“Do you remember back in March, when school announced it was closing for three weeks?” I asked my wife recently. Obviously, few of us had been pessimistic enough about the protracted impact of Covid-19 on our lives.
The breathless announcements of that time about the end of commuting, and how Covid would alter the connection between work and place forever, therefore seemed wildly premature. After all, the idea that “work is something you do, not something you travel to” has been around since the ’90s. My own first stint of remote work was nearly 20 years ago when I moved to New Jersey and kept my software development job in Michigan. But outside of specific sectors or individual companies, remote work has remained a very uncommon activity.
As we enter month six? seven? of our three-week closure, still struggling to limit the virus’ bandwidth, I’ll admit that a permanent shift in work location and commuting patterns seems more likely than I’d anticipated. Those of us with the ability to work from home are forming new habits and routines, if reluctantly in many cases. (Our member municipalities, also reluctantly, shifted abruptly to remote participation in public meetings, a change I would have otherwise expected to be years away, if ever.)
I expect most will enthusiastically return to traditional in-person arrangements as soon as they feel it’s safe to do so—“Nothing has better bandwidth than being in the same room,” offers one software developer friend. But some won’t, and as Derek Thompson notes, even a moderate shift towards remote work could bring significant changes for our communities.
What does this mean for Michigan?
At a national scale, increased comfort with full-remote work may lead to some to move back from coastal hotspots to places closer to home, taking advantage of cheaper costs of living and proximity to extended family. (Grandparent childcare has a definite pull, even in times when school and daycares are open.) In combination with climate change pressures, reduced friction of remote work could accelerate population growth for Michigan—growth we’re not necessarily ready for.
Within Michigan, the effects won’t be remotely (sorry) uniform, but are likely to be very spiky. Remote workers, especially those returning from coastal cities, will generally be looking for high-quality place amenities, culturally diverse and inclusive communities, clusters of professional peers for networking and socializing, access to airports for the times they need to travel for in-person work, and obviously good broadband service. This means newly arriving remote workers will likely move to places like downtown Detroit, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, or, if up north, to Traverse City, or Marquette.
Remote workers in high-paying sectors see even Michigan’s expensive places as “bargains” relative to the coasts, and so will likely drive up already rising local housing costs. Meanwhile, many smaller towns around Michigan are unlikely to see any direct benefit: national winner-take-all patterns may flatten slightly, but regionally they’ll remain in full effect. (Admittedly, I’m basing this on my personal, not-at-all scientific, survey of full-time remote workers already in Michigan.)
Within individual communities, the draw of great places remains in effect at a neighborhood scale. For years, residents’ preferences have been shifting away from large homes with large yards in car-dependent areas, and towards walking-friendly neighborhoods. Working from home makes third places that much more important: having parks, libraries, coffee shops, pubs, etc. within a pleasant walk from home offers both the changes of scenery and the opportunities for casual conversation that you miss when not going to a physical office. Where it’s an option, work-from-home is much more attractive in a traditional walking-scale neighborhood with a nearby main street district than in a subdivision made up only of single-unit houses, with car travel required to reach anything else.
On the other hand, the piece of this tradeoff where people accept smaller homes because they have access to public amenities may slow as newly remote workers decide they need an extra room to dedicate to work. Zillow opined in May that remote work could lead to “a new suburban boom” for this reason. However, paired with the desire for nearby amenities and professional clusters (and Michigan’s relative affordability compared to other regions), high-wage remote workers here might instead create pressure for down-conversion of multi-unit houses in historic neighborhoods, or fewer, larger units being built in new-construction, straining local housing availability.
Actions for public leaders
Local and state leaders can look at a few actions that make it more likely remote work will benefit their communities—both in considering the potential for new economic opportunity and in mitigating potential harm to vulnerable residents.
While remote workers could be courted with individual relocation bounties, as places like Tulsa and Vermont have done, place-based investments can more directly provide broad benefit to the community than counting on those incoming remote workers to indirectly benefit the communities they move to. Investment in public assets can also be a way to more equitably share the benefits of expanded remote work across communities, helping to broaden the map beyond those few winner-take-all hotspots.
That could include state initiatives to improve broadband access—critical for remote workers, and also now for all of our elementary schoolers and small businesses that have been pushed online. It could be continued improvements to passenger rail service on the Detroit/Chicago corridor, to make communities other than Detroit and Ann Arbor more appealing to remote workers who want access to those places’ cultural amenities and to air travel via DTW—and also expand travel options for all of the residents on that corridor. It could be filling in gaps in main streets and commercial corridors, or investing in local parks, to support 15-minute neighborhoods. It could be investing in housing affordability to ensure existing residents aren’t priced out if your community does suddenly become a remote work hotspot.
Rather than chasing this year’s hot new economic trend and assuming spillover benefits, investments in public assets that inclusively improve quality of place can build community wealth even if remote workers don’t show up right away.