Where will America's new remote workers live?
Where would you live if you could live wherever?
It's now inescapably clear the COVID-19 pandemic is an event of months — or years — rather than weeks. This timeline is shaping how we live, but it's also beginning to affect where we live. Google announced Tuesday it will allow employees to work from home through July 2021, if not longer. Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook have said they'll let some telecommuting continue indefinitely.
The tech industry is well-suited to permanent distance, but not uniquely so. Tele-health is probably here to stay. Many corporate jobs can be performed remotely with, perhaps, a monthly or quarterly day in person. Perhaps millions of Americans will soon find themselves untethered to any physical workplace. Where will they live if they can live wherever?
The phenomenon of pandemic-prompted moves is by now familiar. I predicted it in March, and by early June, 3 percent of Americans had temporarily or permanently moved in connection to COVID-19. (And that was before infections surged across the South and the West.) After avoiding contagion and college closures, the top reasons people moved were proximity to family and personal finances.
Two months later, the calculation is changing, and I suspect those latter two factors will dominate the long-term decisions now before us. For some, temporary moves will become permanent. The friends I mentioned leaving Manhattan in March expected to be back by now. Instead, one is moving to the Midwest to be near siblings, and the other, whose office is closed indefinitely, decided to stay in her hometown. She too wants to be near family — and, if she has to spend so much time at home, to have a far larger apartment than she could afford in New York.
For others, who until now sat tight, announcements like Google's may be raising the question of relocation for the first time. In his Tuesday newsletter, Vox correspondent Matthew Yglesias anticipated movement based on recreational preferences: "If some prestige employers go all-remote, then more prestige workers will decamp for various kinds of lifestyle destinations," he wrote. "[I]n general I think the right hypothesis is that places people visit now will become places remote workers want to live. Unfortunately, I think that means remote work doesn't have a lot of good news for Cleveland or Buffalo."
Maybe. If we're speaking strictly of prestige workers with prestige employers — say, upper-level management at Google — sure. But even Google employees have moms they'd like to see at Christmas and, particularly in the lower ranks, student loans to pay off. A coastal paycheck, including those from lesser lights than Google, goes very far in places like Cleveland or Buffalo, and there are a lot of moms in the Midwest.
One crucial factor which sits at the intersection of family and finances is air travel. As long as the pandemic continues without a vaccine, flights will be expensive, comparatively inconvenient, and, for some, an unacceptable risk of illness. For all but the few wealthy enough to charter private flights, this makes living within a few hours' driving distance of loved ones increasingly valuable. Yglesias suggests a ski resort as a possible destination home for the newly remote. Yet is ski access worth never being home for the holidays? Will you be content rattling around your chalet in Vail, Skyping your parents as they serve heaping piles of turkey and stuffing to your sister and her kids back in Toledo?
Another consideration: Places people visit may be disproportionately hurt by pandemic-produced economic decline. Restaurants and public attractions aren't faring well. A ski resort may survive, minus the sauna. But museums, music venues, shopping districts? We just don't know, and the more those institutions and businesses make up the local economy, the more the local economy will lag if they die. Remote workers leaving places like New York or San Francisco because the city life they so enjoy is suspended won't find it magically intact in New Orleans.
But if your family is in Buffalo, well, your family's still in Buffalo, and that still matters. It matters, perhaps, even more than usual, while so many of our normal experiences of community are on hold. The Lincoln Project's latest ad is shrewd to couch its criticism of President Trump's handling of the pandemic in terms of lost moments with people we love. Geographic proximity makes it easier to preserve those moments without undue risk.
The focus on family and finances I expect to dominate Americans' decision-making about pandemic-occasioned moves won't be the only determinants, of course. Climate surely matters for many, as does urbanization, sprawl, schooling options, reliable internet service, transit access, and proximity to open spaces, be that a yard or beach or national park.
Building on suburban growth trends that predate the coronavirus, shifts toward rural and especially suburban areas are likely (there's precedent for exactly that in Great Depression). Moves will probably be more regional than cross-national, as even our biggest cities tend to attract their populations disproportionately from nearby states. As people head back to familiar haunts, we'll see fewer relocations from San Francisco to Buffalo, for example, than from Manhattan to upstate New York, central New Jersey, or eastern Pennsylvania (in fact, exactly this is already happening). But I anticipate some long-distance moves, too, driven by family location rather than living space or cost alone.
Whether they stay in their region or move farther afield, however, I struggle to imagine the most confirmed urbanites doing a full Green Acres. Midsize cities like, well, Cleveland may prove the best of both worlds: You can have a yard and fast internet and local job options if your remote employment ends and a few amenities of city life and an easy drive to your parents' house in the country or the 'burbs. And the Boston or Seattle salary you bring with you will buy you a hell of backdrop for Zoom.