Remote work provides opportunities for rural America

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‘Opportunity knocks but once. Taken at the tide, t'will lead to fortune. If denied, t'will never return.’

 

Attributed to William Shakespeare.

 

“In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity,”  Albert Einstein observed. America and the world have faced the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic crisis for more than a year now. We’ve witnessed incredible loss in lives and devastating financial loss of some.  But out of this crisis also comes opportunity that could finally lead to the resettling of our rural communities.

“Pre-pandemic, Americans were tied to and lived where the jobs were — mainly in big cities. The pandemic and increasing acceptance of remote work is causing people to question why they stay tied to a location where they don’t want to live,” Maria Leonardi writes in her blog La Vita Libera (Live Free.)

In December 2018, a Gallup poll showed “given six choices of a type of place where they could live, 27% of Americans choose a rural area.” Only 12 percent wanted to live in a big city and 21 percent in a suburb.

In reality, closer to 15 percent of Americans live in rural areas despite 76% of the approximately 19,500 incorporated places in the U.S. having fewer than 5,000 people.

The pandemic and the ability to work remotely aren’t the only reasons Americans are looking to rural communities. While their children have been out of school for much of the past year, our rural children have missed few days due to the pandemic. Our smaller class sizes allowed plenty of space for students to social distance and meet state guidelines for in-person learning.

In our rural communities, there is easy access to lakes, golf courses, tennis courts, walking trails and other places to escape the isolation imposed by the pandemic. We live a simpler, less hectic, and yet more connected life in our rural communities.

New polling that considers the impacts of the pandemic shows that nearly one-third (31%) of Americans would like to live in a rural community. People most attracted to rural and small town living were those 50 to 64, Gallup’s polls found.

There is opportunity in these changing desires if we capitalize on them.

Among this 50 to 64-year-old group, are former residents of our communities and graduates from our schools. Through an alumni database, we could be constantly in touch with these people reminding them of what we have to offer, of the many jobs available if they returned, and the quality of life we offer for those who are retired. 

 

Taken ’at the tide’

For rural communities to take advantage of this renewed yearning to live in rural America, we have to be prepared to provide what is essential to their lives and livelihoods.

Housing, as we’ve written, is the first challenge for many rural communities. Without it, this tide will leave our efforts beached. 

We also must have the high-speed internet connectivity fundamental to provide remote workers near fault-free access to their offices and co-workers. Zoom meetings free of freezes and static are essential.

We must establish common spaces where remote workers can gather to socialize but also collaborate. We have already adopted this model in some of our high schools with their collaborative learning centers – central common spaces surrounded by individual rooms.

Those spaces can be created in some of the empty storefronts we have on our main streets. They can be created in businesses that are similar to a remote worker’s profession – an extra office at a law firm, financial institution, or insurance company.

We need to create free WiFi locations and put up large signs that make everyone aware of their location. 

Beyond meeting the space and technological needs of those considering moving to rural Minnesota, we must ensure we are committed to creating a sense of welcome and belonging. There must be things for these workers and their families to do after work and on weekends.

 

‘Change is Upon Us’

“COVID-19 has changed the nature of work, and some of those changes will be permanent,” Joshua Hofer, a South Dakota State University SDSU Extension Community Vitality Field Specialist, writes.

“Now, an increasingly mobile millennial generation coupled with increasing technological accessibility is opening a door for rural regions across the country. Intelligent rural communities can make a quality-of-life based argument, understanding that talent can evermore choose its own destination.”

Despite the move to greater flexibility in where a person works and lives, there are still ties that bind people to a place. Their spouse may have a job that requires them to be physically on the job. Those who work in service industries, retail stores, the medical field, or education must live close to their jobs.

Many businesses take to heart the words of British businesswoman Margaret Heffernan: “For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.”

Companies that could were experimenting with remote work before the pandemic. It saved them renting or building office space. It saved employees commutes through congested traffic. It allowed them more time with their families.

But what they also found was that it meant a diminished collaborative spirit among workers. Collaboration leads to innovation as employees build upon one another’s ideas, whether in a staff meeting, at the water cooler, or in a shared cocktail after work.

Another challenge was the pervading feeling that those who showed up for work better positioned themselves for advancing with a company, earning higher pay.

However, companies are now focusing efforts on reducing this anxiety among their employees through improved videoconferencing technology. They are also adding new positions that are in charge of linking remote staff with in-house employees. “Managers will undergo extensive training to fight against the instinct to give workers in the office preferential treatment,” Jena McGregor of the Washington Post reports.

Rural communities that explore, then act on what it takes to attract remote workers will capitalize on this moment of opportunity.

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