I’ve worked from home since 1998. All along I’ve hoped many more people would enjoy the privilege and share in the benefits. Now that it’s finally happening, and seems likely to continue in some form, let’s take a moment to reflect on an underappreciated benefit: neighborhood revitalization.
I was a child of the 1960s, and spent my grade school years in a newly-built suburb of Philadelphia. Commuter culture was well established by then, so the dads in the neighborhood were gone during the day. So were some of the moms, mine included, but many were at home and were able to keep an eye on us kids as we played in back yards after school. And our yards were special. A group of parents had decided not to fence them, thus creating what was effectively a private park. The games we played varied from season to season but always involved a group of kids roaming along that grassy stretch. Nobody was watching us most of the time. Since the kitchens all looked out on the back yards, though, there was benign surveillance. Somebody’s mom might be looking out at any given moment, and if things got out of hand, somebody’s mom would hear that.
For most kids, a generation later, that freedom was gone. Not for ours, though! They were in grade school when BYTE Magazine ended and I began my remote career. Our house became an after-school gathering place for our kids and their friends. With me in my front office, and Luann in her studio in the back, those kids enjoyed a rare combination of freedom and safety. We were mostly working, but at any given moment we could engage with them in ways that most parents never could.
I realized that commuter culture had, for several generations, sucked the daytime life out of neighborhoods. What we initially called telecommuting wasn’t just a way to save time, reduce stress, and burn less fossil fuel. It held the promise of restoring that daytime life.
All this came back to me powerfully at the height of the pandemic lockdown. Walking around the neighborhood on a weekday afternoon I’d see families hanging out, kids playing, parents working on landscaping projects and tinkering in garages, neighbors talking to one another. This was even better than my experience in the 2000s because more people shared it.
Let’s hold that thought. Even if many return to offices on some days of the week, I believe and hope that we’ve normalized working from home on other days. By inhabiting our neighborhoods more fully on weekdays, we can perhaps begin to repair a social fabric frayed by generations of commuter culture.
Meanwhile here is a question to ponder. Why do we say that we are working from and not working at home?