An Urban's Rural View

Remote Work Benefits Rural America; It's Under Attack

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Employees say they're more productive working from home but many employers want them back in the office. (Photo by Chris Montgomery, Unsplash license)

Employers are cracking down on remote work, requiring more employees to spend at least some time in the office. But there's still plenty of life in the work-from-home trend, and that's good news for rural economies.

According to a Pew Research Center report last March, 39% of American workers have jobs that can be done remotely, and 35% of those work remotely all the time. (…)

That percentage has slipped as employers have cracked down. In January 2022 the comparable figure was 43%; in October 2020 it was 55%. There's probably been some additional slippage in the last year as more employers push back.

But before the pandemic only 7% of those who could work remotely did so all the time. And despite the recent resistance from some employers, others continue to embrace it.

If it continues, tens of millions of Americans will be able to live wherever they please, freed from having to be commuting distance from the office. Surely a few hundred thousand or more will choose to live outside metropolitan areas.

Rural America needs all the new people it can get. Between 2010 and 2020, rural America's population fell for the first time in history. The 289,000-person decline was the result of "outmigration" (510,000 more people moving away from the countryside than moving in) overshadowing "natural increase" (221,000 more births than deaths). (…)

More people mean more schools, more hospitals, more grocery stores -- things that have been disappearing from rural areas, diminishing the quality of life. Rural counties account for 70% of the nation's land mass. Most can absorb more people without fear of overcrowding.

Many rural areas are working to attract remote workers. They're providing wider broadband internet access, encouraging housing construction, developing co-working spaces and even providing monetary incentives. (…)

Bottom line: Rural America has a stake in the continuation of full-time remote work.

In addition to the 35% doing their jobs remotely full time, Pew said another 41% are on a hybrid schedule, going to the office some number of days a week. Alas for rural America, having to be in the office even a day a week limits how far from the office they can live.

Whether full-time remote work will continue depends on the answers to two questions: Is remote full-time work good for companies? Is it good for employees? The answers are still being debated.

Proponents say remote workers are happier, more productive and cost employers less. Employers say remote workers are harder to train and have more difficulty absorbing the organization's culture. Both sides cite statistics supporting their contentions.

I look at the debate through the lens of three experiences.

One: Our son-in-law works remotely managing a team of claims adjusters for a workman's compensation insurance company. His office is in Las Vegas, his home in Vancouver, Washington.

His company's decision to allow him to leave Las Vegas and telecommute full time has changed his life and our daughter's for the better. (They hated the desert; they love the Pacific Northwest.) He works hard from home and the company is pleased with his performance.

Two: I'm on the board of a conservation non-profit based in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Nobody came to the office during COVID; the work got done anyway. So, the organization decided to allow full-time work from home permanently.

As a result, it's been able to hire better employees. The labor pool is no longer just what's available in metropolitan Washington, D.C., at metropolitan D.C. salaries. It's nationwide. The organization has landed a first-class marketing director in Florida and a first-class finance director in Texas.

Now it's hoping to save money by abandoning its office altogether.

Three: Thinking back on my first five to ten years as a Wall Street Journal reporter, I know I benefited enormously from being in the office.

From lunches with more senior reporters. From conversations in the hallways. From watching veterans perform. During three years in the Philadelphia bureau, four of us under 30 read the Journal together every morning and swapped opinions on the reporting and writing.

In short, being in the office helped me learn my craft. Learning it would have been much harder working remotely full time. I suspect the same is true for at least some other kinds of jobs.

Judging from my three experiences, then, both the pros and the cons of full-time remote work seem very real. Rural America must hope that the pros will continue to weigh heavily in at least some employers' equations.

Urban Lehner can be reached at


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