The workers leaving cities in favor of the countryside – And what it means for business

Businesses, countries and municipalities are all striving to create environments in which workers can thrive

I look high, I look low, Looking for a home in the heart of the country

Paul McCartney, “Heart of the Country” From RAM, released in May 1971

As he was in so many other ways, perhaps McCartney was ahead of his time when he moved to rural Scotland to escape the post-Beatles public eye. Half a century later, propelled by the pandemic, some workers have fled to greener pastures (often literally) while continuing to perform meaningful, appreciated work for companies that may be thousands of miles away.

Two years after the onset of COVID-19, the future of work remains a topic of lively, even heated, debate. Early in the pandemic, some were quick to announce the demise of the centre-city office. The apparent success of remote work, they said, would lead to a revival of the suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas, with “work hubs” popping up as needed. In the U.S., Gallup found that 60% of those who began working at home during the pandemic wanted to continue to do so, at least some of the time. The shift to remote work and the end of daily commutes was predicted to have a major, and positive, environmental impact.

But the perceived urban COVID threat receded, and many have returned to urban life. Moreover, as Adecco Group research has demonstrated, many workers and managers alike have come to prefer the hybrid model to pure remote work. There is emerging agreement between leaders that believe “heads down” work demanding intense focus is often better performed at home, while “heads up” work such as brainstorming sessions and collaboration thrives when co-workers share a physical space.

The new normal is now becoming clearer. The world has changed. Neither cities nor offices are dead, but remote work is a permanent part of the picture; we recently found that in a 12-month period during the pandemic, western European job ads mentioning remote work more than doubled.

All want to spend at least 40% of their work time remotely

Welcoming the nomads

Efforts to create post-pandemic remote-work hotspots can be found at all levels of government, from national to town, as well as in the private sector.

At the national level, Ireland has garnered praise for its national strategy, Making Remote Work. The five-year plan would encourage public servants, long clustered in Dublin, to move to rural spots. Four hundred remote-work hubs would ensure sufficient networking capabilities. In addition to the plan, legislation to be introduced this year would allow employees to request to work remotely. The country is carefully studying taxes and incentives to ensure remote workers don’t face undue financial burdens.

Ireland’s national strategy is for now unique in Europe, though Iceland launched a long-term visa for remote workers in late 2020 and Spain may soon follow suit. Spurred by the pandemic, many countries typically thought of as holiday paradises have thrown open their digital doors for the remote workers dubbed digital nomads. Croatia, Barbados, Malta, Bermuda and Sri Lanka all offer extended visa programs (typically lasting one year) for visitors working for an employer in another country. In turn, a new economy is emerging of companies and NGOs supporting families who want to explore such digital nomad opportunities, trying to develop local nomad worker communities.

In the U.S., myriad partnerships between private businesses and towns have sprung up with the goal of luring remote workers from cities. A visit to MakeMyMove is a good example. Bloomington, Indiana, offers qualified new residents a free three-year membership (valued at $6,600) at a co-working facility. Rushton, Louisiana, hopes a $10,000 grant as well as other perks, including a move-in liaison, will attract remote workers. Communities in Alaska, Iowa, Oklahoma and more all boast about their small-town feel, their outdoor attractions — and of course their financial incentives.

The devil is in the details

Nations, states, municipalities and businesses, whatever their size, will all have to make adjustments. They must tackle some thorny issues, including:

  • Connectivity and infrastructure. In many countries, rural areas are not as well connected as the urban centres. Remote work demands network bandwidth that is robust and reliable. Ireland’s plan to build connectivity hubs should serve as a model for other nations and states; governments must invest in infrastructure if they are to close the connectivity divide between urban and rural areas.
  • Taxation and other fiscal issues. Governments must evolve their tax systems if remote work is to take hold. For example, countries should mutually agree on income-tax arrangements that ensure remote workers will not face double taxation. For their part, businesses should devise ways to make sure remote workers have compensation adapted to their cost of living and necessities. For example, companies should decide whether remote workers who must join work hubs in order to access a broadband network must be reimbursed.

Changing with the times

While remote work is here to stay, it now also becomes clear that it does not spell the end of the office. Our research shows that business leaders and employees are calling for hybrid ways of working, in which the physical office remains the place to connect and exchange with colleagues, ideally even several times a week. Our research has found that 53% of workers want to maintain a schedule where more than half of their time in spent working remotely after the pandemic. While workers might be willing to accept a longer commute, the office – and thus likely cities – will continue to act as hub.

To reap the benefits from remote work, the key, we believe, is flexibility. That means businesses seeking to attract and retain talent must adapt to the new reality that much knowledge work can be performed remotely, benefitting both the employer and the worker. Governments at all levels must join businesses in making remote work frictionless and productive. In short, remote work does offer opportunities for more attention to worker well-being, and to create a positive impact on livability in both cities and rural areas.

Senior Public Affairs Manager at | Website | + posts

Menno Bart is a labour market expert, working as Senior Public Affairs Manager at the Adecco Group. As such, he is responsible for managing the Group's relationship with global and European policy makers, and for representing the Group in institutional settings.

Menno holds mandates at the World Employment Confederation (WEC), the industry federation representing the HR services industry. These include member of the global Board, chair of the European Public Affairs Committee and member of the Executive Committee of WEC-Europe. In addition, Menno is closely involved with employment and social policy topics working via BusinessEurope, the International Organization of Employers, and Business at OECD. Menno acted as Co-Chair of the GFMD's Ad hoc Working Group on the impact of Covid-19 on Migrants, Migration and Development, and is a business representative on the ISO Ad hoc Group on flexible Work in the Gig Economy.

Previously, Menno worked as a lobbyist in Brussels for the World Employment Confederation, and as a
consultant for Russchen Consultants. Menno is a former diplomat for the Dutch government in Prague and on Aruba. Menno is currently based at the Adecco Group's headquarters in Zurich.