The office isn’t what it used to be. And for a lot of workers, it’ll never be the same again.
Take Choice Financial, a banking group headquartered in Grand Forks, N.D. CEO Brian Johnson says the company has doubly adapted through COVID. Just like most offices across the country, plenty of employees have worked from home to stay safe, he said -- to manage childcare or tend to whatever else the pandemic demands.
But the company is doing more than staying flexible with its employees. Choice is already looking ahead to a world that’s increasingly untethered from the traditional office, with the company making tech-sector hires hundreds of miles away from its physical footprint. Pre-pandemic, those jobs would likely be in North Dakota. But now they’re in Washington state, Salt Lake City and the east coast.
“But that’s where the pandemic has changed life,” Johnson said. “Just to say -- it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Those changes are sweeping through offices as the pandemic crests. But they’re also likely here for the long-haul, as companies around the country pivot to remote work. Last year, Nationwide Insurance pivoted to remote work at offices in at least five states; this year, it announced “work from home insurance” -- a package that caters to home offices, “usage-based” car insurance and more.
“We can hire anywhere and make this remote employee (fit) from anywhere, no matter what part of the bank they’re working in or what part of Choice they’re working in,” Johnson said, even calling himself something of a remote employee. “...Whether I go out to Bismarck and spend a day there, or whether I spend five phone calls with Bismarck people on a video phone, it’s changed that dynamic all the way through.”
That shift in the American office -- towards online, remote work -- portends something huge in coming years. As of this writing, federal leaders are still haggling over exactly what a widely hoped-for infrastructure package will look like. But one version passed by the Senate includes tens of billions in funding for broadband internet, which could expand and accelerate what Johnson is seeing -- both in major cities and in growing rural areas around the country.
So it’s tempting to look ahead and see the moves at Choice Financial as merely the beginning of a sea change in how the country lives and works and commutes. Twenty years ago, the internet was a curiosity; 20 years from now, it could completely remake the economy.
And as urban real estate grows expensive, there’s plenty of pressure on workers to ditch pricey coastal living and find somewhere else to grow their careers. A late 2020 report from Upwork, claimed that as many as 23 million Americans were planning to move “as a result of remote work.” It’s unclear how the company, an online freelancing platform, reached the number; but the race is on for communities to capture whatever workers they can.
“The evolution of work to increasingly remote or hybrid formats is a change that was happening before COVID-19, but has significantly accelerated,” Joshua Hofer, a community vitality field specialist with South Dakota State University Extension, told the Brookings Register. “...Moving forward, the challenge is for communities to leverage their assets and build places that are attractive to live, play and work in.”
Jon Pederson is chief technology innovation officer with Midco. He sees the development of the internet tracking through a few key stages. First it was a novelty; then it became a luxury; now, it’s a necessity. And for rural areas that don’t have a lot of internet access, it can be an economic bottleneck.
“Some of these smaller cities are struggling with keeping younger kids there and keeping the interest of businesses, and a lot of that is because internet is required,” Pederson said. “If you can bring really good internet, in some cases that’s a great combination -- because you get that country living with the kind of connectivity you need.”
Of course, this rush for the internet isn’t expected to help every small community the same way. UND economist David Flynn points out that of course, the jobs that have the luxury of remote work are largely service-sector work. And people who are looking for a more comfortable place for a home office are more likely workers moving from Chicago to Fargo, rather than to a much smaller town.
"It really comes down to a lot of the other amenities that you would expect to find,” Flynn said, from good grocery shopping to schools to local recreation and entertainment.
That’s what it’s like for a large number of people -- but there are some unique cases. The Grand Forks Herald reported recently on a news radio professional who commutes to Florida from near Cavalier, N.D. Minnesota Public Radio recalls a crop insurance adjuster who fights through spotty internet service to work long-distance from Walnut Grove, Minn. But better internet would help.
“One of the things we saw with a pandemic is, there’s not a lot of people working from an office,” Pederson added. “Does it matter if you work from a small town or a farm or a city?”