How can small towns adapt to remote work?

How do municipalities adapt in a world where opportunities are no longer limited to urban areas?

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The "Great Exodus" is happening. Ok, that sounds pretty grandiose. But what I really mean is that trends we were already seeing pre-COVID just got accelerated to warp speed in a matter of weeks — specifically around having a remote/distributed workforce.

  • Companies like Google and Facebook are allowing employees to work from home until 2021, and some companies may never return to their incredibly expensive offices.
  • “Zoom calls” have entered the global lexicon, and services like Slack, Loom, Teams, and more are seeing record usage.
  • And to the surprise of many remote work detractors (like the CEO of Zillow, below)…it’s all working pretty well.

What lies ahead is a societal shift that could have massive impacts on population distribution in the years to come — something that could change the face of towns previously focused on tourism dollars rather than long-term residents.

The past few years have already seen the growth of places like Boulder/Denver, Bozeman, Boise, and more, as people look for a better work/life balance, more affordable housing (at least better than many other big job hubs), and access to the outdoors. These currently popular places all sit in a unique “Goldilocks” zone — they have the above amenities, *and* strong or growing local job markets (primarily in tech).

The Opportunity

The next few year (this isn’t going to happen overnight) will be a tremendous opportunity for small towns to reshape themselves as optimal locales for remote work. Why would I live in a major city when I could work from anywhere, get paid the same, spend less on housing, and live in a smaller town with better access to the outdoors? Places that were previously off the list for many people because of a lack of economic opportunities suddenly become very attractive. A few of my (very non-complete Western + outdoor access biased) new hotspots:

Colorado - Buena Vista, Salida, Pagosa Springs, Gunnison, Grand Junction, Durango, Steamboat

Wyoming - Sheridan, Cody, Lander

Idaho - Victor, Sandpoint, McCall

Montana - Bozeman/Missoula (already seeing a boom, but still room for growth), Whitefish, Helena

Canada - Rossland, Nelson, Revelstoke, Golden, Pemberton

However, it will be on the towns themselves to actively develop services and communities that attract and welcome this new type of residents.

Here are a few suggestions:

Fast/free internet

This seems obvious, but it'll be a significant factor for many people. If I can’t get consistent good internet, remote work becomes much more of a pain. City-funded wifi in public spaces is also a great bonus.

Build a sense of community

Encourage (or fund) co-working spaces and coffee shops with lots of space. While many remote workers are ok working from home, others enjoy the interaction of being around other people. Hold relevant local events, both to attract new residents, and build a sense of community among remote workers nearby — for all its benefits, WFH can get lonely/isolating.

Affordable housing

While less of an issue in many places, if mountain towns heavily focused on tourism like Vail, Breckenridge, the Roaring Fork Valley, and others, want to be stronger more sustainable communities, finding ways to encourage long-term rentals and residents over second homes and Airbnb’s will be necessary. Vacation homes and weekend visitors, while bringing in revenue, don’t really contribute to the overall health of a *community*.

You have to *try* to attract folks

Some regions have already taken larger measures to attract these types of citizens. Last year, Vermont offered a grant of $10,000 for relocation and other costs to attract full-time remote workers. Tulsa, Oklahoma offered a similar grant with ten thousand applicants. On Nomad List, a popular ranking site for remote work cities, I found the distribution of US cities pretty surprising. Many places I wouldn’t have expected to see, and plenty of cities I would have expected aren’t there (but should be).

Will any of this be easy? No of course not. Will some of these places be resistant to change? Probably. But I personally believe that investing in making mountain towns less reliant on seasonal tourism and seasonal jobs over the next few years will lead to healthier, more resilient communities (and local economies).


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