Small towns gain from the remote work revolution

As the New Zealand government rolls out fast rural broadband across the country, many small towns are finding this expanding digital highway is presenting them with new opportunities.

Since the early 2000s, remote working has grown by leaps and bounds. By 2018, new American companies that solely recruited remote workers and had no physical headquarters had grown by more than 44 percent. While these are USA figures, they do suggest a global trend. The fact is that by the end of 2019, more than half of all companies worldwide were allowing some kind of remote working, and more and more individuals were enjoying a new flexibility in their work life.

Of course, not everybody who enjoys this flexibility wants to travel, although many do. Nor do all remote workers want to stay in a big city. In fact, many people are now moving away from large urban areas which they perceive to be less friendly towards remote work.

A new kind of work environment
At the beginning of the 20th century, hundreds of actors and actresses were employed by the huge movie studios, a way of working that would change over the next hundred years to the model we now take for granted – where individual freelancers audition for roles instead of being employed by studios or producers. In the same way the first half of the half of the 21st century sees more and more people rejecting the traditional model of working for one company full-time. Now many have chosen to work remotely, often for multiple companies and for increased potential income. The upshot is that many people can now live where they want while continuing to earn a decent living. In short, the nature of work has been shifting from a full-time salaried environment to a “gig economy” where an individual might work on several initiatives simultaneously instead of being employed by just one company.

For small towns this has been good news. Even before the current pandemic, people had been moving from bigger cities to smaller towns where life was less stressful. In the USA it was happening on a grand scale, such as when large companies moved from Silicon Valley to less populated areas (such as Tesla moving to Texas). Good internet connectivity means that for many “digital nomads,” remote work has become a viable option. “Living locally and working globally” has never looked so good, and for once small towns are reaping the benefits.

As the global trend of working remotely has accelerated, small towns have discovered opportunities to set themselves up as desirable destinations for those wanting to work this way, whether as a part of their “slow travel” lifestyle or as a home base. Although few towns have factored such trends into their infrastructure development, or considered them significant in their forward planning, people who work remotely could stimulate growth as much as improved roads do.

Thanks to the internet, businesses in townships can overcome the constraints of small local markets. They can also access human resources to develop their businesses where this used to be a challenge because of a lack of local talent. Remote working also becomes more desirable as companies rethink their expensive office leases in large urban areas.

Tips for the best transition
People who want to make the transition to remote working need to be aware of a few fish hooks. First, while it is a good first step, just arranging for your current (what used to be an office) job to become remote may not be the best option in the longer term. This is because bosses who are used to office management practice may not know how to oversee remote workers as well as those who are present in the office. They may be unsure how to integrate them with the office workforce, and they may even overlook them for promotion.

From this perspective there are three clusters of companies in this new world:
1. Those that allow remote work
2. Those that prefer remote work
3. Those that only recruit remotely
You may start in the first cluster because you know these kinds of companies best, and it may be the first step in your transition to a remote working career. But in the long term, people who opt to work remotely in such companies may miss out on salary increases as well as promotion opportunities, mainly because of the “out of sight, out of mind” dynamic.
You may want to progress via the second cluster to the third cluster, because there you have all the benefits of remote work and none of the drawbacks.
Then why not just start with the third cluster? Ideally that would be best, but it’s a competitive market to break into, and they often have sophisticated recruitment processes (remember, they can choose from the best globally, being unconstrained by geography). So, getting into this cluster may take some footwork and focused career development.

The gig economy
So far, the argument still looks much like finding a job. It doesn’t take into account alternatives such as the “gig economy,” the growth and maturing of online freelancing, or the starting of online businesses.

Individuals who want to build a life where their work is not defined by “job requirements” have many opportunities to do so, but they will need a complete mind-shift. First, they must decide how they want to live and then they must create a working life that makes such a life possible.

There is another kind of remote working that was taking off even before the current pandemic, but has become even more popular in recent months. Recently, working and earning online has provided a highly secure work environment. In fact, those who were already working online have felt the impact of the pandemic the least, because they had already taken ownership of their future work life and were not overly dependent on any one organisation. The pandemic just made this growing work environment more visible and showcased its benefits. In reality it has been growing at an accelerated pace for the past two decades.

We are living in exciting times when opportunities to live and work in the way we want are becoming normal. No longer a pipe dream, living one’s best life is possible for everybody, thanks to (online) remote work.
The New Zealand Institute for Rural Entrepreneurship offers a free webinar on the online remote working environment. Among other things it discusses how to establish yourself safely as an online earner, whether you are starting your own online business, becoming an online freelancer, or beginning your remote working journey.

Media Release on 5 March 2021

Media Contact
Mariana van der Walt, New Zealand Institute for Rural Entrepreneurship
Phone: 027 423 7345