Millions more Americans than usual have been working from home since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year.
Google said it will be at least July 2021 before workers will be back in the office. Twitter and Microsoft have announced staff may work remotely … forever.
That is why some office workers are rethinking where to live. While some cities are big job centers, they come with a high cost of living that may no longer make sense for people working remotely.
A growing number of these remote workers are striking out, and some are taking advantage of special programs being offered by cities across the U.S. that are luring them with cash incentives and other benefits.
One of them is Stephanie Robesky.
San Francisco to Tulsa, Oklahoma
Robesky, who works in the tech industry, was thinking about leaving San Francisco and searching for a different place to live when she read an article about Tulsa Remote – a program that is offering a $10,000 grant to eligible remote workers to move to and work in Tulsa, Oklahoma, about 2,700 kilometers (1,700 miles) from San Francisco.
“It is not a place that I had ever visited,” says Robesky, “so I went on Google Maps and took a look at it and said ‘OK, that's right smack dab in the center of the United States.”
“I went and did the application online, and it all worked out and here I am!”
In addition to receiving $10,000 paid over the course of the first year, Robesky received other benefits, like help with housing and free co-working space.
These kinds of programs may make sense for regions that have seen people leave for job meccas and have struggled to attract new residents, especially now with more companies allowing remote work, said Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto and consultant to the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which pays for the Tulsa Remote program.
“When you attract remote workers, you diversify your labor force,” he said. “It gives you a different kind of resiliency and the ability to weather bad things.”
The arrival of COVID-19 has forced businesses – and cities – to adapt. That’s what communities have always done, said James Schrager, a clinical professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
“Going way back to the industrial revolution, cities and towns were changed dramatically with advances in technology,” he said. “What Tulsa is doing is that same game plan over again, with today's technology shift of working from home, working remotely.”
New friends, new house, new boyfriend
Ben Stewart, the interim executive director of the Tulsa Remote program, said the goal is to roll out the welcome mat for newcomers.
“We believe that building out that community is the core of the program, and the core of our retention goal,” he said.
Since its inception in 2018, the Tulsa Remote program has seen more than 25,000 applications, which surged after the start of the pandemic.
Just over 300 members have been accepted into the program with “hundreds more in the pipeline,” said Stewart.
About 95% of participants have ended up staying in Tulsa beyond the life of the program, Stewart said.
Robesky remembers thinking: “I’ll move to Tulsa, take the money, try it out.”
Since arriving in 2019, she has made new friends, owns a house. And met her boyfriend Chris Bouldin.
“I never anticipated that I would fall this deeply in love with this town,” she said.
With many office workers saying they want to continue with remote work even after the pandemic, experts predict more people will be like Robesky, rethinking where and how they want to live.