Remote work can put commuters back into the community

Less time on the road and more time being where you live benefits everbody

Perhaps one of the most unexpected highlights of the pandemic has been how much those who are able to avail of working from home enjoy doing so. Even when office workers were unceremoniously chucked into remote work in early 2020, bereft of home office or childcare facilities, high numbers reported satisfaction with the new arrangements.

Depending on the country, between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of workers said they wanted to continue working remotely at least part-time after the pandemic. In Ireland, according to one large university study, this number increased from 83 per cent in early 2020 to 95 per cent as of mid-2021, with over 30 per cent of respondents stating that they would prefer to work fully remote.

Remote work, of course, has potential benefits for the environment, health, and personal relationships. It also has several benefits for democracy.

Workers in large cities typically spend between 60-90 minutes commuting each day, with some (often the lower paid) travelling twice that long. This translates to between 250-650 hours commuting per worker per year. Small wonder that many companies have reported increased productivity during the pandemic. Unshackled from frustrating hours in traffic, more rested workers can focus better on the job and still enjoy more leisure.


And that is important, because a frequent argument against democracy is that citizens do not have time to inform themselves about political issues or to take part in local politics.

We often complain that suburbs and rural towns have become mere bedroom communities, but that is partly because the life is being sapped out of working-age commuters, who often, after a 12-hour door-to-door day just want to eat and sleep before doing it all again.

Remote work would bring a significant part of that energy back. If a worker who previously spent an hour commuting, devoted just one-third of that time to local organisations or even just to informing themselves about politics, this would translate into 87 additional hours a year. Not everyone will choose to use their time that way, but even if 10 or 20 per cent did, it would still be a huge gain for our collective political life.

More importantly perhaps, it would also put commuters back in the community. The past decades have seen an enormous rush to just a few urban centres leaving the countryside depleted – and ageing. In some countries, particularly the United States and Britain, this has created a political schism between progressive metropolises and the conservative countryside. This trend, described by Bill Bishop in his 2008 book The Big Sort, is apparent on virtually any political map in either country, which tend to reveal small pockets of highly concentrated urban progressive voters afloat in a sea of rural conservatives. As a result of this tribal sorting, few software engineers rub shoulders with farmers, and not many art critics are going for coffee with the local plumber. In the US, metropolitan journalists even speak of "venturing out" to the rural areas of their own nation, otherwise disparagingly referred to as "flyover country".

But you can become the owner of a family home on a median wage in “flyover country”, something no longer possible in Los Angeles, London or increasingly Dublin. Moreover, one might, in the wilds, come to discover that crops don’t grow themselves, while the neighbours might come to appreciate the long hours that go into coding or the horrors of content moderation. Perhaps you’ll get to know a Christian and they’ll get to know an atheist; a libertarian or a pacifist; a lesbian or an immigrant – not as the caricatured vignettes that so often distorted by media and the imagination, but as real people who have real reasons for holding the views they do.

One of the great achievements of Cleisthenes, often felt to be the most important figure in ancient Athenian democracy, was the “mixing of the tribes” – that is unsorting voters and destroying long-founded cliques by re-locating people into different voting units.

Diversity is officially valued more than ever, yet our social organisation has resulted in increasingly homogenous communities where like crowds with like. In urban and suburban areas this is compounded as renters, priced out of the property market, have little stake in any specific place (often reflected in low voter turn-out).

In rural areas, it is compounded by the fact that without high-speed internet, residents are left out of the conversations urbanites believe they are having with everyone, but are actually just having with themselves. Under such circumstances some level of polarisation is more of a given than a mystery.

Enabling remote work, rather than trying to slow down the inevitable, fixes almost all of these issues at a stroke: property ownership becomes more feasible; people have time to participate in current affairs and political issues (not just office workers, but also the many service workers who also commuted – often further and for poorer wages – pre-pandemic); and social cohesion is improved by allowing people to live in less homogenous communities.

Many people will still, of course, want to live in large cities – they always have. But it is one thing to want and quite another to be chained against your will. The great urban migration of past decades brought as much harm as it did good – to our economy and also, perhaps more subtly but no less detrimentally, to our democracies. It’s time to seize the chance and undo these harms while we have the opportunity.

Dr Roslyn Fuller is the managing director of the Solonian Democracy Institute. Her book Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose was nominated for the Orwell Prize and shortlisted for the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize.