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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Alexander

Are Zoom Towns the future of cities?

More than a year after the pandemic caused an abrupt shift to working remotely, offices are starting to reopen. However, in many cases, hybrid work policies are here to stay. This year-long work from home experiment showed that some tasks are more productive at home, while others benefit from being in the office (and others, such as essential workers, are required to do their jobs in-person).

According to a recent study by Microsoft, 73% of workers prefer a flexible work environment, and 46% of the global workforce is planning to move now that they can work at least partially in a remote configuration. From the employer perspective, remote work could upend the demand for companies to locate in competitive markets near an established talent pool and offering geographic flexibility could be a talent attraction strategy. If some employees are offered a flexible work environment, and many employers can now hire from anywhere, where might people choose to locate? Enter the concept of “zoom towns.”

Zoom towns are locations that are beginning to see a significant influx of remote workers. Initially, many zoom towns were in vacation destinations like Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Aspen, Colorado and Lake Tahoe, California. But as employers make hybrid and remote options more permanent, zoom towns are evolving to a wider variety of locations, such as Austin, Texas, Charleston, South Carolina and Butte, Montana. Publicly available data has already started to give us a glimpse of the future. The USPS “Change of Address” dataset shows an increase in both overall moves and in net out-migration from larger cities. A national Bankrate/YouGov survey found millennials are most likely to have moved in 2020; movers preferred smaller cities or less-dense neighborhoods and; movers tended to relocate within the same region as their previous address. The survey also revealed that 21% of people relocated for their job, while 17% moved because they can now work from anywhere.

Given the availability of this data, new tools can help employees and employers identify ideal locations for their homes and businesses. A zoom towns location analysis tool developed by our firm uses geographic layers that capture a specific data theme, and compiles those layers to produce a weighted location suitability index for every area in the U.S. For example, an employee is ready to work remotely and move her family out of a major city. Her ideal home is in a location with a temperate climate (more important) and a low tax burden (less important). First, each data layer is classified, giving the best locations a score of 9, and the worst a score of 1. Second, each layer is weighted based on importance. With the layer classification and weighting complete, a simple arithmetic analysis produces the result: the best locations to live with both a temperate climate and low taxes are throughout the middle of the country, in certain locations throughout the Rocky Mountains, and along the Pacific Northwest coast. The analysis is quick and easy, and the employee can now see multiple location options that perhaps she hadn’t previously considered.

As zoom towns continue to see an increase in population, it’s also important to think about how we make these smaller, more remote areas more community-oriented and sustainable. People who are considering or have already moved to a zoom town may need to find new ways to network and connect outside the workplace. Activities like supporting small businesses, volunteering, joining neighborhood or civic associations, and researching local issues and causes allow zoom towns to support and accommodate their new residents, and to thrive as strong, resilient communities.

Additionally, many small towns are not prepared for a large influx of new residents, which may strain resources and cause problems like congestion, unaffordability and infrastructure constraints. This so-called “amenity migration” can have destructive consequences if not planned for and managed, according to researchers from the University of Utah. Adequate infrastructure, denser development, cleaner and more accessible public transportation, and access to a stable, fast Internet connection can all help zoom towns to retain both new and existing residents. Zoom towns may also help counteract the widely researched effects of “brain-drain” – the loss of highly-educated residents from rural environments to large cities.

Zoom towns do not mean an end for more traditional large cities, or the destruction of urban growth. Rather, zoom towns may need to be more like cities, adapting to challenges such as housing and transportation, and developing sustainably. With new tools and the ability to choose where and how we live and work, the two can coexist and even benefit one another.

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