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Why attracting remote workers means being a better city

When I started the Remote in Philly community with Alex Hillman in 2019 (we stopped work on that project when the pandemic suddenly made the remote work landscape very different), I had an agenda on why finding and organizing folks who work remotely in Philadelphia would benefit everyone in Philadelphia for the better.

It is my belief that what makes an urban environment attractive for remote workers is great urban design and community development – that in exchange, remote workers bring investment into the city via their salaries and their own community involvement.

First, why attracting remote workers benefits the city, and then onto how being attractive to remote workers means being a well-run city.

Money into the city

Cities have visitor’s bureaus to bring travel and outside dollars into the city. But someone’s salary coming from another place is also bringing money into the city! If a company is headquartered in San Francisco and paying a resident of Philadelphia $100k/year, that salary pays for housing, food, entertainment, etc. in the city of Philadelphia. San Francisco dollars put into Philadelphia’s economy, much more than a tourist.

Hawaii’s Movers and Shakas initiative launched in 2020, to entice remote workers to live and work from Hawaii (most participants were Hawaiians moving back from the mainland). According to them, one participant in their program had 50 times the economic impact of a regular tourist. Add to that another consideration: that during a global pandemic, people who stick around are far less risky from a public health perspective than in-and-out tourists.

Reduction of risk

Many people working for many different remote companies reduces the impact when one of those companies closing on the city. We don’t have 300 people suddenly out of work, there may be … dozens? A few? One? That’s why Alex and I worked together, because this idea of risk reduction is similar to his goals in the 10k independents project.

Now that so many more companies are fully remote, after being forced into it from the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems to be much more trivial to move from one remote job to another.

Before the pandemic, when I was hiring at remote-first companies, one of the key indicators in hiring was if someone had experience working remotely. This is no longer a limiting hiring factor now that so many people have this experience and have figured out strategies to work remotely.

A liveable city is a good remote city

To ask why someone who works remotely lives somewhere, you have to ask “why there versus anywhere else”? Of course, proximity to family and existing social circles is a factors we can’t control for, but beyond that – it’s being a liveable city.

By that I mean that there’s public transit; it’s easy to get around. Schools are well-funded and prioritized. Arts are lively and happening. In the city, culture is what creates a beating heart. People connecting to other people.

Restrictions on gathering and fluctuating rulesets make it very difficult to create in the city throughout the pandemic. As restrictions loosen and disappear, gatherings will enliven the city again (or so I hope).

Places to work & connect together

Cities are attractive because of the concentration of people and resources in one place. Shouldn’t that apply to work spaces as well? Companies that maintain offices (perhaps over multiple cities, particularly now) find themselves offering a “hybrid” model, unable to demand on-site work.

Because they can’t justify the demand for on-site work after people worked remotely just fine for two years.

And so those offices need to be places you want to work, because the company can’t rely on the obligation to be there anymore. I hope to see investments in workspace design and lighting (so many offices have such terrible lighting).

And for remote workers without a home office in the city? Coworking spaces give people a place outside their home to work, connect, and create separate spaces for living vs. working.

Remote workers also need to connect to others in their skill set and industry (aka “networking”). Cities offer a concentration of folks so that similar interests can align!

Caveats and Realities

Real talk: there’s no remote trash collector. Nor is there a remote barista, or a remote firefighter, or … you get the idea.

The focus on remote jobs can be a detriment, and I’ve read too many articles in the last two years about “the future of work!” that are so navel-gazing, and I can only imagine the authors writing from their expansive home-office in the suburbs.

I don’t want to live somewhere where everything is remote. Where there are no gyms or dance studios because “it’s all online”. Where there are no restaurants with seating because everything is ordered via an app, so ghost kitchens are smarter to run.

Frankly, remote work is most pleasurable in an environment where not everyone is working from their house and ordering delivery for everything.

That’s why Places to work together is, and will be, so important in urban environments. Offices must evolve to be somewhere you want to be versus somewhere you must be.

For remote workers, that means great workspaces available if the company has a local presence. For others, coworking spaces can fill this role for folks to engage with other people, and not be trapped in their house.

Cities around the world are thinking about how they attract and interact with remote workers. Why not Philly?

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