A theme is emerging: today’s workers with technology and COVID-19 might be able to avoid going to an office. But, if they can live anywhere, what does this do for a sense of community and connecting to a particular place?
The coronavirus is challenging the assumption that Americans must stay physically tethered to traditionally hot job markets—and the high costs and small spaces that often come with them—to access the best work opportunities. Three months into the pandemic, many workers find themselves in jobs that, at least for now, will let them work anywhere, creating a wave of movement across the country.
Recessions tend to damp migration. Americans typically move with a new job already in hand, and hiring plummets during downturns. The 2008 financial crisis limited Americans’ mobility because millions of homeowners found themselves underwater on their homes, unable to sell without taking a loss.
But this time might be different. Home prices haven’t yet taken a major hit. And the forces at play are novel. Confronted with the prospect of not being able to easily fly in for a visit with an elderly parent, grown children are suddenly questioning why they live so far away in the first place.
Many newly remote workers are finding they prefer somewhere closer to family or fresh air. Others are giving up on leases they can’t afford, chasing opportunities in states that are reopening faster or heading back to hometowns.
On the side of more community and rootedness:
1. People can live in places they want to live rather than choosing a place for a job. Whether they live somewhere to be near family, find housing, enjoy the outdoors, or some other reason, workers will be inclined to invest more locally.
2. Working from home schedules can offer more flexibility, freeing people up to participate more in local activities.
3. The commute is eliminated, freeing up time as well as getting rid of the illusion that driving through an area is the same as knowing it.
4. People might stay longer in places if they can simply change jobs from afar rather than having to move when they switch jobs or careers.
On the side of less community and rootedness:
1. Spending time at a workplace can build community, both in the building as well as outside the workplace.
2. Corporate actions at the local level will connect less with employees who are not physically there and involved.
3. More businesses may have headquarters in one place (often desirable for big cities and high-status suburbs) but workforces – and all the benefits that come with it such as their spending or jobs numbers local politicians like – will be elsewhere.
On the whole, this could be good for employees who can invest more time in places of their choosing while businesses then have more tenuous connections to the places where they are officially located. In a country of suburbia (often considered non-places) and relatively easy travel, anchoring employees in places for longer could help lead to more rootedness.