In early March of 2020 during the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, countless workers suddenly found themselves working remotely — some for the very first time. Businesses needed to quickly adapt to this uncertain “new normal” we were all a part of and for many, telework became an ideal “stop-gap” to continue operations in a way that bought time until everyone could return to the office again.
Unfortunately, this pandemic didn’t end quite as soon as many of us had hoped.
As COVID-19 has continued, many of those people forced to work from home are grappling with the idea that it may turn out to be permanent. Because of this, it could potentially lead to a shift from big city populations to smaller — and more affordable, not to mention more scenic — suburban towns.
How the Future of Work Will Impact the Future of the Suburbs
To be clear, a major contributing factor to this potential suburban explosion has to do with the fact that for the last decade, some of the country’s largest metropolitan areas have become increasingly unaffordable. According to one recent study conducted by the Wall Street Journal, the percentage of people who work from home in mid-sized metropolitan areas grew far faster between 2007 and 2017 than those in smaller and even larger regions.
All of that is to say that this work-from-home revolution was probably going to happen regardless of what was going on in the world. It’s simply that COVID-19 may have brought put the new normal of remote work on the fast track.
Take a look at what is going on in the technology sector, for example. For years, social media giants like Facebook and Twitter have called major metropolitan cities their headquarters. But a few months ago, Twitter took the extraordinary step of allowing employees to work remotely for years — and some can even stay at home indefinitely. Others, like Google, have taken similar steps.
If you can literally do your job from anywhere in the world so long as you have an active Internet connection, why would you want to do so in a major city that is also notoriously expensive? The answer is simple:
You probably wouldn’t.
Keep in mind that the workers themselves aren’t necessarily upset about the fact that the global pandemic is essentially driving them out of the major cities in record numbers. According to another survey published by Zillow and reported on in Forbes, about 75% of Americans who are working from home right now specifically because of the COVID-19 pandemic say that they’d actually prefer to do so at least half the time after things settle back down again. A large part of this has to do with the fact that technology has made it possible to be just as productive at home as they can be in the office — if not more so, depending on their personal situation.
So much of this has to do with the fact that it’s long been believed that if you want to live in an area with a high number of quality, high-paying jobs, you essentially have no other choice but to move to a major city. Now, COVID-19 has proven that this isn’t necessarily the case right now — if it ever was. This, coupled with the fact that nobody is very enthusiastic about taking public transportation right now thanks to an airborne illness, and it’s no wonder why growth in urban centers is slowing down.
Likewise, the suburbs (that is to say, areas with one urban cluster of at least 10,000 but less than 50,000 people) do bring with them a lot of advantages that young people, in particular, find attractive. They’re traditionally very scenic with a lot of green space. They offer access to small businesses like local coffee shops and microbreweries. Their home prices are far more affordable in that you can get so much more for a lot less money. The list goes on and on.
In the end, nobody is 100% certain that the current work-from-home trend will see major cities left as ghost towns by the end of the decade — although things are certainly trending in that direction, at least right now. It’s important to note that people have always had a habit of fleeing large cities during various pandemics throughout history, though they usually made their return after everything had calmed down. From that perspective, the fact that more and more remote workers are moving into the suburbs may not necessarily be as permanent as a lot of people think.
Yet at the same time, the one thing that those workers in past pandemics DIDN’T have was a broadband Internet connection and cloud-based technology. With an information management platform that enables remote work, it’s possible to have access to every last kilobyte of critical data that you need to do your job from anywhere in the world and on any device — not just desktop and laptop computers.
Based on that, it’s likely that this trend of shrinking big cities will have some lasting consequences even after COVID-19 has finally left us. Exactly what shape that takes remains to be seen, but it’s something that a lot of people will be keeping a close eye on for the foreseeable future.