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How Communities Can Attract and Retain Remote Workers

March 30, 2020 By Drew Repp

Map of USA

A 2018 Washington Post article focused on a Gallup Poll which found many urban residents would like to make a move to rural America: 27% said a rural area would be their ideal community, while only 12% responded that they prefer a big city. Due to the high cost of living in big metros (particularly housing) and stressors such as traffic and long lines, these findings aren’t that surprising (especially if the responder just sat in traffic for an hour only to arrive home to their monthly rent bill due).

Sankey showing where Americans want to live

Age played a factor in responses, those under 30 were the only group whose first choice was not a rural area. Those 30-49 slightly prefered wanting to live in a rural area over a big city suburb. Both the 50-64 and 65+ groups had the strongest preference to live in a rural community.

However, the poll notes, “The gap between the desire to live in a rural area and the actual percentage living in such an area is evident across all four age groups.” So why don’t they make the move? “Quite simply, big metro areas tend to be where the jobs and opportunities are,” says Christopher Ingraham, the article’s author. He goes on to say, “Labor markets work as a positive feedback loop: Job opportunities attract talented employees, and talented employees attract firms looking to hire.” As a result, superstar cities like Seattle, New York, and San Francisco have continued to attract and retain talent. Additionally, moving is hard. Not only is there a significant financial cost, but it takes an emotional toll on the relationships of families and friends.

But even with these factors drawing and keeping people in cities, some are making the move. Over the last four years our Talent Attraction Scorecard has been benchmarking how well communities are attracting talent, with migration one of the six metrics. One of the trends seen in the Scorecard is that for a certain populace, cities are losing some of their appeal. This could be the result of what Richard Florida calls the New Urban Crisis – the growing inequality and lack of affordability pushing the middle class out of cities.

Another factor making the shift away from large metros possible is the growing ability to work remotely. According to the American Community Survey, since 2000 the percentage of Americans working remotely has steadily risen from 3.3% to 5.2%. With technology making remote work easier and companies in need of talent wherever they can find it, the location of the employer doesn’t necessarily dictate the location of the employee. Additionally, the COVID-19 outbreak has now had a forceful hand in pushing many employers to have their already remote capable employees work from home.

A Few Caveats

1. Rise in remote work isn’t just big city workers taking their job remote or finding a job that allows them to set up shop wherever. Many big metro areas like Austin, Denver, San Diego, and Portland have high concentrations of remote workers themselves.

Table of Data regarding remote workers

2. Remote worker data isn’t perfect. The above is gathered from the American Community Survey via the respondents answer to a question on their means of transportation to work over the last week. Those who reported “worked at home” are counted as remote workers. Workers such as farmers, who likely selected the work at home as the most appropriate option, drive up the numbers in rural areas. Additionally, many individuals operating a home-based business, such as selling crafts on Etsy, would select this answer. But when discussing and analyzing remote worker trends, it is typically agreed that a remote worker is someone who is employed by a company, but works outside of a traditional office environment.

3. On the whole, Americans are actually moving less than we used to. While there are forces at work that are resulting in some out migration from supercities, generally speaking, we’re staying put – or at least putting a move off till later.

So while migration is slowing, remote work is growing. This gives economic developers two possible approaches: provide current residents who want or need to work remote with the necessary tools and support so they stay in the community, and/or market those same elements to potential new residents.

Is it worth the effort?

As with any economic development strategy or initiative, it has to first be determined if the potential benefits are worth the (always limited) resources going towards it. Here are some of the advantages of growing a remote worker community.

Diversifies the regional economy

In examining data on those working from home in Oregon communities, Josh Lehner with the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis found that “…the occupations that have high local concentrations in those working from home, are also underrepresented occupations when looking at the regional economy.” Put another way, often times remote workers are working in occupations or industries that aren’t common to a region. Attracting remote workers can infuse a community with skills and knowledge it may not otherwise see.

Homes get purchased or rented

No secret here. Remote workers, just like traditional workers, need a place to live. And since 84% of remote workers primarily work from home (2019 State of Remote Work by Buffer), they will likely seek additional square footage for a home office or work space.

Supports local businesses

While their paycheck is likely being cut from somewhere else, they’re spending that paycheck locally. Beyond housing, their dollars are spent at the places that many communities desperately need to succeed: coffee shops, restaurants, and other local brick and mortar retailers. Remote workers support the place making that is revitalizing neighborhoods across the country.

The median annual wage for a graphic designer in the U.S. is just over $50,000. Say a graphic designer decided to work remotely from Ada, Oklahoma (a recent selection for the Rural Innovation Initiative technical assistance program). The induced effect, which captures the industry-based impact as employees spend their paychecks in a region, is just north of $8,500. Most elected officials and economic developers in small towns would welcome this infusion.

Image of data from Impact Scenario

Connections to businesses and industries outside the region

As remote workers diversify an economy, they also expose it to businesses outside the traditional supply chain or client channels. By getting to know their remote worker community, economic developers will learn of companies they may otherwise have not been aware of. These connections could present future opportunities to attract more remote workers from that company or industry, or even a physical expansion of the company itself.

Grows regional skills

Recent research has highlighted how skills clusters are revolutionizing how we think about regional economies. And remote workers contribute greatly in this area, as the skills they bring to a region don’t just benefit their employer. From serving on boards to volunteering at their kid’s school, their social capital is deployed in communities. And in the event a remote worker needs or wants to make a job change, exploring local opportunities first would be natural. They are thus an additional source to potentially fill a workforce shortage.

It could simply be how most work is conducted in the future

While historically dominated by tech-related or creative fields, remote work is growing in traditional fields as well. Companies can lower their overhead by decreasing the amount of physical space needed, couple this with the aforementioned competition for talent and technology improvements, and for many firms remote staffs will become the norm, not simply an accommodation. Additionally, the necessity of working from home during COVID-19 will likely set new remote work norms.

Emsi’s Job Postings Analytics, which can filter postings by those listed as remote, gives a sense of the shift occurring in how work is being sourced and carried out. Of the remote positions advertised from 2017-2019, the two most posted occupations were in education. Whether teaching an online class for a university or tutoring a student in geometry, work traditionally seen as being conducted in a set place—teacher in a classroom—now is one of the top in-demand remote occupations.

data showing top posted occupations

Advances in telemedicine will allow for a similar trend in healthcare occupations. During that same timeframe, registered nurse was the second most common job title remote position posting.

data showing top posted job titles

There are some downsides to consider

All growth comes with some tradeoffs. In the case of a growing remote worker community, as inbound migration occurs, increased housing demand will result in higher prices. With many communities already in the midst of a housing crisis with a limited supply of units, an influx of remote workers could exacerbate the issue.

In the end, having part (or all) of a workforce working remotely is one, of many, approaches to management and productivity. While many companies see it as an opportunity to tap into a larger talent pool, lower overhead, and offer a benefit to employees, others see it as a deterrent to collaboration and innovation. In 2017, IBM made headlines when it required that all its remote workers relocate to a regional office or leave the company. The move sought to turnaround 20 consecutive quarters of falling revenue by placing creativity and innovation above cost reduction and increased productivity.

Thus, while it’s possible that remote work will become the norm (some believe it already is), communities seeking to attract remote workers will always be pursuing only a segment of the workforce, as many companies will take a different management approach. There’s also the simple fact that some jobs can’t be performed remotely.

It’s also possible that remote workers are more susceptible to downsizing when companies are contracting. While there doesn’t appear to be any data to support this notion, it stands to reason that remote workers could fall victim to being “out of sight, out of mind” when firms look to cut labor costs. IBM was adamant that their about-face was not an attempt to quietly lay off workers, but those unable to relocate or find a different position within the company weren’t able to stay on.

Lastly, while remote work is expanding into various industries and professions, it largely benefits more educated, knowledge-based workers. Economic and workforce development professionals will need to be intentional if they want their remote worker strategies to be inclusive of varying education levels.

Strategies to make your community remote worker friendly

If you feel the pros outweigh the cons, here are some strategies to consider when trying to grow your remote worker population:

First, the biggies

1. Broadband

For all the talk of technology advances making remote work easier and better, none of those advances are useful without good reliable broadband. The urban-rural divide of broadband has been well documented. The FCC estimates that while 97% of those in urban areas have access to high speed service, only 65% in rural areas do, and only 60% on tribal lands. But due to the methodology used to determine coverage, the number of homes without broadband is likely much less . And it’s not just rural areas, many low income communities have limited availability or are hindered by affordability

All this to say: broadband is the prerequisite for promoting your community as a remote work location. Whether working with your state legislature for local funding of additional rollout, pursuing federal grants, or exploring municipal broadband, economic developers need to be active in getting broadband in their communities. And this is true regardless of remote worker goals. Broadband is needed to recruit business and expand existing ones.

2. Incentives

A number of communities have made headlines with their remote worker relocation incentive programs. The State of Vermont’s Remote Worker Grant Program will reimburse qualifying expenses, including those incurred while relocating to The Green Mountain State or those necessary to perform remote duties. Remote Tulsa provides upfront cash, monthly installments, and a final payment at the end of the program term (one year) totaling $10,000. The program also provides networking opportunities and resources such as an apartment locator. Remote Shoals functions very similar to Tulsa, and offers a total of $10,000 for those who relocate to one of four cities (Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield and Tuscumbia) in Northwest Alabama.

Funding for such programs is of course the big question. Vermont’s is a state program created by the Legislature, Tulsa’s through a Foundation, while Shoals’ is a partnership between the chamber and economic development authority. With these programs still being relatively new, the jury is still mostly out on their effectiveness.

CityLab recently checked in on Remote Tulsa and its first cohort of participants. Meanwhile, a report out of the Vermont State Auditor’s Office had a less than glowing analysis of its program, although this was largely due to what it perceived as a “structural” flaw” in the program. Namely, “…it requires applicants to prove residency before applying. Therefore, applicants must make financial and major life commitments before knowing if they will receive grant funds. That means they had the will and the means to relocate without the program.” That is, the program is functioning more as a bonus than an incentive.

But the thought process behind such programs is clear: the cost of the incentive is worth the shot in the arm that remote workers can bring to a local economy – even if they just stay a year.

The lower hanging fruit

Expanding broadband is a heavy and multi-year lift. Offering incentives requires funds, and likely a lot of coalition building to gain approval. Not to mention that any incentive will come with its critics. However, there are other ways to begin tapping into remote worker talent.

1. Upskills existing residents

A criticism of any recruitment program, whether it’s for businesses or talent, is that it doesn’t directly benefit those it’s trying to help: local residents. But by upskilling local residents with skills to win remote jobs, communities can help plug job seekers into jobs, or current workers into better jobs. By coupling their experience and industry knowledge with skills needed to be successful in a remote position, such as video conferencing, digital communication, and time management, residents can position themselves for the growing opportunities to work remotely and stay in the community.

Utah’s Rural Online Initiative provides courses to equip participants with the tools and skills needed to transition from on-site work to a remote work career. Upon completion of all the course work, participants are awarded a certificate.

illustration of coffee shop

2. Market assets specific to the #remotelife.

One way to approach remote work is as an industry itself. If you were developing a strategy to attract aerospace companies, you might tout the existing cluster of OEM suppliers or number of engineering graduates from local universities. Similarly, there are assets in a locale that can help remote workers be successful. A search of #remotelife quickly reveals a community with specific traits and needs, even a tone and way of talking about their work. This community, or industry, is your target audience. Here’s some things that are likely important to them:

Alternative workspaces

While 84% of remote workers primarily work from home, Buffer’s survey revealed that 37% say coffee shops and 14% say coworking spaces is the second most common location they work from. Just like when working in a traditional office, remote workers sometimes need a change in scenery. Coffee shops and cafes often provide the ambiance to help inspire a designer or give a writer her breakthrough. Coworking spaces help build community (more on this later) and allow for remote workers to connect with like minded professionals who share the same struggles and triumphs.

However, alternative workspaces aren’t limited to coffee shops and coworking facilities. Depending on the individual work style, libraries, bars, restaurants, breweries, wineries, and parks can all provide an environment for work.

Economic developers should find ways to market and highlight these various locations to existing and prospective remote workers. From map finder tools to writeups, the more these locations are known, the easier it is for workers to envision themselves finding the places they need. There is the added benefit of supporting local businesses by shepherding patrons to these locations. EDOs and Chambers could partner with local coffee shops and breweries to create a rewards program for remote workers who set up shop for a few hours at their establishment. If there were a BYGO program for remote workers at a local brewery, I’d be there (even more often).

Smaller communities with fewer such establishments will need to get creative. If a grange hall has Wi-Fi, consider blocking off a few mornings a week for it to serve as a coworking space.

Flights

40% of responders in Buffers 2019 State of Remote Work survey said that part of their team is full time while part of the team works out of the same office. Whether to facilitate team building or company culture, or for client pitches and important meetings, most remote workers at some point will be asked to travel to the company headquarters or regional office. Such visits will likely need to be on a somewhat regular basis, making well-connected airports vital to any region seeking to accommodate remote workers.

If your regional airport has good flight offerings, this can set you apart from other locations and should be marketed to prospective remote workers. If not, working with your local airport to expand routes should be at the top of the priority list. (As an aside, this should be done not just in an effort to attract and retain remote workers. Airports are a driver of economic growth and economic developers need to help cultivate their growth.)

While direct flights to major markets are ideal, there are other ways to showcase the connectivity of your region. Showcasing the number of markets that can be reached with one connection will likely ease concerns. Trends are also nice to see. If your airport has been consistently adding routes or frequency to certain markets, workers looking to make the case to locate in your region can use this if pitching their employer. And in some markets getting to an airport is the primary battle. Good public transportation to the airport, easy access to terminals, and parking are huge assets, especially to those remote workers that are traveling weekly or bi-weekly.

A 2019 Missoula Current article drives home the importance of connectivity. While Montana has become well known as a trendy western outpost for remote workers, the article highlighted how difficult to reach airports can sabotage a remote worker. A New York architect only made it a year working remotely there, as the bi-weekly commutes were a “nightmare”, starting at predawn to catch the necessary 6 a.m. flight.

As mentioned at the top, rural communities can benefit greatly from workers not needing to be in supercities. But if remote and freelance work is going to help resuscitate rural America, airports are the defibrillator.

Amenities

This will mean different things to different people. For those escaping congestion of large metros, it makes sense that accessible outdoor recreation would be attractive. Consequently, many communities lead with this. But not everyone is a weekend warrior. For some, good amenities means a flourishing food or music scene, for others it’s the number of miles of bike lanes. The great thing is, many communities are realizing the benefits of placemaking, and consequently are competing with large metros in this arena. Richard Florida puts it this way:

illustration of hiker

“The big knowledge and tech hubs which once had such a stranglehold on attracting talent seem to be losing their allure. Many places around the country now have bundles of amenities—renovated old buildings, coffee shops and good restaurants, music venues, and not least of all, more affordable homes—that can compete with the biggest cities. In other words, the amenity gap between superstar cities and other places has closed, while the housing-price gap has widened.”

Networking and Support

While generally speaking, remote workers tend to be independent and self-driven, they are still human. And humans need relationships and interaction. And again, thinking of remote workers as an industry, opportunities for industry professionals to connect and network are important. The more remote workers are able to build relationships with their peers locally, the better they’re able to imbed themselves into the social fabric of a community and thrive.

If you’re a chamber or startup program, consider adding a remote worker meetup along with your monthly python meetup or member breakfast. Communities can take a page from Utah’s Rural Online Initiative and facilitate trainings or classes specific to conducting business in the digital economy.

Supporting remote workers can be done in small but meaningful ways. While large incentives can entice relocation, smaller steps can be taken to help a worker take the step to working remotely or feel welcomed in a community. Consider this: Buffer’s survey found that only 21% of companies cover the cost of a coworking membership for their remote workers, and only 9% cover drinks or food at coffee shops. An EDO that creates a program that provides a coworking or coffee shop stipend can signify their support of the remote worker community. The need of remote workers to travel was discussed earlier, a program or stipend that alleviates that burden, such as an airport parking stipend, could be all that’s needed to keep a remote worker local.

Same job (just come home)

This is less about making your community attractive to remote workers, and perhaps more about reminding people of why it's an attractive place in general. Economic developers are familiar with boomerangs, those who grew up in a community, leave for school or work in their 20s, but return when they start a family. Many communities have created initiatives to target this demographic. While not solely focused on boomerangs, Dakota Roots aims to bring former residents back to South Dakota and inspire those unfamiliar with South Dakota to consider making the move.

While workers may have an interest in moving back home, a job is typically a prerequisite. The Dakota Roots program thus seeks to connect those interested in South Dakota with job opportunities. But for some, remote work means the job variable might not be a factor. Communities could take existing talent attraction initiatives and add information and marketing around remote work amenities. Or, build a talent attraction program focused on fields with higher rates of remote workers. Those with remote capabilities might simply need to be reminded of the perks of their hometown.

Conclusion

The future of work is constantly evolving. But as we enter a new decade, it appears remote work will be a staple of how work is done. For certain communities, such as rural or distressed neighborhoods focused on place-based policies, attracting remote workers can be a great complement to other economic development strategies.

Likewise, many mid-size cities have all the amenities that workers escaping large metros are looking for. And unlike economic development efforts that require massive land, infrastructure, or financial investments, remote worker initiatives primarily leverage and market existing assets. Economic and workforce developers who explore the remote worker movement will likely be pleasantly surprised at its potential to support their goal of creating thriving communities.