists wrote last week that they “don’t see evidence of a broad urban exodus,” a conclusion that combined analysis of the company’s own card spending data as well as a survey of other reports…

“Out-migration did increase in many urban neighborhoods, but the magnitudes probably would not fit most definitions of an exodus,” he wrote. “What is certain is that hundreds of thousands of people who would have moved into an urban neighborhood in a typical year were unwilling or unable to do so in 2020.”

Stay tuned for years to come: untangling these numbers and what it means for the long-term health of cities will take time as scholars and leaders collect, analyze, and interpret patterns. Was COVID-19 a blip on the long history of American cities? Will they signal a resurgence of urban life or exacerbate the issues many face in moving to major and expensive cities?

One problem in the meantime is that there are plenty of people who want to declare an answer to these questions. For those who dislike cities, the move of residents in 2020 to suburbs and other locations is evidence of the downsides of dense cities. For those who like cities, the numbers can suggest a few people left but city life continued strong and will bounce back. And because either narrative is highly politicized and connected to numerous long-standing American issues like race (example from then President Trump in summer 2020), these are not just speculations; there are people with interests who want to settle the debate over cultural narratives before the data is in.

Graphic options for illustrating where Americans moved during COVID-19

I appreciate the effort at CityLab to take all of the data regarding where Americans moved during the COVID-19 pandemic and put it into graphs and charts. Good graphs and charts should help illustrate relationships between variables and help readers see patterns. Here are several choices that I thought succeeded.

First, start with patterns in metro areas across the United States.

The two colors plus the size of the circle show the percentage change in population. The percentage is a nice touch yet the comparison to the previous year might slip past some viewers.

Second, another way to look at metro areas on the whole regarding population changes.

The side-by-side of central cities and suburbs quickly shows several differences: lower ratios for cities, more variability among suburban counties, more losses for cities during COVID. The patterns among suburban counties are a little hard to pick up; there are a number of counties that lost people even as the general trend might have been up.

Third, where did all those people moving from New York City, specifically Manhattan go?

In absolute numbers, there are patterns this map displays nicely: a lot of moves in New York City and in the region plus moves to other metro areas (including Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, and more). The inset of the Southwest at the bottom left is a nice touch…presumably New Yorkers did not move in large numbers to anywhere roughly between Nashville and Seattle.

Fourth, which New Yorkers moved?

Looking at zip codes, neighborhoods with higher incomes had more people moving while the numerous neighborhoods with lower incomes had smaller changes in inflow.

All together, this is more than just a series of pretty graphics. These choices – first about what data to use and second about how to present one variable in light of another – help clarify what happened in the last year. Each choice could have been a little different; emphasize a different part of the data or another variable, choose another graphic option. Yet, while there is certainly more to untangle about mobility, cities and suburbs, and COVID-19, these images help us start making sense of complex phenomena.

Where will the new work from home people in suburbs and other places want to settle and spend their money?

Now that we have more clarity on where remote workers have moved, another question arises: what do they want to do in their new communities?

Photo by Kaique Rocha on Pexels.com

“People who are working from home still want to go out, either during the day or after work, and they still want to spend their money on interesting things and interesting places,” says Bill Fulton, who directs Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “If you move from San Francisco, you’re not going to want to spend all your money at Applebee’s, right?”

Tracy Hadden Loh, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies real estate development, puts it another way: “I think annoying people with laptops are going to be everywhere. They’re coming for your favorite spot.”

The changes have elected officials, city planners, and developers mulling how to plan for this still-hazy future—and asking plenty of questions. Who will live here? Who will work here? Who will drive or take transit here, and when? Most essentially: What kinds of housing should we be building and for what sorts of people?…

City planners and economic development officials recognize that there’s an opening here. But most say that the work so far has been the equivalent of building the plane while it’s in the air. Work has been quick, a little harried, and focused on helping businesses just make it to the next day. Longer-term economic development—planning for places that might host new stores, restaurants, and housing—is more time consuming. It also demands more information on post-pandemic life.

Another way to think about it: how much risk are these communities with new residents willing to take? The pandemic brought changes but it is less clear how long-lasting these changes will be. Will people move back to cities or are there in these new places to stay? Is work from home going to continue at higher rates or not? Is this part of longer trends – retrofitting, “surban” development, etc. – or a blip? Certain development decisions could require multiple sources of capital: financial commitments, political moves, and significant changes to the character of particular communities.

Unfortunately, there may be no guarantees on these choices. Some suburbs and cities could do well, others may not. There may not even be fairly consistent success or failure within the same region. There could be some benefits to moving quickly and showing momentum; or not if trends go another direction or hasty planning fails to take everything into account.

At the same time, this is unique opportunity for communities. As noted in the title of the post, it could lead to new revenues, an issue facing many communities during COVID-19. Population growth is also seen as good. This could be a turning point to a different future.

Can workers collectively fight against back-to-the-office plans?

Some employers want workers back in the office and at least a few employees do not like that idea:

Photo by Ivan Samkov on Pexels.com

After a year of working from home, most workers feel the same way. Vaccinated or not, more than half of employees said that, given the option, they would want to keep working from home even after the Covid crisis subsides, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Far fewer look forward to returning to the office full time…

And yet, in a survey of more than 350 CEOs and human resources and finance leaders, 70% said they plan to have employees back in the office by the fall of this year — if not sooner — according to a report by staffing firm LaSalle Network…

The majority, or 58%, of employees said they would look for a new position if they weren’t allowed to continue working remotely in their current position, according to a recent report by FlexJobs, which surveyed more than 2,100 people who worked remotely during the pandemic.

Ultimately, however, “nothing will change,” said Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “Employers have virtually unlimited power,” he said.

Both sides can justify changes. Employers want to recreate office culture and conversation plus see people face to face. Employees want flexibility, no commute, and assurances of safety.

The quote at the end above suggests workers do not have much leverage. They can complain about changes. They can say the world has changed significantly. They can say that the prior system did not provide benefits long-term.

But, what if large numbers of workers in significant companies refused to go back to the old office-based systems? Could leading firms afford to have large numbers of workers quit? Could these workers afford to quit and know there is work elsewhere? Not all workers could do this and it might not matter at a lot of companies. If something started in the tech industry where more workers work from home for the long-term, would this spread? Or, if some business saw this as an advantage – get better employees by letting them work from home – this might encourage some others.

A mass labor movement over working from home may not materialize. Yet, COVID-19 could at least change the thinking about offices and doing work from home. Under conditions of a pandemic, at least some work got done. Perhaps such arrangements will continue for some but it could also extend to many more workers.

Will those who won COVID-19 housing bidding wars want to ease the path for others?

Henry Grabar puts forth an interesting idea: the many bidding wars of housing during COVID-19 might help many push for more housing so that others do not have to go through such a process.

Photo by Alena Darmel on Pexels.com

Sadly, those who win these all-out bidding wars will probably, suddenly feel that there is enough housing, and yes, we need affordable housing, but really affordable housing, you know? (And not here!)

But for every winner there will be many losers, and maybe the process can radicalize these would-be buyers, and their friends, and their parents, and the people they talk to. There really aren’t enough places to live. Those people can channel their frustration with bidding wars into political activism aimed at housing suppressants like parking requirements, restrictive zoning, and density limits. If appeals to neither historical wrongs nor economic growth get the job done, a strong dose of self-interest can’t hurt.

Here are three reasons why I would not hold my breath waiting for the successful homeowners to advocate for cheaper housing:

  1. Americans often subscribe to the idea that their individual successes are due to their actions, not necessarily due to systems. The winners of individual bidding wars can talk about the particular factors that led to their success. Those who did not win can adjust their individual strategies. It is a leap for many to think that their individual choices matter less than the conditions that empower or constrain their choices. (Site note: this sounds like explaining the basics of sociology in an individualistic society.)
  2. Suburbanites for decades moved into subdivisions and communities and then limited similar opportunities for others. The postwar suburban boom did not provide opportunities for all in a variety of ways. This could come out this way: people might yearn for and then move into a new development but subsequently complain about similar developments proposed right around them as a potential threat to their way of life. Can suburbs be frozen in time at the point at which people first moved in? Or, are suburbs and all communities in some sort of constant flux? Combine this with #1 and I could imagine some saying, “We bid successfully, we do not necessarily want a lot more of people like us being successful because this would change the community we bought into, and now we will resist future efforts.”
  3. Regarding putting pressure on politicians and others: how many homeowners were in this position and how would they join together in a movement? Housing is very difficult to address at a national level because of local particularities and politics. At the local level, proposals often run into issues with #1 and #2 above. People may be in support of the abstract notion of more housing or cheaper housing but they often prefer it somewhere else. Significant social and/or political change often requires tipping points or catalysts whereby interests come together and action is possible. COVID-19 could be one of those situations for housing but it would require much sustain effort.

Could housing bounce back even more unequally after COVID-19?

Even as rents dropped in some major cities during COVID-19, might increased interest now reinforce existing issues in the housing market where those with resources have options and those with fewer resources cannot easily get a foot in the door? From Chicago:

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on Pexels.com

Trisler is among the buyers showing renewed interest in the downtown housing market after attention waned during the past year, as the lure of amenities and access to offices, restaurants and bars took a back seat in many cases to space and relative quiet…

In March, more homes were sold in the Loop and the surrounding neighborhoods than during any other month in at least a year, according to data from the Chicago Association of Realtors. A total of 531 homes were sold across those neighborhoods in March, compared with 418 in March 2020…

Low mortgage interest rates are making downtown condos more affordable to first-time buyers, such as those renting in luxury apartment buildings and looking to buy in similar buildings, he said. Homeowner’s association fees tend to be higher in buildings in dense neighborhoods, but the lower monthly mortgage payments can offset that. And buyers can negotiate good deals on homes in some parts of downtown, he said…

Despite the uptick in sales, lower-priced, one-bedroom condos have been slower to sell than bigger spaces, said @properties real estate agent Chris McComas. He speculated the smaller spaces appeal more to first-time homebuyers, who might have been furloughed earlier in the pandemic.

Some people did just fine during COVID-19. They had good jobs in particular fields that weathered the storm or even thrived during the pandemic. They may have been able to work from home. They already had homes, whether they owned or had rents they could afford.

Others had a tougher time. They have been laid off or furloughed. It could have been hard to find work. They might have become sick. Their housing situation might have been more precarious going in.

Now, as COVID-19 and its effects look like they are winding down, people can think about real estate again. Those who came out relatively unscathed will be able to more easily buy and sell. Those who did not will have a tougher time. This is not solely the fault of COVID-19; this bifurcated housing market has existed for some time. Starter homes are limited in number, somebody is buying the luxury condos that have continued to go up in the biggest cities, and younger adults have several obstacles that could limit their entrance into the housing market. At the same time, this could become another legacy of COVID-19: the ongoing splitting of the housing market.

One unfortunate use for empty suburban big box sites: mass vaccination facilities

Suburbs do not like having vacant big box stores. Yet, in the time of COVID-19, they can be useful for vaccinating large numbers of people. Here is the former Sam’s Club where I received my vaccines:

This empty building sits within a busy strip of big box stores on a busy road. The Walmart next door is doing fine as is the Home Depot a little bit to the north. But, this facility can now serve hundreds of people a day. There is plenty of room for the various stations necessary to receive the vaccine including processing paperwork, getting the shot, and waiting afterward to see if there are any side effects. Indeed, there is room to spare as it appears roughly half of the floor space is unused.

Of course, this was not the intended use of the building. It was meant to be a place of commerce, specifically a site where people could buy cheap goods in large quantities inside spartan conditions. The store would have generated a good amount of sales tax money for the municipality and other governments, particularly on weekends when the number of shoppers would lead to busy aisles and checkout lines.

As an article in the Chicago Tribune notes, these sites can be very good for this vaccination use:

Spacious buildings, ample parking and easily accessible locations make vacant big-box stores good places to get shots in arms fast. That’s brought crowds back to some properties left empty even before the coronavirus pandemic heightened challenges for bricks-and-mortar retailers as people stayed home.

But vaccination sites are only a temporary fix for landlords trying to figure out how to reinvent spaces as retailers increasingly look to smaller stores and online sales.

Once the vaccinations are over – hopefully soon – the push will be back on to fill these spaces.

USPS address change data for COVID-19 sheds light on urban migration

Hard data has been hard to come by regarding people leaving cities during COVID-19. Did 500,000 flee Manhattan? Did San Francisco empty out? Here is data from the CBRE report:

In this comparison of 2020 and 2019 migration data, several big cities fared the worst: San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. Sacramento did well because of spillover effects from the Bay Area.

In terms of actual numbers for cities, here is a summary of the same data for New York City:

By analysing US Postal Service address changes over the last 12 months, the study reveals the greatest out-migration of people is, as expected, from Manhattan, with nine of the 10 zip codes with the largest outflows of residents in the city located in the borough…

In terms of hard numbers, the four zip codes in Manhattan from the Hudson to the East River between 42nd Street and 59th Street lost more than 12,000 residents in 2020. In 2019 that figure was less than 3,000…

The streets may have felt even emptier than the data implies, as the study only looked at permanent address changes – the total number of those who left the city for significant portions of the pandemic is likely much higher. Many more people temporarily left to stay with family or at seasonal rentals…

Talk of an exodus from New York may be a little exaggerated as 41 per cent of Manhattan residents who moved in 2020 stayed in the borough, presumably taking advantage of cheaper rents to upgrade their living space. Prior to Covid, this figure was just below 50 per cent.

The last part quoted above is important: the number of permanent address changes was smaller than it may have appeared. Plenty of people left Manhattan and other urban locations but they did not necessarily give up on their property and may return when COVID-19 fades away. Similarly, the impact on suburbs that took in new residents during COVID-19 may then also see population shifts after COVID-19 as people return to urban neighborhoods.