Wayne County has been exploring a strategic initiative to attract remote workers to live and work in our community (Commissioners commit dollars to attract remote workers, map broadband, January 14th in the Palladium-Item and City considers paying remote workers to move here in the January 26th Western Wayne News).
I’m glad to see this conversation happening; I’ve been advocating for years that Richmond and Wayne County are well positioned to become a stand-out destination for certain kinds of remote workers. I don’t know that it means we should pay them directly to come here but technology and knowledge worker jobs, especially remote ones, are a class of jobs we need to pay attention to,
How do I know? I’ve been working remotely from Richmond as a software developer, consultant and entrepreneur since 2014. I’ve also been connected to various communities and organizations that are themselves focused on growing remote/distributed talent pools, and have done coaching and consulting for businesses wanting to transition to a remote-friendly setup.
Richmond and Wayne County have been a great home base for working remotely for several key reasons:
Cost of living. By working remotely, I can make a “big city salary” that more than covers the actual cost of living here and that provides great opportunities for getting out of debt, building wealth and sharing that back into the community around me. (See more on that below.)
Location. By working remotely, I can follow my passions to work on world-class projects with employers that are growing and thriving, and then step out my front door into a pace of life and community that doesn’t require any of the commuting or other trade-offs that may come with bigger city living. As a remote worker who has traveled a lot for work, I can get to three different international airports within an hour and a half, and I’m also near by several different major metropolitan areas for when I want that experience. I can have a house and yard and access to great school options and fast Internet and beautiful landscapes and interesting people, all within a few mile radius.
Just the right size. Richmond is big enough that I can meet new people with new perspectives on a regular basis, but small enough that I can make a real difference and feel rewarded by the time and energy I put in to community improvement. I don’t feel like I’m swimming in a sea of anonymous workers or people in gated communities who don’t care about each other; instead, I’ve been able to build community and grow a family here. There’s an authenticity and a human scale that comes with living in Richmond or any one of Wayne County’s cities. We tackle big things and we have big ambitions, yes, but we haven’t lost touch with the value of a friendly smile as you pass someone on the street or the feeling of having a neighborhood street that’s safe for kids to run around on. There are people in bigger cities around the world that are deeply longing for that kind of connection and this kind of place.
In terms of the value that remote workers can bring to our community, I think they can be significant, including:
Economic impact. In pitching this initiative to County Commissioners, Beth Fields cited an estimate that “20 new remote workers would create an estimated $1.8 million in economic impact during their first year.” Personally, working remotely gave me access to employment and business opportunities that immediately boosted my personal income well beyond what I was able to make in almost any available job in Richmond or Wayne County. That immediately translated into additional “disposable” income that I could invest in philanthropy and community improvement, or even local entrepreneurship. At a smaller scale, it meant more dollars going from my pocket into local restaurants, stores, events and services. (Sometimes it wasn’t even my money but my employer’s; for example, they offered a generous monthly co-working space stipend that I could use to rent a spot to work from outside my house, or even just to pay for coffee at Roscoe’s while I worked there for the day.)
Skill and network building. Remote workers also typically have exposure to training, professional development and networking opportunities that a locally-based business may not. In my first few years working remotely I was able to attend conferences and events across the country and around the world, paid for by my employer. I could bring the skills and experiences I gained at those back to my work in Richmond and apply them for the benefit of my local community and the organizations I work with here. I also found myself making professional connections with people from a variety of backgrounds and interests around the world, and in turn I’ve sometimes been able to connect colleagues locally with those folks for a variety of projects.
More time to give back. A third key benefit was that working remotely freed up significant personal time that I could then devote in part to things like not-for-profit organizations, entrepreneurial local projects and making more personal connections. My own commute to an office in Richmond was never that long but if you think about someone who is used to commuting 30-60 minutes each way per day, and the hidden costs of working in an office (buying and updating professional clothing, for example) and what it would mean to release all of that for other community-oriented purposes, it can really add up.
Richmond and Wayne County may not ever be #1 on the lists of “Top Places to Work Remotely,” but we all know that the global landscape of worker preferences and requirements is changing rapidly, and there are going to be SO MANY REMOTE WORKERS in the years and decades ahead. Even if we end up with a small piece of that pie, it could make a huge, positive difference in the make up and health of our community.
What are our biggest barriers to attracting remote workers?
We need a real co-working space. At least one, maybe more. Isolated office suites with yearly rental contracts or a spare conference room in someone else’s office building are not enough. A modern, well-equipped, flexible space in a central location that’s designed for the needs and requirements of today’s remote workers is a must.
We need more options for high-speed, residential Internet access. Comcast/Xfinity has a monopoly on this and as a result are not known for competitive pricing or customer service in our area. While an Xfinity cable connection may work fine for most remote workers, having at least one more provider (ideally offering residential fiber connections) would help our profile with people searching for a place to go.
We need more local restaurants, and maybe breweries and coffee shops, with something special to offer. Remote workers with disposable income are, in my experience, less interested in going out to a chain restaurants at the end of the day than they are in having authentic, local dining and drinking experiences (or even locally owned groceries) that are not available elsewhere. They also want to have a few interesting places to take their coworkers when they are in town. We probably only have a handful of businesses in the area that check this box reliably, and we need more.
We need to show that we are a welcoming, inclusive community that would value being more diverse, instead of being resistant to it. Indiana’s reputation among tech workers and remote workers is not what it could be when it comes to social policy and inclusiveness, and while that’s been shifting in recent years, more rural locations like Wayne County probably have the most to prove in this regard if we expect to attract those kinds of workers in any significant numbers.
The good news is that all of these things can be addressed or improved, if we want them to be.
Attracting and retaining remote workers is a huge opportunity for Wayne County, and I’m glad we’re pursuing it. It may be hard to see how the benefits would ripple out into the lives of everyone else, so by all means we need to keep collecting data and research that supports this exploration. But as with so many other opportunities before us, we can’t wait too long or we risk being too late to take real advantage of them.