Mind Matters News and Analysis on Natural and Artificial Intelligence

Is the Future of Work Relentlessly Urban?

Amazon’s new combined New York and Washington headquarters may provide an unintended test
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When cities vie for corporate headquarters and the jobs that follow, there are winners and losers. Seattle-based Amazon, which accounts for half of every online dollar spent in the United States, recently selected a combined second corporate headquarters from among many competitors and chose the biggest city and the most powerful city,  New York and Washington:

On Tuesday, Amazon announced it has chosen New York’s Long Island City and Virginia’s Arlington for HQ2. Both locations will receive a $2.5 billion investment from Amazon, and each will have more than 25,000 workers over time. Hiring begins next year.
The reason behind the surprise decision to divide the facility was due to the talent pool. Amazon realized it could recruit more skilled workers and offer employees choice if it offered two locations. Kaya Yurieff, “Amazon picks New York and Northern Virginia for its new headquarters after year-long search” at CNN

Stephane Kasriel
Stephane Kasriel

The idea of two different locations would likely be unworkable apart from the internet. But some wonder if Amazon has grasped all the implications of the internet:

The irony is that at the end of the day, Amazon’s new HQ2s will feel outdated almost immediately. Workers, increasingly, don’t want to be constrained by place, which is exactly what HQ2 will do. Instead, they’re looking for more flexibility, both in terms of working location, and the structure of work itself. Stephane Kasriel, “If you want to see the future of work, don’t look to Amazon HQ2” at Fast Company

According to computer engineer Kasriel, 59% of companies now use more remote employees and freelancers (Future Workforce Report) and the number is expected to grow. He wonders, “What if Amazon just opened a lot of smaller headquarters? That might reduce the problems associated with large corporate moves, problems that have impacted Seattle: “Seattle rents in 2017 were 63% higher than in 2010, when Amazon first set up its huge, ill-conceived centralized headquarters. And the cost of a single-family home has risen faster there than anywhere in the nation, doubling between 2012 and 2017.”

The benefits of living in a more promising job market must be factored against the costs of living there and remote employment was supposed to alleviate that problem. Meanwhile, some grumble that Amazon was really attracted to New York and Washington, D.C.’s high stats for childlessness and workaholism:

The retail conglomerate has a notoriously brutal reputation for what it expects from employees. Former Amazon HR executives describe a “purposeful Darwinism” in the way that the company fires people perceived to be under-performing. An employee in “book marketing” reported that he saw nearly every person crying at his or her desk at some point. Mitchell Blue, “Amazon Chose DC And NYC Because That’s Where The Childless Workaholics Live” at The Federalist

But if things continue as Kasriel, CEO of freelance work site Upwork predicts, Amazon could run out of childless workaholics who are willing to pay exorbitant rents, especially considering that job prospects, in general, are quite bright in the United States at present. On the other hand, the good prospects probably mean that mere grumbling will die down soon.

However, when it comes to disruption, such as high tech offers, we sometimes fail to see the changes that are most relevant to our own position. Analysts will certainly be watching Amazon on that score. Perhaps the future of work is not relentlessly urban after all.

See also: The Hills Go High Tech An American community finding its way in the new digital economy

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