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In regions around over 40 cities, at least one in five people were working remotely last year, according to a new study.
It’s not just big coastal cities where remote work arrangements became more common during the pandemic, according to new research.
The report from Economic Innovation Group shows that, as of last year, there were at least 42 regions around the country where 20% or more of the population was working remotely. Nationally, remote work jumped to 17.9% in 2021 from 5.6% in 2019, the year before the coronavirus hit and offices emptied out.
The new EIG analysis looks beneath that overall figure at how the prevalence of remote work has varied drastically in “commuting zones” around different cities.
Until recently, there wasn’t data to show where remote work is most common. But with the release of 2021 American Community Survey data—which the EIG analysis relies on—local leaders can see how their communities compare and shape policies accordingly, especially as remote work drives population gains and losses.
“I think it's important to understand whether you're on one side of the ledger, or maybe in some ways you're on both sides,” Adam Ozimek, the report’s co-author, told Route Fifty.
Of the regions with the largest shares of remote workers last year, some may not come as a surprise. The Washington, D.C. area tops the list with 34% of its population working remotely, followed by San Francisco (33%) and Austin, Texas (32%).
But remote work increased around other cities, too—places less often thought of as boomtowns for the tech sector, or so-called creative class.
For instance, in the region the EIG report looked at around Wilmington, Delaware, with about 650,000 residents, 22% were working remotely. The same was true for 22% of the roughly 237,000 people in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico and 21% in the 637,000-person region that encompasses Provo, Utah.
In some cases, the rise in remote work outside of pricey metro areas reflects how people who broke ties with physical workplaces sought more affordable places to live and, in doing so, drove up the rate of remote work in those locations as well.
Source: Economic Innovation Group
“Remote workers are moving away from the most expensive places, and remote work gives people an incentive to find lower cost living places,” Ozimek said.
More people have returned to the office over the past year as the pandemic has waned. But Ozimek said he doesn’t expect the kinds of migrations seen in the data to go away. He pointed to a report he published earlier this year that found that for every person who moved because of remote work, there are four who have plans to relocate.
“That suggests that a lot of the impact is still yet to come,” he said.
The commuting zones the report looks at are made up of clusters of counties within which people commute for work.
Ozimek and his co-author, Eric Carlson, found that, last year, 13.7% of the nation’s population lived in zones where the remote work rate was greater than 25%.
There are many factors that can drive remote work up or down in different regions, including education levels, housing prices, long commutes and the kinds of jobs that are available.
Cities that are losing residents because of remote work may need to find new ways to attract people, especially if living close to major employers is no longer as much of a draw.
“It turns the focus more on the quality of life issues, and sort of turns it away from a traditional economic development focus, which is, ‘how do we get big employers here?’” Ozimek said.
Meanwhile, in areas gaining residents, local leaders are facing other issues, like having adequate housing, infrastructure and services to accommodate newcomers.
Read the full analysis here.
Molly Bolan is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.