Many rural areas in the U.S. Midwest have been experiencing net population losses for years, raising concerns about the survival of these communities.1 Fewer people mean not only a reduced workforce and diminished taxpayer base, but also fewer customers for local businesses, lower participation rates in community institutions (faith-based organizations, civic leadership, social service professionals2, etc.) and even reduced social-networking opportunities (lessening the community’s attractiveness, in particular for local young adults). This can trigger a self-reinforcing downward spiral of declining population and dwindling opportunities. People who care about preserving smaller communities and the lifestyle and cultural attributes they embody struggle with the challenge of how to retain residents and attract new residents as well.
Enter the enticing possibilities offered by “remote work,” a term sometimes used interchangeably with “telecommuting” or “telework.” ”Remote work” is performed by someone who is not located at an employer’s physical premises, but is connected via technology to the employer.3 This concept is broader than simply working from home; it could encompass working from a rented co-working space on the other side of town, from a mobile office on the other side of the state, or perhaps from a collaborating enterprise’s facility on the other side of the globe.
Remote work has surged during the pandemic,4 and there is reason to believe that post-pandemic levels of remote work will remain higher than pre-pandemic. One economist estimates that “[b]y 2025, 36.2 million Americans will be remote, an increase of 16.8 million people from pre-pandemic rates.”5 Presumably, this increase arises from the fact that many employees are enjoying the flexibility that remote-working arrangements offer them.6
Surveys also show an increased interest in living in rural areas or smaller communities and active movement away from larger cities. In an April 2020 Harris poll, 38% of urban dwellers indicated that they are “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to “[m]ove out of densely populated areas and toward rural areas” once the pandemic ends.7
We have reached a point where a significant portion of the population is able to work far removed from their employer’s headquarters, and a large contingent is ready and willing to make their homes in small-town America. There might be opportunities for rural communities in these trends, and it would be wise for economic developers in rural regions to consider how their areas could benefit from these trends.
For example, current residents of rural areas might work remotely to remain in their communities, rather than leaving town for a desired position. This presumes not only the possession of technical skills and relevant education desired by remote employers (by one estimate, as many as 87% of remote jobs require at least a 2-year degree), 8 but also necessitates the development of remote-work skills. To address this latter prerequisite, some educational institutions have created programs such as Utah State’s “Master Remote Work Professional” course to certify these remote-work skills. Remote-work skills include time management, productivity, and virtual collaboration9, which may well facilitate job searches for rural dwellers.
Perhaps the most straightforward way to realize benefits from the conjunction of the “remote work” and the “urban flight” trends would be an effort by rural communities to attract those (sub)urbanites who are in a position to work remotely and have decided they prefer to live in a rural area or small town. As a policy matter, communities will have to work to market themselves to these potential new residents, because the competition for these migrants is likely to be substantial. Some regions have begun to take on this marketing challenge: Members of the Community and Economic Development team at University of Illinois Extension, for example, are working to develop a framework which Illinois communities can apply to credibly brand themselves as “remote ready.”
Another strategy for leveraging the new “remote” world might have small-town-based companies addressing their own talent needs for a “well-skilled workforce”10 by deliberately tapping into the legion of individuals willing to work remotely. This saves a rural manufacturer, for example, from having to convince a young, talented engineer to leave a big-city environment (with its larger population of young folks). While this “remote work” strategy will not necessarily increase a rural region’s population, it should improve the sustainability of the community by improving the sustainability of community-based businesses.
These opportunities are sometimes paired with challenges. In the case of remote work, the most serious hurdle in rural areas is likely to be access to high-speed broadband. Rural communities without an adequate internet infrastructure will likely not realize any of the benefits of remote work. One commentator, reviewing survey data, notes that “rural areas with good internet access will continue to attract more new residents, while places without decent internet options will be seen as less desirable, falling further off the map.”11 As a consequence, communities must prioritize deployment of such communications networks if they are serious about creating the opportunity for remote work.
There is not much research to confirm the prospects for, or results of, “remote work”-related benefits to rural areas, and “there remains a need to examine how [information- and communications technology]-supported remote work operates in rural spaces and the implications of the remaining urban-rural digital divide to the potential to transform rural employment and economies.”12 Perhaps Census data will uncover relevant movement. Certainly, the pandemic has created some behavior patterns that, in retrospect, will likely be viewed as anomalous, but this should not deter community leaders and policy makers from making lemons out of lemonade and pursuing some of the possible benefits of these trends, even if they prove to be less enduring than we are hoping they can be.
1 See, e.g., Zarecor, K., Peters, D. & Hamideh, S. (2021). Rural Smart Shrinkage and Perceptions of Quality of Life in the American Midwest. In Martínez-Martín, J.A., Mikkelsen, C.A. & Phillips, R. Handbook of quality of life and sustainability (Pp. 395-415, pg. 395). Springer. See also Frey, W. (3.13.2014) A Population Slowdown for Small Town America, Brookings Institute, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/a-population-slowdown-for-small-town-america/ retrieved on 4.30.2021.
2 Rhubart, Dr. Danielle, et al. (2021) The Unique Impacts of U.S. Social and Health Policies on Rural Population Health and Aging, Public Policy & Aging Report, 31(1), pp. 24–29, pg.25, Oxford University Press.
3 “In 1990, the International Labor Organization (ILO) proposed the following definition of telework: ‘A form of work in which (a) work is performed in a location remote from a central office or production facilities, thus separating the worker from personal contact with co-workers there; and (b) new technology enables this separation by facilitating communication.’” Beňo, M. (2018) Working in the Virtual World - an Approach to the “Home Office” Business Model Analysis, Ad Alta: Journal of Interdisciplinary Research, 8(1), pp. 25–36, p.27.
4 Statista Research Department (4.1.2021) Remote work frequency before and after COVID-19 in the United States 2020, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1122987/change-in-remote-work-trends-after-covid-in-usa/, retrieved on 4/4/2021.
5 Ozimek, Adam (10.29.2020) Future Workforce Pulse Report, Upwork Global, Inc., https://www.upwork.com/press/releases/economist-report-future-workforce.
6 PwC (1.12.2021) It’s time to reimagine where and how work will get done, US Remote Work Survey - January 12, 2021, https://www.pwc.com/us/en/library/covid-19/us-remote-work-survey.html, retrieved on 4/4/2021.
7 The Harris Poll (4.28.2020) The Harris Poll COVID-19 Tracker Wave 9, p. 125, http://theharrispoll.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/The-Harris-Poll_COVID19-Tracker_Wave-9.pdf. Retrieved on 4/4/2021. See also Saad, Lydia (2021) Country Living Enjoys Renewed Appeal in U.S., Gallup, Inc., https://news.gallup.com/poll/328268/country-living-enjoys-renewed-appeal.aspx, retrieved on 3/2/21. (“if you could live anywhere you wished, where would you prefer to live . . .” Response: Town – 17%, Rural area – 31%).
8 Chmura, C., Ph.D., (2020) From virtual presentation on 8-12-2020, How is Covid-19 Impacting Real Estate Trends?, available at https://www.chmura.com/real-estate-webinar-download.
9 Hill, P., Ali, A. D., Narine, L. K., Spielmaker, D., & Schmutz, A. (2021). Evaluating Utah's Rural Online Initiative: Empowering Rural Communities Through Remote Work. Journal of Extension, 58(5), pp.1-2. Retrieved from https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/joe/vol58/iss5/21.
10 Ioannou, Lori (10.29.2020) Vast Migration of Over 14 Million Americans Coming Due to Rise in Remote Work, Study Shows, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/10/28/vast-migration-of-over-14-million-americans-coming-due-to-remote-work.html , retrieved on 4/2/2021.
11 Cooke, K. (10.26.2020) WFH Survey Shows Better Internet in Rural Areas Would Attract New Residents, https://www.satelliteinternet.com/resources/wfh-internet-survey/, retrieved on 4/2/2021.
12 Davies A. (2021) COVID-19 and ICT-Supported Remote Working: Opportunities for Rural Economies. World, 2(1), pp. 139-152, pages 148-149. https://doi.org/10.3390/world2010010.