Do you remember what it was like to take a vacation? After working 60-hour weeks, people would leave the stress and pressure of their weekdays and finally use those hard-earned vacation days to get away from it all. You packed your bags, gathered the children, gassed up your station wagon and went off to explore rural and charming little places that you read about in your AAA magazine or viewed in the National Lampoons Vacation movies. You did not know exactly where you were going but you would know it when you saw it.
The day had finally come to get behind the wheel to go off the beaten path searching for hidden gems, natural beauty, walking downtowns, artistic venues, local cuisine, and our historic past. There was no better view of small-town America, than at the ground level. It was a human right that was written somewhere in your constitution. And when you discovered that charming little burg, you turned to your family and said, “we could live here one day”.
Well, that day has come for millions of workers who have become people who relocate and use telecommunications technologies to earn a living either as entrepreneurs or work from home (WFH) employees in a location beyond the big city. Welcome to Zoom Town, where your annual vacation is now your daily remote home office.
No longer will many people experience sleep deprivation, lengthy commute times, high cost of living and working in a 6 x 6 cubicle for 8-10 hours a day. At least one third of the work force will go from an average of 5 hours of sleep to 8 hours of sleep, from commuting hours to/from work to computing hours from home, from being house poor to house rich and from being in a high stress office to a low stress work environment.
Just as the pandemic has altered the way to conduct our business, educate our children, visit our doctor, attend Pilates class, and even find a match (zoom dating), it will also alter the way economic development practitioners will help their communities rebound and grow.
Zoom towns are non-urban centered communities that have grown quickly because of the migration of remote workers and digital nomads. As stay at home orders continued around the country in 2021, many employers recognized that productivity had not declined with people working at home, and the business could soon return to sustainability by reallocating budgets and meeting their employee’s newfound lifestyle and job satisfaction. Many employees are even willing to accept less pay for the opportunity to work in their pajamas.
Prior to the pandemic 10% of the workforce worked remotely from home. As the pandemic took its toll, the number jumped to 50%. Now, surveys show that at least 30% of the 160 million strong labor force will become work-from-home employees. With that flexibility and upgraded technology, many of those workers will be fleeing cities to relocate in a more safe and affordable destination they once went just for vacations.
Zoom towns may be one of the most dramatic shifts in rural economic development since the discovery that a business will relocate if you give them enough money and tax breaks. If the pandemic has done nothing else, it has taught economic developers that they should approach a new three-legged strategy for the rural community. That means providing technical assistance to existing businesses, (amenity migration) education and training for entrepreneurship, (talent attraction and development) and safe and environmentally friendly locations for remote workers (remote investments).
Small rural communities often have the most to gain from the migration from cities. But, like finding a date on tinder or bumble, charm and looks will only get you so far. Not having a fast and reliable internet service will not get you a second date and is certainly a deal breaker. In addition to reliable broadband, a community must have affordable housing and a lower cost of living. Those three amenities are the “must have” for remote workers and their employers.
But they will not automatically turn your ghost town into a zoom town. Having achieved the employers and employees’ professional needs, zoom towns must sweeten the deal with the “we could live here” factors. That includes quality of place issues like good schools, a variety of culture, outdoor recreation, and quality restaurants. Investing in amenity migration, the trend of people moving to places with more social amenities is now replacing job migration, the trend of relocating people to where the jobs are. High-amenity rural communities are experiencing particularly rapid growth, which for many, is an acceleration of trends that were already in place prior to the pandemic.
The result of this transformation to zoom towns is that rural areas, once depending on a tourism-based economy will now be able to advocate for localism, compete with larger cities for entrepreneurs, (“the world is your talent pool)”, increase their tax base with remote workers, and encourage business investments in rural locations for coworking spaces and maker places for their employees. This strategy will be successful only if local leadership and economic developers will begin to focus on retaining the local workforce while welcoming the newest residents.
Zoom towns could also play an important role in getting women and people of color back into the workforce. Women and people of color have borne the brunt of the displaced worker. Prior to the pandemic, women surpassed men as the majority in the labor force. When the pandemic hit, “a-she-cession” took place and 11 million jobs held by women disappeared.
Remote working and entrepreneurial assistance from zoom towns could bring many women and people of color back into the workforce but will need a supportive ecosystem for this to happen. This would include changes in work and family life, a change in business practices, and leadership from businesses and communities.
As businesses attempt to hire and retain female and people of color in their workforce, allowing more long-term remote working and flexibility in the hours would be a good place to start. Since childcare is the main reason that many women have left their job, businesses could offer stipends and zoom towns could provide referral services or donate space for childcare centers.
The migration of entrepreneurs and remote workers to zoom towns will not mean that cities will turn into ghost towns. Time will show that the pandemic is an opportunity that could make urban areas stronger. They will be different, but they will evolve and survive. Major businesses will be able to cut some of their costs, seek better supply chains, reduce employee stress, improve air quality, employ a younger generation that will come with new ideas and new businesses, and identify talent in a wide range of areas and diversity.
Our cities have survived terrorist attacks, natural disasters, demonstrations, and recessions. They will also survive the pandemic. History has shown that local leaders and entrepreneurs have the capability to survive by constantly reinventing themselves and this can only mean a reawakening for cities. Zoom towns will not destroy urban growth. They will spread the wealth, add value and make them more sustainable. And one day, you will turn to your family and say, “let’s take a vacation into the city”.