In the 1990s, the near future looked like a place where distance would no longer matter.
In an increasingly online economy, location would matter less than connection. The internet appeared destined to make working from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, much the same as tackling a job from Pittsburg, Kansas.
Yet three decades later, location matters as much as ever.
Cities grew denser. Remote towns leaked talent. The growth of Silicon Valley and other high-tech hubs only added to the divide between city and country.
Now, some Kansas communities again see remote work as a way to rejuvenation. Here are six hurdles to bringing online jobs to rural Kansas and ways they might be overcome.
When it comes to remote work, connectivity is everything.
Sending emails is possible — if painful — on a dial-up connection. But today’s remote work requires high speed. Video conferences. Screen sharing. Gigabyte-sized project files.
And then there’s the future. Augmented reality. Virtual reality. Holograms. Whatever the next technology trend, it will almost certainly consume bandwidth with increasing greed.
“Some of them, we just don’t know what they’re going to be,” said Brian Whitacre, an Oklahoma State University professor studying rural development. “But we’re just seeing this push for more data. More broadband.”
Some Kansas cities such as Pittsburg have access to fiber optic cable — the current gold standard for high-speed internet. A 200-plus-megabits-per-second connection can better prepare a city for the future of remote work.
But much of Kansas lacks access to the basic broadband needed for today’s workplace applications. Remote work just won’t come to places with slow internet.
Slow Acceptance of Remote Work
A little more than 5% of American workers worked remotely in 2017. That reflects a steady, but slow, rise.
And while the digital economy is expanding, many tech companies want their employees working physically closer together. Facebook and Google invested in campuses designed for workers to bump into each other. Yahoo and IBM have rolled back remote work privileges.
They reason game-changing serendipity happens over a cubicle wall more easily than by email.
Some companies continue to encourage remote work. Dell is doing so to save on real estate costs.
There’s also a shortage of high-skilled talent in the big metro areas where many tech companies are based. The Center on Rural Innovation is hoping companies will turn to remote work out of necessity. That’s why the center is providing financial and technical support to places like Pittsburg to create a virtual hub of trained remote workers living in small cities.
“There is a real opportunity to surface, and in some cases train up people, who can work in those fields to live where they want,” said Matt Dunne, the executive director for the Center on Rural Innovation.
Demands from younger workers may force employers who are still iffy on extra out-of-office time to give in. Millennials were more likely than older generations to say a flexible schedule and remote work opportunities were important in a job, according to a Marketplace-Edison Research poll.
One problem for remote workers: loneliness.
About a fifth of remote workers said that was their top struggle, according to social media consultant Buffer’s 2018 State of Remote Work Report.
Health concerns linked to loneliness include increased risk of heart disease and suicide.
That’s prompted remote workers to reach out to each other. Larry Fleury does marketing and social media for the Bentonville, Arkansas, film festival. He’s joined an unofficial network of the city’s internet laborers.
“You kind of get new friendships with remote workers,” Fleury said.
Trend is Still Toward Bigger Cities
Even if remote workers can live outside big cities, will they want to?
Since 2000, urban counties have grown while many rural counties saw their populations decline. That’s partially driven by the tech field being concentrated in a few large metro areas. There’s also the gap in amenities — Emporia, Kansas, may have fiber optics, but it can’t compete with Kansas City when it comes to the number of breweries and comedy clubs.
Some researchers predict that the continued concentration in urban centers could reach a tipping point. Increasingly rising rents for small apartments could tempt workers to eye smaller towns.
Pittsburg is investing in new homes to attract those sticker-shocked city dwellers. The city is building bike paths. It may struggle to draw young singles, but the city could be a landing spot for new families looking to escape bigger cities. Pittsburg can offer high-speed internet with a slower lifestyle.
“It’s not just about the fiber,” said Shawn Naccarato, the chief strategy officer for Pittsburg State University. “The fiber is important to facilitate the economic growth, but this is about the quality of life.”
Competition That’s Willing to Pay
Kansas towns looking to attract remote workers have to compete with a growing number of places across the country doing the same. And some of those cities are willing to pay.
Kansas does have its own program to draw in out-of-state workers to specific parts of the state by paying off some student loans and providing tax exemptions. That Rural Opportunity Zone program isn’t aimed at remote workers and excludes many of the counties with strong internet access.
Commutes Still Matter
Even in a remote work future, trips to the office won’t disappear.
Increasing numbers of Americans work remotely some of the time — as much as 43 percent of workers in 2017 according to a Gallup poll.
Trips to the office may shift from daily to weekly or even monthly. But researchers say employers still want face time with people on their payrolls — and video chats won’t cut it.
“People do need to come together,” said Tom Kochan, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology researching the future of work. “They need to look each other in the eye once in a while.”
The areas most likely to benefit from this workforce shift are those near major metro areas. An hour or more commute becomes more tolerable when it’s no longer five days a week.
But remote parts of Kansas with drives pushing past two hours to dense urban centers will have a harder time attracting and retaining an online workforce.
Stephan Bisaha reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on @SteveBisaha or email bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org.
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