Remote working – or multi-local work, as we will call it here – was spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic and it is here to stay. This circumstance raises the question of whether and how multi-local work shapes our housing preferences and decisions in the future. A recent study from the Swiss Ministry for Housing that was published in April 2023 addresses this question in the context of Switzerland. This briefing highlights the relevant potentials of multi-local work for shaping the housing market in Switzerland and in a broader sense also in the Euroconstruct area.
Moving patterns are not primarily determined by place of work – at least in Switzerland
10% of the Swiss population moved in 2021 (Source 1), amidst the pandemic. When Swiss citizens relocate homes, they do it in close proximity: The mean moving distance lies at only 13 kilometres. The short moving distances are mainly owed to spatial anchors like social connections, education place and the place of work that tie a household to a specific region. The spatial anchors that households develop in the course of their biographies are crucial for moving decisions. Indeed, many households try to reduce the distance to their most important social contacts when moving.
Persons between the ages of 20 and 40 go through a particularly mobile phase of life. As soon as people make the decision to move (to a potentially new location), the decisive factor for their moving and living behaviour in this phase of life is whether the household has children or not. The main difference in this case lies in the question of how important living space is in relation to centrality. For more space (and property), family households in Switzerland accept less centrality.
At the same time, changing the place of work is only a reason for moving in the early phases of life and even then, it is of subordinate importance, at least in Switzerland. For one, the decentralised structure of Switzerland and the low unemployment rate enable most employees to find a suitable job in the vicinity of their homes. Second, the well-developed transport infrastructure and the small land area make it possible to commute longer distances to work.
Multi-local work is here to stay
Before the pandemic, a quarter of employees in Switzerland worked from home or remotely at least occasionally (around 25% in 2019). With the various adjustments in the regulation of home office work during the pandemic, the share of employees working from home fluctuated between 35% and 50% in 2020 and 2021 (Source 2).
Both the technical possibilities and the social acceptance of remote work will continue to increase in the future. Therefore, the potential and the use of multi-local work should increase in the coming years, both in terms of the share of employees that work remotely as well as the hours worked outside the office. The authors of the study view a share of around 40% of employees with regular remote work in the next ten years as realistic. This share corresponds to the potential of all employees in Switzerland who could work remotely at least occasionally, which was recently estimated in a study by the University of Basel (Source 3). In addition, according to the surveys of different companies (Source 4), the majority of employees in Switzerland prefer a mixed form of multi-local work, most often with at least half of the working hours executed remotely.
Multi-local work shapes the housing market and spatial structure of Switzerland
As a first fundamental conclusion, the authors claim that multi-local work is here to stay. Both the share of employees working multi-locally as well as the number of working hours spent outside of the traditional offices will increase in the next years. They do not expect this circumstance, however, to fundamentally change households’ decisions on their location of residence. For one, the ability to work multi-locally (alone) does not lead to a higher number of relocations. Other spatial anchors besides the workplace, particularly the social network, should continue to be a more important determining factor. Switzerland’s decentralised structure and the well-established public transport infrastructure enabled most households to choose their location of residence not primarily based on their workplace already. Moreover, the authors believe that the fundamental preferences for living in specific stages of life remain stable.
Nevertheless, more mobile household types such as single and couple households of young and mid-age as well as families with small children benefit from increased flexibility through the possibility of multi-local work.
If the location of work becomes less important, households can tailor the location of residence better to their individual needs. One prevalent example for the Swiss population is the following. If a household’s desire for more living and outdoor space and for residential property increases with increasing home office activity, it is more likely to be fulfilled in peripheral locations where it is much more affordable. The existing trend of decentralisation and suburbanisation in Switzerland is thus expected to be accentuated by the increased prevalence of multi-local work. This raises the challenge for communities, spatial developers, and policymakers to counteract unwanted and erratic urban sprawl.
Another trend worth highlighting is that the increased flexibility through multi-local work strengthens the importance of midsize and small city centres. More hours spent working from home not only increases the demand for space within the house but also raises the expectations households have toward the residential environment. Attractive outdoor spaces as well as the availability of services close to home gain more weight. A strong mix of uses in smaller-scale residential areas to make everyday services and institutions accessible within short distances becomes more important, while purely dormitory neighbourhoods become less attractive, even if they are well connected to big cities. This boosts the attractiveness of midsize and small city centres complementary to big metropolitan centres.
Multi-local work changes how we live, not primarily where we live, concludes the study. Fundamental upheavals in the Swiss housing market in the short term are not expected as a consequence of increased multi-local work. Nevertheless, it will contribute to shaping the spatial structure of Switzerland in the medium and long term. Accordingly, spatial developers and the real estate industry are faced with accentuated, but not new, opportunities and challenges.
Source 1: Bundesamt für Statistik (BFS), Umzugsstatistik 2021.
Source 2: Schweizerische Arbeitskräfteerhebung SAKE.
Source 3: Rutzer, C. und Niggli, M. (2020): Corona-Lockdown und Homeoffice in der Schweiz. Universität Basel.
Source 4: Steiner AG (2021): Steiner Office Barometer. Frühjahr 2021. Durchgeführt von Marktetagent.com. – Deloitte (2021): Wo arbeitet die Schweiz nach der COVID-19-Pandemie? – Microsoft (2021): Microsoft-Studie: So verändert sich die Arbeitswelt in der Schweiz.
This briefing summarises the findings of the study “How remote work influences where and how we live in the future”, which was published by the Swiss Ministry for Housing in April 2023.
On behalf of the Swiss Ministry for Housing (BWO), the cantons of Fribourg, Grisons, Lucerne, Solothurn, Valais, as well as Pensimo and Swiss Life, and the Basel Fund, the study was written by EBP Schweiz AG. The findings are based on broad literature research, analyses of different data, expert discussions and workshops.
All secondary sources are found in the original study, available in German and French (short version) here.