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The Virtual Workforce Conundrum – To Relocate or Not?

Someone having a work meeting via Zoom

According to some statistics, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced roughly two-thirds of employees to work from home. The need to protect workers and customers alike prompted many businesses to make this shift early. But with subsequent lockdowns, nearly all business who could function with a virtual workforce did. In the process, many employers realized the advantages of working from home. And at the same time, many employees adjusted quite well to the change also. In fact, relocation trends now show many are banking on these changes being permanent. (For more on how this workforce shift is a sign of a new lifestyle change, check out this story on the “Come-to-Me Economy“.)

Recent surveys of workers now suggest that 40 percent are considering moving to less populated areas. For some, this means rural areas with fresh air and healthier environments. Redfin reports that searches for homes in these areas are up 76 percent. Others are contemplating suburban areas where the cost of living is less. However, making these moves might be risky because the future is quite unpredictable. Whether or not these relocation trends persist depends on how companies ultimately embrace a virtual workforce model or not.

“Moving away from the central core has traditionally offered affordability at the cost of your time and gas money. Relaxing those costs by working remotely could mean more households choose those larger homes farther out, easing price pressure on urban and inner suburban areas.” – Skylar Olsen, Senior Principal Economist, Zillow

Is the Grass Really Greener? – The Allure of Relocation

There are a number of advantages to support these recent relocation trends. Many people are making the move to be closer to family. This is especially true for some adults with aging parents. Others simply appreciate the lower taxes and cost of living that non-urban areas offer. And often, the homes available in these locations are more spacious, which is truly appreciated after being in lockdown. As part of a virtual workforce, these benefits might be attractive and feasible. Even if an occasional commute is required, the opportunity to live outside the city can have its perks.

A woman working from home on her laptop
Thanks to the lockdowns, relocation trends point to more and more virtual workforces and fewer offices.

At the same time, some disadvantages also exist when thinking about an urban escape. For families with children, this could mean changing schools. With the disruptions in education already experienced in recent months, further change may not be welcomed. Likewise, suburban and rural areas may not offer all the amenities that a larger city does. While urban areas may not have their appeal during lockdown, it has to be assumed the buzz of the city will return. Those who now comprise the virtual workforce must take these factors into account in making their decision.

“If employers a year out say it was an interesting experiment but we benefit from people being eyeball to eyeball because we want the collaboration, then I think you’re going to start to see this swing the other way.” – Jeffrey Otteau, Otteau Group Real Estate Valuation & Consultant Company

Is the Virtual Workforce Here to Stay?

Most experts don’t expect the same percentage of employees to be part of the virtual workforce when the pandemic resides. However, many expect about a third of all workers to work remotely at home. Therefore, this represents a sizable segment of the population who may see moving away from the city as attractive. The relocation trends present now may not reflect as many people leaving urban centers. But they will likely persist on a smaller scale if employers commit to a work-from-home situation. At least some companies will appreciate the benefits this type of situation provides.

If history provides some guidance, relocation trends after 9/11 and the 2008 recession showed many leaving urban centers as well. But in both cases, people returned fairly quickly once things settled down. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are different in many ways, however. Neither of the prior crises prompted employers to embrace a virtual workforce. Likewise, new technologies with COVID-19 have made a virtual workforce more practical. Understanding this, some companies like Twitter and Facebook have already committed to supporting a virtual workforce long-term.

“It’s obvious that the number of remote workers is going to jump up. But it’s not so clear-cut that it’s going to be this huge transformation.” – Thomas Cooke, Professor of Geography and Expert in Residential Migration, University of Connecticut.

Finding a Happy Medium

As one might expect, picking up and moving to a highly rural area is not for the masses. Certainly, for a few, this may have tremendous appeal, especially if the rural location is their hometown. But relocation trends are showing that most people in this situation are looking at two main areas. These include suburban regions outside a major city and smaller size cities in general. Both offer the advantages previously described for a virtual workforce yet still offer many amenities common to an urban environment.

Suburban areas may be ideal for virtual workforce members who still need to occasionally go into an office. Though the commute might be longer, it would be less often. In fact, recent surveys show the majority of the virtual workforce would be willing to commute 45 minutes or longer. These are likely to be relocation trends that will persist. Smaller cities, on the other hand, might be ideal for a virtual workforce that rarely has to make an appearance. Such cities offer a greater sense of community when compared to an urban area. This might be more appealing for some.

Predicting Relocation Trends of the Future

Without question, the COVID-19 pandemic is unique in many ways. Therefore, predicting whether relocation trends will persist or not is challenging. When a COVID-19 vaccine is available, presumably most social activities will return full force. But the conveniences and benefits of a virtual workforce may demand its persistence. If this is the case, then relocations trends away from urban centers will likely continue. While the magnitude may be smaller overall compared to now, the benefits will likely continue to encourage many to move away. Ultimately, it’s likely that personal choice will be more of a driver than the actual location of one’s employer.

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