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Will Telework Provide Economic Boosts to Smaller Local Areas?

After COVID-19 forced millions to work from home, many have implied that the telework trend can lead to growth in more rural communities. A state office in Oregon, however, advises local areas to temper expectations.

by / July 29, 2020
Government seems to be coping well with the shift to a remote work environment, but challenges remain. (Shutterstock)

At a time when the need for social distancing has driven organizations to embrace telework, questions about the future continue to inspire discussion: How permanent will the shift to telework be? And what effects would sustained telework have? 

In response to such questions, the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis published a post titled “Working from Home and Broadband Access in Oregon.” Josh Lehner, a state economist who authored the post, told Government Technology that increased telework presents a “long-term growth opportunity” for small states in the west that rely on migration for labor and consumer spending.     

However, Lehner said it’s too early to tell whether telework will be a fixture of modern life on a massive scale, so he doesn’t believe local areas in Oregon should get their hopes too high when it comes to the impact of remote work on population and economic growth. 

“I have had multiple conversations with folks who think there is a big wave of remote workers coming to save rural economies,” Lehner said. “I don’t think that’s the case. I think we’re more likely to see incremental changes and incremental growth.” 

Lehner said although available survey data has shown a massive spike in remote work in 2020, “the vast majority of those workers are going to back to the office whenever it’s safe to do so.”

Lehner’s cautious perspective seems to be in line with a recent analysis of the pandemic’s impact on vehicle miles traveled (VMT). According to StreetLight Data CEO Laura Schewel, VMT across the U.S. “is almost back to where it was in March,” particularly in rural areas. One potential implication of higher VMT is that telework may not remain as prevalent as it was during the start of the health crisis.

Others have a different point of view. Randy Cox, executive director of Klamath County Economic Development Association (KCEDA) in Oregon, said the increased traffic he’s seen in Klamath County has been associated with more visitors and tourists. Cox pointed out that KCEDA tends to work with employers, and what he’s hearing is that remote work has been efficient and effective. 

“They’re finding that they’re getting more from the workers at home,” he said. 

Cox also sees the shift to telework as something that was in the cards anyway. COVID-19 simply accelerated the change. 

“We knew this was coming,” Cox said. “We thought it was coming in three or four years from now. What happened in three weeks [after the start of the health crisis] has been pretty incredible.”

Others have expressed optimism that U.S. society as a whole could benefit significantly from the new trend in telework. Articles from the Brookings Institution have suggested that remote work is likely here to stay and could move “America’s highest-value employment away from large ‘superstar’ metro areas and into the lower-priced American heartland.”. 

Meanwhile, reports from CNN and U.S. News & World Report indicate that citizens in urban areas are becoming more attracted to the idea of moving to a rural area due to a perceived higher risk of threat to COVID-19 in big cities. 

The limitation with such ideas, according to Lehner, is that it’s not necessarily true that rural areas are safer from the threat of infection. Lehner also points to the lack of “hard data” on community migration patterns; this type of information from the American Community Survey and the Internal Revenue Service won’t be available until late next year. 

Another related issue is broadband availability in rural areas, Lehner said. Even in Oregon, where Internet subscription rates tend to be higher than the national average, rural broadband quality may not be where it needs to be for widespread telework. 

In other words, smaller local areas that may see telework as a potential economic boost must still contend with the complicated issue of broadband infrastructure. 

Still, stakeholders like Cox welcome the promise of change. Klamath County has great access to broadband, Cox said, as well as other characteristics that can attract workforce.

“Klamath County is ready for growth,” Cox said. “We’re prepared, and we welcome anyone who wants to work remotely.” 

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Jed Pressgrove Staff Writer

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.

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