December 14, 2020 - At the expense of sounding like a broken record, COVID-19 has greatly changed the way we work. During the pandemic, jobs that weren't considered essential services were forced to either close down, or find a new way to keep operations going.
Many, NPI included, chose to transition their operations online and have employees work from home—Statistics Canada found that 40% of workers were working from home at some point during the pandemic. This is a sharp increase from 2018, where less than 10% of workers worked from home for a day or two a week.
When the world emerges from the pandemic, the shift towards remote work is likely to remain. Tech giant Facebook expects half of its workforce to be remote within the next decade, while Twitter has told its staff that they can work from home permanently, if they want. Overseas, the German government is drafting a law to give its citizens the legal right to work from home, should they choose. Closer to home, StatsCan has found that nearly a quarter of businesses expect 10%+ of their workforce to continue to work remotely post-pandemic.
No longer having to report to an office has the potential to be a boon to Ontario's western and central regions. Unshackled from the cities of the south, many will find themselves free to choose where they want to live. Rural communities in northern Ontario--able to offer low real estate costs, a high quality of life, a connection to nature, and all the other benefits of a small town lifestyle—seem to be a logical choice for many soon-to-be former urbanites. Attracting remote workers stands to help communities diversify their natural resource-heavy economies, create connections outside the region, grow local skills, and support local businesses.
What we shouldn't do, however, is consider it a guarantee that remote workers will come in droves to set up shop in northern Ontario. Early research shows that some workers leaving big cities are choosing small-medium urban centres and smaller communities within driving distance of their former homes, rather than making the shift to more remote rural communities. So, there's more to do to make sure that rural northern Ontario can take advantage of the shift in where work is being done. Here are a few steps we can take:
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: broadband in rural northern Ontario just isn’t up to snuff. This is a point that we at NPI have touched on time and time again, so I will only briefly mention it here. Remote work requires good internet, and so to make ourselves attractive to remote workers, we need to get serious about upgrading our internet infrastructure and bridging the digital divide.
Incentives and Marketing
One of the most effective ways to attract remote workers is to give them financial incentives to come. The act of moving itself can be expensive, and can cost around $2,000 to relocate over long distances. To make it easier for remote workers, the city of Savannah has implemented a relocation incentive that seeks to reimburse remote workers for up to $2,000 of their moving costs. Or, communities can offer significantly discounted land and/or tax breaks to prospective new residents, like Smooth Rock Falls has done.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, you could literally pay remote workers to come here. The city of Tulsa, in Oklahoma, has created a program allowing remote workers to apply for $10,000 in cash for relocating to the city. Early returns on the program are good: the selection committee received 10,000 applicants and of the 100 they selected, 70 accepted and moved to Tulsa. Only two left soon after arriving, with the rest staying in the city. Shoals (Alabama), and the state of Vermont are also using cold hard cash to encourage remote workers to make the move. In northern Ontario, this funding could come directly from municipalities, or be offered by organizations like NOHFC—who have stated that one of their focuses is developing our digital economy.
If you combine these incentives with marketing that emphasizes our communities’ already low costs, community and natural assets, and a commitment to openness and inclusivity, you make an offer that will be hard for remote workers to refuse.
Creating Northern Remote Workers
One of the biggest reasons people leave northern Ontario is the pursuit of economic opportunity. With the advent of remote work, however, we can make the jobs come to us, not the other way around. By creating programs that give northern residents the skills and abilities necessary to compete for remote jobs, we can enable them to pursue meaningful careers while remaining in our rural communities. The state of Utah has established one such program called the Rural Online Initiative, that seeks to give prospective rural remote workers a competitive advantage by educating them on the use of online meetings, project management, and education platforms—as well as the “soft skills” associated with remote work—through a series of modules and interactive workshops. This sort of certificate program could help northern communities build local capacity, take advantage of the new world of work, and maintain strong populations.
Establishing Alternative Workspaces
Remote work doesn’t necessarily mean working from home. While it’s true that most remote work is done from home, over 50% of remote workers list coffee shops and co-working spaces as their second most-frequented working locations. These alternative workspaces can provide social connection and community-building opportunities for remote workers, as well as provide them with a much-needed change in scenery. Creating Innovation hubs or co-working locations can be a valuable way of showing commitment to remote workers, facilitating their integration into the community, and spurring local innovation and business development.
As of right now, the few coworking spaces in Northern Ontario are in the Big 5 cities, with the exception of Co-Worx in Haileybury. Smaller communities that don’t have the resources to build new spaces can look to take advantage of existing facilities. Libraries, rec halls, and other community buildings can be equipped with Wi-Fi and set up for certain times every week for use as co-working and networking spaces. At the very least, municipalities can help coffee shops, diners, and cafes get set up with good Wi-Fi (and potentially offer discounts to remote workers) to help make them more attractive places to work when the view from the home office gets stale.
Mateo Orrantia is a Research Analyst at NPI.
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