We might see a day when towns get into bidding wars for remote workers instead of a company’s HQ.
“Canadians just aren’t work online people,” the twenty-something assured me, as he charged my credit card for my new phone. “I wish more people moved to Canada like you. You already have a job and you didn’t even take it from a Canadian.”
I thanked the man for my cell phone and left without arguing with him. It was 2014, I was fresh off the plane from California, and I didn’t want my first action as a Canadian expat to be telling a random stranger why he was wrong.
And make no mistake, he was wrong. Remote work is a world wide trend that shows no signs of disappearing. In Canada, 47% of employees work outside of an office for at least half of the week. And according to International Workplace Group (IWG), over half of employees across the globe work outside of their main office at least 2.5 days per week. While the overall number of full time remote workers world-wide is relatively low — Owl Labs puts the number at 16% — it’s one of the fastest growing workforce segments in the US.
While we can probably discount the idea that everyone will be working remotely in the future, it’s pretty clear that remote work — in some form — is here to stay.
The People Are Asking for It
In the movie ‘The Princess Bride,’ Miracle Max asks the (mostly) dead Wesley “What’s so important? What do you have that’s worth living for?” Wesley had a strong reason for wanting to live. While today’s knowledge workers may not be motivated by true love, many of them have compelling reasons to pursue a flexible work schedule.
The survey from IWG found that “83% of global respondents report that the ability to work flexibly at least some of the time would act as clincher in case of indecision between two similar job offers.” Even people who don’t want to work from home 100% of the time benefit from a work from home policy. No one wants to use a vacation day to wait for the plumber to show up. Working from home means you don’t have to.
While work flexibility is a perk for some, for others, it’s a requirement. For a certain segment of the workforce, remote jobs mean the difference between working and unemployment. Some people have health conditions that they can only manage from home. Others must move every few years to follow a spouse.
These folks are highly motivated to learn the necessary skills to work remotely and find employers who will accommodate their needs. Employers who are truly interested in diversity and inclusion should consider remote work as one way to further that goal. The technology already exists to let you transition to an ‘office optional’ approach.
The Technology is Already Here
I was once at a party where another guest said, after learning that I work remotely, “We could never do that where I work. I can’t do my job online.” It’s absolutely valid for people to say that they don’t want to work from home. However, there’s only a subset of knowledge worker jobs that can’t be done remotely.
Just ask 100% remote companies like Automattic, Buffer,and FlexJobs. Virtual Private Networks, video conferencing, and collaborative project management boards allow companies to conduct business no matter where employees sit. Everything from accounting to people management can be done online.
In some cases, when people say ‘you can’t do that remotely,’ what they really mean is ‘I don’t know how to do that remotely.’ Many of us learned how to perform work in a traditional office. We developed skills that depended on seeing each other. ‘Going remote’ means relearning how to communicate, how to get what you need, and how to motivate people to do things.
You might not want to relearn these skills. You may not have a choice. Knowledge work CAN be done online, and knowledge workers know it. Business leadership might keep certain tasks in a physical office, but there needs to be a well-thought-out rationale for doing so. ‘That’s how we’ve always done it’ isn’t enough. Not when workers can interview for a remote job without leaving home. And not when they may have other, more powerful reasons for doing so.
Cities are Getting Expensive
I left California in 2014 to move to Canada. I can’t afford to move back. Not if I want to give my children a good life. My hometown is so expensive that people making six figures are living in their cars. While the state needs to resolve the livability crisis, remote work can provide an escape hatch for employees who wouldn’t otherwise have the resources to move.
People are more productive when they aren’t worried about feeding their children or losing their homes. They’re happier when they can break free from long commutes and spend time building a life outside of work. For companies based in expensive areas, providing a remote work option is the ethical thing to do. Not everyone will choose remote work, but for those that do, it can dramatically improve their quality of life.
This is true not just for employees, but also for rural geographies.
Revitalizing Rural Communities
People have been leaving the country to move to the city for hundreds of years. The rate of movement is on the rise, with the International Organization for Migration estimating that nearly 3 million people are moving to cities every week. This has left many rural areas without the needed population to keep their economies afloat.
A few of these rural areas are attempting to reverse the tide. Towns inside and outside of the US will pay you to move in. Some are even specifically targeting remote workers. In January of 2019, the state of Vermont started accepting applications for the Remote Worker Grant Program. If you work for an out of state employer, Vermont would like to give you $10,000 over two years to move there.
Governments aren’t the only entities trying to revitalize rural communities. There are a growing number of grassroots movements dedicated to bringing remote work to small towns and villages around the world. Grow Remote is just one of these community-based groups. Their mission is to help repopulate rural areas, to employ those already there, and to give remote workers a connection to the larger community.
It’s a little too soon to tell if these initiatives will bring people back to rural communities. CNN reports that as of May 14, Vermont has approved 33 remote work grants and people are moving in. And rural communities aren’t the only ones trying to attract remote workers. Tulsa, Oklahoma has followed in Vermont’s footsteps and is also offering $10,000 if you move into the city for a year.
Will people stay and put down roots? Only time will tell. If these programs help Tulsa and Vermont to grow their tax base, it’s likely more places will set up programs to attract remote workers.
The man who sold me my cell phone had one thing right. More people should have the opportunity to move to a new place, secure in the knowledge that they have a way to support themselves when they get there. Fortunately, a tool with this much potential isn’t going anywhere. As more companies embrace a flexible work policy, people will have the opportunity to improve their quality of life while potentially revitalizing their communities for years to come.