Over the past two years, 5 million U.S. people say they have relocated because of remote work. And they’re not alone. Some estimates indicate that 19 million more Americans plan to move due to work from home (WFH).
Remote work has disrupted a 70-year trend toward urbanization. Forbes contributor, Jack Kelly, noted, “the greater ability to work remotely is leading to new migration patterns.” For the first time in generations, people are moving to live where they want, rather than where they are employed, creating a new geography of work that will draw remote workers away from “superstar cities” to places that offer something, well, more.
Small Town America.
After decades of population decline, and the recent rise of remote work, the timing has never been better for a renaissance for Small Town America. In fact, it’s already starting. A Wall Street Journal analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data found that rural counties saw a net gain in population from mid-2020 through mid-2021. Add to that, there are more small towns in the U.S. than there are big cities. The 2020 Census indicates that about 76% of the approximately 19,500 incorporated places in the U.S. have fewer than 5,000 people.
Take West Lafayette in Indiana, North Platte, Nebraska, Ruston, Louisiana and Stillwater, Oklahoma. Each has fewer than 50,000 residents; each also wants remote workers to relocate there and are actively recruiting them.
That’s a lot of real estate.
The physical infrastructure—highways, byways and bridges, city services, and residential and commercial properties, to name a few—already exists. With the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, smaller communities even have even more access to resources that will spur additional development.
But room to grow and physical infrastructure aside, Small Town America has something else to offer, a magical It Factor: emotional infrastructure.
There’s a certain romance associated with Small Town America: the town square surrounded by charming storefronts and bustling cafes, neighborly greetings shared with a wave or a tip of the hat, and the inevitable cast of characters who lend lovable flair. It’s all part of an undeniable sense of community—the real-life Schitt’s Creek—Small Town America has in spades. It just can’t be experienced, much less replicated, anywhere else.
That craving for community is something we hear a lot, at least anecdotally, at MakeMyMove. (We’re an online marketplace that enables remote workers to identify and explore the communities that are incentivizing WFH employees to relocate.) We know WFH employees miss out on the mentoring, networking and community-building opportunities offered by an in-person work environment. They’re making up for the professional sense of isolation by building richer and deeper connections to the communities in which they live.
Shahil Shrestha is one of those remote workers. After his Manhattan-based job went remote during the pandemic and his landlord put his rental house in New Jersey up for sale, he reassessed his priorities.
He moved to West Lafayette in January as part of MakeMyMove’s Work from Purdue program, which offers financial incentives and other benefits to attract remote workers. Sure, he enjoyed the relocation stipend, access to coworking space and open tab at the university’s student union. But within six months, he had also gained a foothold in the community that he hadn’t experienced in other environs. He plays volleyball and badminton. He practices music with a neighbor. He attends events organized for fellow Work from Purdue program participants.
In other words, he tapped into West Lafayette’s emotional infrastructure and found a community.
He’s not alone. Our movers have told us time and again, “The money got my attention, but the community is what sold me,” proving that even the most generous relocation package will fall flat if there isn’t a sense of community—that emotional infrastructure, again—to support it.
Only time will tell if remote worker relocations to West Lafayette, North Platte, Ruston and Stillwater—and thousands of small towns like them—are truly part of a rural renaissance. It’s your move, Small Town America. Let’s make it a movement.
Bill Oesterle is the co-founder and former CEO of Angie’s List who now serves as Executive Chairman of MakeMyMove, an online marketplace connecting remote workers to communities across the U.S. that are incentivizing remote worker relocations.
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