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In my story, the upper class have augmented reality chips in their brains. What would be the point of physically going to work? Why would a corporation have incredible cyberpunk-style mega-skyscrapers if their corporate workers could push papers and hold meetings virtually?

Edit: The responses have been incredible from everyone. This has given me a lot of food for thought. What an incredible community, especially for a SO Newbie like me :) - Philip

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    $\begingroup$ You've just lived through the year 2021. Lots of people are asking what is the point of going to another location for their job even today. True, there are retail and hospitality jobs where that is still an essential part of the work, but for everyone else? It just doesn't seem like a reasonable proposition. It is not difficult to imagine technology either making jobs where "going to work" is a requirement to become obsolete, or making those same jobs doable remotely. Your premise mostly falls flat. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Mar 20 at 4:20
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    $\begingroup$ If you didn't go back to the office, the value of commercial real estate would plummet, and that would make a lot of rich and influential people very upset. $\endgroup$ Mar 20 at 8:52
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnO You've also presumably lived through the beginning of 2022, where many people are having the question of "what's the point of going to the office" answered by their bosses with "because we say you have to, and we'll fire you if not". (The tech industry being a notable outlier) $\endgroup$ Mar 21 at 20:53
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    $\begingroup$ It's become clear from the answers particularly this one - see comments that there could be more clarity regarding what you mean by "upper-class" and "corporate workers". Could you edit the question to make it clearer. $\endgroup$ Mar 23 at 17:10
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    $\begingroup$ One word: Orbiting corporate park, month shifts, daily shuttle by Kramerica Industries. $\endgroup$
    – TARKUS
    Mar 24 at 13:51

18 Answers 18

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Yes, everyone got brain implants and can do things remotely. The difference is quality.

Only the highest-level C-suite officers get top-of-the-line implants, and they really can do stuff from everywhere in the world, in exactly the same manner as if they were in the same room with you. Their experience is flawless: no transmission delays, proper force feedback, infoscreens that really display exactly the data that you need, exactly where you need it.

But everyone else has to make do with the cheap stuff. There are frequent stream interruptions. The field of view is crowded with ads that get past the popup blockers. The resolution is shitty. The audio is miserable. The filesharing doesn't work. The personal thoughts aren't properly separated by the implant and sometimes leak through to the recipient. The editor integration ugly. The brain implants reset every now and then, or have to be rebooted. Keyboards are still needed quite often for input. In short: it doesn't really work well enough.

So for these workers, the office is simply the more efficient solution, more affordable still than proper AR gear. Or maybe the office building provides the required wireless infrastructure and firewall to actually make the AR implants work as designed.

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  • $\begingroup$ Can I opt out of this future? $\endgroup$ Mar 25 at 9:34
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Because they stopped printing land

There was no need today for the Bank of America to construct the tenth largest building in America at over 1,200 feet with 55 floors and a 5.1 megaWatt generator, when it only employs fewer than 200 people there who manufacture nothing at all.

Bank of America Tower, Manhattan

Office buildings exist for the reason that they are called office buildings: for offices. The way these building work is very simple:

Pretend you are in a country, and it has people with money. But, the people don't want their money getting robbed all the time. This is where we came up with the idea of large, steel vaults that robbers can't break into. The business that keeps your money safe (in a safe), is called a bank.

But, banks don't just let your money sit around and get dusty. Banks invest our money to make it grow. They literally rent your money out to people who need to run a small business. When you hear the word "interest" on a loan or credit, that is nothing more than the daily cost of renting someone else's money, which the bank happens to have a lot of.

The hardest problem any business in a large city has to overcome, is getting their stuff close to the people buying it. So, this is how banks and large corporations can use their huge bank accounts (of other people's money) to grow more money.

They rent the offices

The 55 floors of the Bank of America tower have nothing to do at all with banking. They collect rent from accountants, and lawyers, and interior designers, or whoever can afford to pay the rent.

Your Big Cyberpunk Corporation owns this enormous building in the center of the city, because no one else can afford a small shop downtown. Every glass window in your huge skyscraper is an office, and that office is collecting rent every month. The corporate employees might be only a handful, or, like you said, be able to work completely remotely. But, humans can't do everything remotely. Some stuff absolutely needs to be done in a confidential and private office. Especially in a cyberpunk world, where hackers can listen in to anyone they want. You can't hack two people talking across a desk, so offices remain the place where businesses keep their company secrets and private business dealings that would be pirated over the Net.

This is how it works in real life. That won't change in a cyberpunk world; it may even become more necessary.

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    $\begingroup$ They got chips in their brains. You absolutely can hack them, and listen in on them talking across a desk. But maybe you can't get the data out in a livestream, because the offices are shielded specifically against live transmissions? $\endgroup$
    – Bergi
    Mar 20 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Bergi I wouldn't say "absolutely" unless the OP described their chips. It's "AR" tech, so you'd be guessing at what gets overlayed. Maybe text only? Maybe full-on telepathy? Assume anything you want I suppose, then make the question moot? $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Mar 20 at 20:08
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    $\begingroup$ consider also: servers. You need to host them somewhere, and you'd need A LOT of servers in a cyberpunk future. $\endgroup$ Mar 21 at 9:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Bergi If you however can protect a building from hackers then you can also protect a virtual space from hackers. The only way the 'some stuff absolutely needs to be done in an office' statement could work is if the office would be a zone completely devoid of technology (which would have to be very strictly enforced). $\endgroup$ Mar 21 at 10:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Bergi: Brain chips don't necessarily have wireless access. And those that do, can have switches to shut that off. Sure, you could remote in while the guy's connected at the mall, install some spyware, then retrieve the dataz later. But people could also get in the habit of wiping data after important meetings before plugging back into the net, etc. It certainly makes for interesting discussions on what to add to a cyberpunk world, but computer chip doesn't instantly equate to readily hackable. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelS
    Mar 21 at 19:15
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Status and security

As John O notes, events in the real world have shown that physically commuting to work is unnecessary for a sizable portion of the workforce.

But, that doesn't spell the end of massive cool skyscrapers.

As also noted by John O, many jobs can't be done virtually. Many of these will be service or menial jobs that don't need skyscrapers, but some will. I can't think of any examples, but I'll just note that there is a whole universe of unusual jobs out there, so any attempt to generalize is likely to fail. I also think there are more compelling reasons.

Status

Extremely wealthy people often do outrageous things to flatter their own egos, and to jockey for position with their peers. (Just look at the world of luxury watches.) So, the upper storeys of many of these skyscrapers may be penthouse apartments, especially if things at street level are unpleasant because of pollution, poverty, crime, etc.

Many skyscrapers already exist, and the owners will not be in a hurry to demolish them. With more people working virtually, a greater chunk of these buildings will be available to turn into expensive residential property.

Security

One common trope in dystopian fiction is that private enterprises become very closed and insular, both as a defense against corporate espionage, and also as a response to increasing violent crime in the absence of adequate policing by the government. Basically, all employees move into corporate-owned facilities, and live there with all their colleagues; management lives in upper floors, with the executives at the very top.

This means that every employee can be protected by corporate security. It also makes it much easier for the employer to extract more working hours from each employee, since employees literally live at their workplace. Not to mention that it would probably stroke the egos of the super-rich people at the top to know that they live atop a closed community over which they have an incredible amount of direct control.

There's an older sci-fi story where practically all humans live in sealed skyscrapers that are essentially independent nations who literally war with each other. (I forget the title. IIRC, it's kind of a murder mystery that involves some shenanigans with elevators.)

If things in your world go in a similar direction, it could drive an increase in the construction of skyscrapers, making them bigger, taller, fancier (on upper floors).

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  • $\begingroup$ That story... Judge Dredd comics? $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Mar 20 at 6:44
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    $\begingroup$ "This means that every employee can be protected by corporate security. It also makes it much easier for the employer to extract more working hours" and much easier for the hostile competition to take out the entire company workforce with one well placed drone strike controlled from an offshore subsidiary somewhere with privacy laws that make it impossible to prove they own the subsidiary that did it 😁 $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Mar 20 at 10:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Pelinore There's always a catch... $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Mar 20 at 20:32
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    $\begingroup$ @pellinore That’s why there are no extraterritorial locations in many cyberpunk novels. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Mar 20 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ This is roughly the same as Gibson's arcologies in Neuromancer with one extra bit: the security also keeps key employees from being hired away. Sort of a gilded cage. $\endgroup$ Mar 21 at 0:24
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Bandwidth and Latency

Yes, you can work remotely (in fact, you have to, all the user interfaces are online only). But unless you are very high in the corporate hierarchy, you can't afford a good connection from your home (which is, according to the cyberpunk setting, in a high-rise slum). So even if your skills are good enough to get hired by a large corporation, you will be slower to react to changes, unable to keep up with people who are plugged into the corporate network right in the building.

The inside of the corp buildings aren't offices. They are more like the Matrix pods; the analogy is encouraged by the corporations: it is obviously completely safe to stay plugged in long term, rather than go home and waste time with "family", "hobbies" or anything like it. Studies from as early as 20th century found the negative effects of these distractions on the focus time.

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To ensure that managers can observe workers for signs of dissidence.

If you let people work at home they could be listening to subversive music or doing subversive virtual reality things at home, or ignore important and special figures in the company in favour of doing work. This would make the senior people sad. As such, by forcing people to come into the office you can better keep an eye on people to ensure they're giving proper respect to their corporate masters.

To ensure job continuity for middle management.

If middle management isn't there cracking whips on people's necks then they're not really needed. As such, middle management needs people to come into the office so they can keep their jobs.

If people don't come into the expensive office the CEO may not get as big a bonus.

The CEO likely spent a lot of money selling the benefits of people actually working together, not virtually, to the board. If their expensive purchase goes unused then it looks like they failed, and they might not get a bonus.

They're not sure if this whole virtual reality thing is just a trend.

The older management probably grew up in the distant past when technology was very inferior. They may feel that current technological trends are just a trend and that it's not a good idea to indulge them when it may be people go back to pen and paper soon.

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A bit similar to the answer by Goodies, but focussing on the paper-pushers:

Assume that all the mindless paper-pushers and corporate drones have been replaced by computers. Call them AI, or just expert systems, they do the routine stuff. What that leaves are at least slightly creative corporate drones. They don't get a call from their boss, "fire the ten workers in that factory with the most sick days," they get to figure out how the scheduled maintenance downtime can be reduced by 0.7%, without spending more money or doing anything to hurt next quarter's bottom line.

At least today, creative meetings work much better in person. Doing them remotely takes a lot of skill and practice. Shifting icons on a screen has some advantages over shifting sticky notes on a wall, but it is not the same. And then the doorbell rings and the speaker has to take a parcel for the neighbour, who isn't answering his bell.

Perhaps your science-fictional implants come with the capability to do a "just like we're in a room" experience. But how much is the transmission delay, and what does that do to social interactions? And if the meeting in person is more effective, the next question would be if it is more expensive, and if so who pays the cost. It could be that a company can get officer drones cheaper (or better employees for the same money) if they allow remote work. Or the job market is such that the office drones commute on their own time and expense, and are glad about the opportunity.

Imagine the signal getting encrypted at one end, routed through an internet-like connection, and decrypted at the other end. Bandwidth is good but not unlimited. What if the signal is bounced through a commo sat rather than 'risking' ground cables, or through the central server at corporate HQ even for conferences 'in' a regional office? If each connection has as lag of 0.1 seconds, people are 0.2 seconds out of sync.

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    $\begingroup$ Ah an om answer +1 about this "in the room" experience, if I understand the question right, using this brain device, people would fully experience the workplace themselves.. but it does not state a thing about how they are perceived by people who are actually present. There could be a hologram sitting at the table.. but would this hologram get coffee and make jokes ? I don't think so. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Mar 20 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Goodies, I was expecting the image to make exactly the same jokes as the office worker at home. But perhaps 0.2 seconds delayed. And failing to get eye contact right. Have you ever talked to somebody when the monitor and the camera were not properly aligned? $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Mar 20 at 20:42
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    $\begingroup$ Quite often, I tend to switch off cam. Imagine this delay would happen to a hologram sitting at the table.. 0.2 sec delay would look really awkward, I think even 20ms delay would look awkward.. a 3d image moving its mouth out of sync looks like.. funny.. you'd be laughed at.. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Mar 20 at 21:16
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It's how the bosses want it

Now that COVID is "over", a lot of employers (my own included) want all their staff back in the office, even though we were able to work remotely during the lockdown and there was talk in the media of remote working becoming the new norm.

I'm sure there are a number of factors here, e.g. they don't trust (at least some of) their staff to do a full day's work, or they feel that the social interaction is better for teamwork, or perhaps equipment needed for work is expensive and so needs to be accessible to everyone at any time, or maybe it's just in a manager's DNA to like to be able to gather people into a room for a quick chat or meeting at a moment's notice. I'm not a manager myself but from what I gather they don't actually like everyone being spread far and wide, even if they're connected virtually.

The only question remains, does this justify they cost of renting {space on} a fancy skyscraper? And the answer to that is that you simply adjust this cost so it does!

Besides, not all work can be done remotely. Fine if you're a software developer or a writer, but many jobs need access to equipment, materials, labs, etc. Even entertaining clients might be better done in a fancy looking office than over the Internet - you can treat them to expensive coffee or show off your luxurious toilets, show them your products in the flesh, etc. These would all require that the employee comes to the company to do the work.

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    $\begingroup$ Case in point. Today is my first day back in the office after being full-time WFH for many many months. I tried to negotiate staying full-time WFH on the grounds that we have quite a few members of the team who live in different parts of the country and that there's no material benefit to me being in the office. My manager just plain prefers people to be in the office if possible.. I'm not exactly happy about it, but I was able to negotiate down to 2 days a week in the office, so there's that. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Mar 21 at 13:49
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Effectivity and social reasons

During the first year of the Covid pandemia, many people were "in lock down". That meant daily work in open office space was not allowed, the office people were required to work at home. The first effect you notice is people feel more free at home, but they are also distracted and diverted easier. The upper class folks (like management, having meetings all the time) resorted to digital communications and did not turn up at the office for months.

This increased the distance between management and work force. Most people occupied in production facilities had to work through the pandemic, with all kinds of restrictive measures on the work place. The decisions were taken for them, by people who were not "upstairs" but working at home.

Now suppose that would become permanent. The work force will only have contact with their superiors by phone or on a screen. Alienation will kick in, giving people the feel some home-workers are privileged, while they are not. They are numbers.

Also, working at home by managers caused alienation between management and the actual things taking place at a company. The skype meetings yielded directions, which could sometimes not be applied at all, because managers had ignored topics occupying other managers. They did not hear the usual gossip at the coffee machine.. often preventing misunderstandings..

The Covid lock downs have ended, nearly everywhere in the western world. Our office elite is present in the office again. Some companies decided to go permanent on the working at home, for a relevant number of their employees. At the start of the pandemic already, Google sold large part of its office buildings, claiming their activities - including production - can all be done at home. That may count for google, making digital information products, but for the average office worker, managers included, office is back. We see our collegues again, their physical presence. Although hardly imaginable for the Google nerds, many people do prefer that: direct communication with others, looking each other in the eye.. rather than beeping your voice through someones loudspeaker.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for socialising. We had a poll, post covid, in my company, asking for reasons to come back to office. 70% answered to socialise with other coworkers. $\endgroup$
    – everyone
    Mar 21 at 17:04
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Maybe the skyscrapers are basically vertical farms/meat generating factories with executive apartments at the top where the views are nice? During COVID, agricultural and industrial workers didn't work from home.

Either that, or, as other answers have noted, online security has just failed for truly critical information so many times that companies have decided anything critical can only be looked at and discussed inside an internet-jamming corporate building.

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While there are a lot of image-related reasons for physically gathering your workers in massive chrome and glass edifices, there are more pragmatic reasons for doing so.

The biggest one is data security. The only way we can maintain our corporate secrets is to never let them leave the safe environment maintained by our internal servers and the layers of firewalls and ICE wrapped around our networks. Opening holes in our security to allow people to access that protected data remotely is simply not viable. Any connection to the outside world can be exploited, any encryption can be bypassed, even your implants can be hacked - we have teams to handle scrubbing your firmware regularly, you'll be meeting with them after this talk, and before any meeting dealing with sensitive information.

Of course there can be no data security without physical security, which is why our sensitive networks don't reach to the bottom fifteen floors of the building. In fact there's no network access at all on the twelth through fifteenth, only heavily shielded and armored net cables between the firewalls on sixteen and eleven. And the security section of course. You would have seen part of that on your way up today - the ground floor elevators don't go past twelve for a reason. Same goes for the pads on thirty where the middle management land and the rooftop pad has... more direct arrangements that you'll probably never have to worry about since only Mr Ogawa and his immediate staff ever use it.

As you progress through the corporate hierarchy you get more access by virtue of your location in the building. The higher you go in the tower the more access you have, as enforced by the numerous ICE layers. It doesn't matter what your user access is - when an exec from the seventieth comes down to the thirties they have no more access to the internal net than others on that floor.

That's how serious we are about security. For an outside actor to get access to research done on the fortieth floor they would have to make their way physically to that floor or above. And frankly if they can make it that far up the building I'm not going to stand in their way, and I suggest that you don't either. Get down on the floor and let the tac teams deal with the issue. Dead heroes don't draw paychecks, and your life insurance won't pay out for suicide by samurai.

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Control

Forcing the employees to work in an environment The Corporation controls instead of from the comfort of their own home allows them to exert a lot more control over their employees.

  • Controlling the work environment controls people's thoughts. People working at home can decide freely how they want to design their work environment. They won't hang up any of The Corporation- provided motivational posters or listen to the PA announcements. They might put up distracting imagery, like pictures of their family. Which could lead some of them to work towards a better future for their useless children instead of a better future for the shareholders like they should. It is far better to let employees work in an office environment carefully designed by the psychology department to facilitate maximum productivity and loyalty.
  • Enforcing a dresscode. Letting people wear what they want breeds individuality. Forcing the human resources to wear suits and ties as written in the employee handbook breeds conformity. Looking like a diligent and obedient corporate drone makes one behave like a diligent and obedient corporate drone.
  • Monitoring their activities on the premise. The Corporation is able to outfit its building with lots and lots of cameras, microphones and other surveillance devices to monitor any action taken and any word spoken while at work. This allows them to detect any subversive behavior of their employees. Their surveillance of the private homes of their employees is far less thorough, because those crafty employees keep finding ways to circumvent The Corporation's tools of home privacy invasions.
  • Make the employees feel monitored. It's not as if The Corporation does not have the means to monitor their employees off-premise. But while the employee is in the comfort of their own home, it doesn't feel to them like they are constantly being monitored. In the office, on the other hand, there is the constant feeling that a manager might look over their shoulder at any moment. This puts an additional psychological pressure to prevent disobedience before it happens.
  • Preventing them from leaking information to independent hackers. Private residences have crappy security compared to the closed shells networks of The Corporation. Doing all the sensitive work on-premise makes it easier for The Corporation to prevent leaks. Both intentional and unintentional.
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Remote work is a sign of low status because it means your work is irrelevant from a security standpoint

Anything you send on the internet can be read by at least the Zuck, Bill Gates, your ISP, the government, possibly several hostile nations depending on who hacks into the internet routing nodes that day, and multiple three letter agencies. This being a cyberpunk world, at least some of those actors are corrupt and/or paid off by enemy entities. So you have end to end encryption, you say? With a 4096 bit elliptic curve cipher? Cute.

If you are in a creative or decision making position, remote work is a disastrous data leak waiting to happen. After the near-bankruptcy of Airbus when their secretive game-changing A420 orbital jet was announced as the Boeing 969 the day after an employee updated the design blueprints from home after hours, more and more corpos realized the sneakernet was the only viable means of communication in the 22nd century.

As a result, all large corpos have their own on-site datacenter, protected by the corporate security umbrella. "The cloud" fell out of favor in the late 2020s when the rate at which cloud resources were compromised began to be expressed in megahacks per second.

This obviously applies only to the important people. Paper pushers work remote because their work is replaceable. Security for these ComJobs (named after a maligned ISP in the 20th century) is handled by loss prevention, which calculates the cost of the work lost to hacking activity and compares it to the cost of moving them into the corporate fortress. If the work is cheap enough to do over after a hack attack or outsource to multiple teams working under distributed consensus rules, the employee is not given an access card and is graciously allowed (required) to work remote in their mass produced prefab home, for a reasonable wage cut because they no longer have a need for expenses such as transportation, sick days or shoes.

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The office is airgapped: there is no connection between the building intranet (on which the work is done) and the internet. The only way for malware to get in is if somebody physically brings it through the front door.

  • Deliberate sabotage (employees should be searched on entry and the penalty for bringing any data storage device across the perimeter should be severe).

  • A malicious script embedded in an employee's personal device (these should be scrubbed to factory default on entry and be remote terminals for cloud computing done on the building's server, not independent computers with local data storage).

  • Or malicious code embedded in data or software that the corporation has no choice but to bring across the boundary. (For instance- Dell-Gazprom puts malicious code on all their printers because they know that Northrop-Toshiba uses Dell-Gazprom printers; the printers hack any server they're connected to; an activation code is manually entered separately by a blackmailed saboteur.

The drawback of course is that remote work is impossible, so office space is needed.

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It doesnt say what is happening in those skyscrapers.

  • It can be as simple as being a vertical industrial area. They get raw materials and use those to build propriotary products from start to finish, right in the middle of the population centers.

  • The company might not need its office workers to come in, but they want their own trusted servers to handle the encriptions and communications. So the building houses tons and tons of data processing centers and servers to handle the load.

  • its a dystopian world out there, they use the extra space as a way to build depth in their "territory". Anyone coming to steal or any corporate warfare will run into a lot of area they need to cover, giving the corporation time and space to fall back on or deal with intruders. This could include a thick, armored wall against literal attacks designed to bring the building down. Naturally higher up will have more expensive toys and personell.

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As pure status symbol. Mostly they are there to show off just how powerful and rich the corporations are. Marketing essentially.

The skyscrapers are the vanity projects of last century and beyond, so why wouldn't it continue to be one?

And how they can afford it? Maybe it's due to some weird and stupid government tax deductions. Where actually building and maintaining one doesn't really end up costing that much. Originally intended as jobs program to compete unemployment. And maybe with some accounting it is considered to be appreciating asset propping up the stock price.

Still there could be some use for servers, local operations and operatives that have to be on site and so on. But mostly it is there just for sake of being there.

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Service

as cool as virtual things are, nothing beat the real world pleasure. depending on how decadent you want your cyberpunk world to be, you limit this to extremly high end food and coffee, most definitly a spa and the like, or anything you see at a facebook or google campus. treat your important employee like royalty and even if they can work far far away from home, they wouldn't pass on the opportunity to get free gourmet meal with a foot massage

You could easly argue that in a cyberpunk word, if you actually work it does mean your lower class. sure you might have to push paper for a few hour a week, if that, but for most mid/high level employee, their job is much more about maintain status and name recognition than actual work (see bulshit job today)

if you like thing to get frisky, other kind of leisure activity could be offered at the expense of the underpaid employee, the only limit being your perverted imagination and how bored they are.

Security

it has been said several time in the topic, but even if you can work remotly, with how many pirate they are in cyber setting, distance work is prone to be compromised, where as offline indoor work is almost untouchable. and that's without taking into account the risk of physical penetration: with how rampant mercenary are, you can't be sure somebody's home won't be broken into by the concurence, where as your private building can have a small army inside.

Always a question of size

it's simple, yet effective. as said in other post, having a huge tower, bigger than the one of your concurent is a simple way to show that you are the most powerfull in town. the powerfull have alway loved to spend ludicrous amount for arts & monument, it's an efficient way to project power without having to outright shoot people

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Because they already had them before virtual working become commonplace. Now they convert the buildings into accommodation for the ever growing population. Land and accommodation are two very important commodities in an over-populated world.

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Living conditions are expensive/dangerous/crowded in some way, OR quality food or power supplies are expensive or limited. In these cases, assuming that the corporations want to bring the employees into office buildings for many of the reasons already given (control, monitoring, security), the mega offices could be made safer/more luxurious and provide something hard to get - space, quality food, cheap power, whatever is a 'scarce' resource for all but the ultra-rich. The upper middle class would then see going to the office as a benefit.

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