New York City Skyline

Will Virtual Reality Kill The Big City?

A few days ago, I came across a fascinating article describing how virtual reality will reshape the workplace of the future. The premise of the article is that companies will use virtual reality to transport the traditional office environment over to the virtual world. That is, instead of requiring all employees to meet up in a physical building to perform their white-collar office work, it will eventually become more beneficial — for everyone — if employees could just meet up and carry out their work in a virtual environment.

Structuring a work environment this way does come with quite a few potential benefits:

  • Employer saves money by not requiring the purchase of an office building
  • Employer doesn’t have to pay for building maintenance costs, electricity, plumbing, etc.
  • Employee saves time and money by not having to commute to and from the office everyday
  • Workers are not restricted to living within driving distance of their workplace

All of these benefits are quite appealing, but the last point is the one that really stands a chance of having a pretty dramatic impact on how we organize ourselves geographically in society.

The potential effect of this change can be illustrated by imagining what would happen if all white collar workers were no longer restricted to living close to the office. This would mean that someone employed at a company based in San Francisco could live in a suburb of Cleveland, or someone working for a Pittsburgh-based firm could live in a rural area in Tennessee.

traditional remote work comes with the very real drawback of workers missing out on face-to-face conversations and a lack of informal interactions with other workers

Some readers may be thinking, “Wait, don’t we already have this? Isn’t this what we call ‘working remotely’ today?”. Anyone thinking along those lines is correct, as remote work does allow for all of these benefits today. However, traditional remote work comes with the very real drawback of workers missing out on face-to-face conversations and a lack of informal interactions with other workers, which turns out to be a pretty big downside to remote work. As the article explains, virtual reality would solve this problem by allowing people working virtually to interact with their co-workers in ways which are far more similar to the real world.

What virtual reality is really bringing to the table is the possibility that remote working would finally be a real, viable alternative to the traditional office environment for the majority of office workers. This really is not a point that should be glossed over or quickly tossed aside, since if this practice became standard operating procedure, it would have a massive effect on the country as a whole. To understand the magnitude of the potential impact here, you really just need to consider how a whopping 60% of employees in the U.S. are white collar workers.

 one likely effect seems to be that we’ll see people move away from some of the more highly populated areas — in other words, the country’s biggest cities and their surrounding areas.

It’s difficult to imagine all of the ways that this sort of geographical independence would impact society, but one likely effect seems to be that we’ll see people move away from some of the more highly populated areas — in other words, the country’s biggest cities and their surrounding areas.

The logic here is pretty straightforward:

  1. Many people move to big cities and their surrounding areas in search of employment
  2. As virtual reality workplaces become widespread, they allow roughly 60% of workers in the U.S. to no longer be tied down to any particular location for employment
  3. Realizing that big cities have a higher cost of living, anyone looking to maximize the value of their income moves out of the big cities to smaller cities or more rural parts of the country, where the spending power of their money is much higher, all the while continuing to bring in the same income
  4. Populations of big cities decline (and eventually the cost of living in the big cities probably comes back down to earth, but that’s a discussion for a different day)

Of course, not everyone will follow this path. Some people will happily continue shelling out thousands of dollars per month in rent for their moderately sized apartments in the big city or paying upwards of a million dollars to buy their average-priced home, but I’m wiling to bet that a large number of people would gladly trade in their million dollar shack in L.A. for a similarly-priced mansion in the more rural parts of California, especially when the latter comes with the added benefit of less traffic, less pollution, and more room to roam.

To be fair, there are other reasons why people move to high cost of living areas besides employment. For example, some people genuinely just love the big city and wouldn’t give it up for just about anything. As such, the widespread adoption of virtual reality probably won’t have a large effect on the lives of those people. However, I strongly suspect there are plenty of people out there who only moved to a high cost of living area for their job and would gladly move to a lower cost of living area if given the chance. The question, of course, is:

Are there enough of those people out there to have a noticeable effect on the population of big cities if virtual reality workplaces become more widespread?

I believe the answer is a resounding “yes”. After all, if you could continue earning the same income and maintain your standard of living while cutting the costs of your living expenses in half (or more!) why wouldn’t you? To me, the choice is fairly obvious and if there are enough people out there like me, the widespread adoption of VR workplaces seems all but destined to bring an end to the era of ridiculously big cities with astronomically high costs of living.

What do you think? Will extremely high-cost-of-living cities go the way of the dinosaurs? Will virtual reality remote work be the catalyst? Voice your opinion in the comments below!

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