In 1995, less than one in 10 U.S. workers reported having ever telecommuted as part of their job, according to Gallup. By 2006, this number rose to 32 percent.
A 2020 Gallup poll found that the number of Americans who had worked from home doubled at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While there has been a gradual return to the office, many employees and businesses alike are looking to maintain a degree of hybrid and remote work moving forward.
According to Gallup, over 90 percent of employees who have worked remotely some of the time prefer a hybrid or fully remote work arrangement moving forward. Prudential’s Pulse of the American Worker Survey found that 42 percent of current remote workers would look for another job if their current company does not continue to offer remote work options long term.
A Mercer study from May of this year found that about 70 percent of employers plan to maintain a combination of remote and in-person work. Gartner, a technology research and consulting firm, found that companies spent a total of $317 billion on information technology for remote work in 2020 alone. Gartner expects that figure to increase more this year as corporations continue to invest in their digital infrastructure.
Microsoft’s Work Trend Index also found that two-thirds of employers globally are redesigning their workplaces to accommodate hybrid work arrangements. Given the inevitability of increased remote work, local governments are tasked with finding ways to respond accordingly. This is certainly a challenge for many, as adapting to a rapidly changing economic and social environment with the pandemic still in the background is no easy task. However, it’s also a unique opportunity for local governments to launch and expand programs that can benefit residents in this new age.
Digital Infrastructure Improvements
Improving broadband access became essential for many local governments at the outset of the pandemic—and not just for remote work, but for online schooling, telehealth services, ordering groceries, and a variety of other necessities. The broadband improvements have served schools and businesses alike, as entire communities benefit from improved connectivity. Chicago, for example, had an estimated 100,000 students lacking internet access as schools shifted online last year. In response to a technological and educational emergency, the city surveyed to determine which households needed assistance the most and partnered with major broadband providers to fill the immense gap.
San Antonio built on its existing digital infrastructure, which featured an extensive network of fiber optic cables that delivered internet to government buildings and community centers. The city expanded the network to the homes of about 20,000 students across 50 highly vulnerable neighborhoods to ensure that they wouldn’t be abandoned during online schooling.
These kinds of investments have made remote work more tenable in many communities, particularly small towns and rural areas. Workers, especially those in high-skill fields, have historically migrated to big cities like New York and San Francisco to take advantage of job opportunities. The growth of remote work represents a potential shift, however, as jobs centered in big cities can now be performed from anywhere—as long as there is reliable internet access.
A 2018 Gallup poll found that 27 percent of urban residents would prefer to live in a rural area, compared to 12 percent who preferred a big city. There is certainly much to admire about smaller towns, with their unique appeal of communal attachment being a comparative advantage over metropolitan areas. Remote work is a potential game-changer, as many employees are now able to live and work virtually anywhere.
Some communities have gone so far as to offer financial incentives to recruit talented workers, particularly those who are working remotely. In 2018, Tulsa launched a philanthropy funded program called Tulsa Remote, which offers $10,000 to those who move to the city and remain there for at least a year.
Topeka created a similar initiative in the form of Choose Topeka, which offers up to $15,000 for employees to move to the city. These examples are somewhat anomalous, but there is a common commitment for local governments to make their cities attractive for the growing population of remote workers.
For some industries and occupations, remote work may not be feasible or desirable—and plenty of employers and employees alike still prefer in-person work. Ultimately, local governments will need to be cognizant of evolving market dynamics and respond accordingly if they are to serve their residents effectively.
Whether it is continued investment in broadband accessibility or making their communities more desirable to live in, local governments should prioritize the needs of residents now and in the future. The expansion of hybrid and remote work offers a unique opportunity for local leaders to be innovative, responding to an evolving economic and educational landscape.