To outsiders the technology industry is often perceived as a massive wealth-generating engine, where 20-somethings lounge around, munch avocado toast and cash in stock options. But insiders know that more people today are discontent living and working in the traditional tech hubs — New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area and Boston — than ever before.
Unfortunately many workers would love to leave the cities behind but need to keep their job. So they’re effectively anchored to these areas and strapped to their desks.
Although internet-powered communications has enabled workers to perform their duties from any location, the fact is, too many companies still require staff to be based on one of the country’s two coasts.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, it shouldn’t be this way.
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Not only has this outmoded way of thinking helped to create an economic imbalance, where vast amounts of wealth are concentrated in a tiny handful of cities, it is also responsible for a fundamental imbalance between where people want to live and where the jobs are located.
A recent Gallup poll found that while 80% of Americans live in urban areas, only 12% said they want to live there. Asked where they would live if they had their choice, the top response was a rural area.
Freelancing in America 2019, a survey commissioned by Upwork and the Freelancers Union, revealed that 7 out of 10 freelancers polled said they would consider moving someplace other than a large city.
And incentives could drive that number even higher, with just under half saying they would be willing to move to a city that offered tax breaks to freelancers.
Industry leaders have indicated they want to increase ties to America’s Heartland, yet there are few signs this is happening in any significant way.
In December The Brookings Institute reported that their study of job creation in key digital segments found “that while employment in tech is growing all over America,” the sector has “continued to concentrate in a shortlist of metros,” such as San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles.
Signs of a backlash are apparent
To ease the financial burden on employees and reduce overcrowding in the traditional tech hubs — as well as share more of the industry’s bounty with other communities — managers should liberalize their policies. They must allow employees to live and work remotely from wherever they want.
If they don’t, life in these cities stands to become increasingly burdensome. Already, the signs of a backlash are apparent.
In the wake of the Great Recession, Americans flocked to the big metros, but last year New York City led the country in the number of residents moving out, with 277 departing each day, according to census data compiled by Bloomberg News.
Los Angeles came in second with 201 daily departures, followed by Chicago with 161.
In March the San Jose Mercury News and Silicon Valley Leadership Group published the results of a poll showing that two thirds of Bay Area residents believe the quality of life in the region has gotten worse over the previous five years.
Of the 1,568 Bay Area respondents, 44% said they are likely to move out of the area in “the next few years.” About 6 percent said they have “definite plans” to leave within the next year.
The news isn’t all bad. Tech workers who wish to work remotely from somewhere other than the traditional tech centers have an increasing number of choices and advantages.
For starters, rarely have skilled professionals — tech workers especially — wielded as much market power as they do now. If managers at one company are unwilling to provide trusted, high-performing employees the option of working remotely, then other, more open-minded companies might.
The number of companies embracing remote work continues to grow; among them are Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Hilton. Others, such as Atlassian, Zapier, Basecamp and Upwork (my company) have opted for fully distributed teams.
With the industry locked in a tug-of-war over the most talented people, tech managers should consider new ways to incentivize staff.
For starters, how about helping them to eliminate soul-crushing commutes. Allow them to work remotely and enable them to live in more affordable areas. That’s the equivalent of handing them a raise, only it doesn’t cost employers a penny.
Here’s an example. Michael McGeary, Upwork’s head of policy, recently left the Bay Area. He and his wife considered moving to Portland, Austin and Los Angeles before settling in Fresno. He had pretty good reasons for choosing that area. His wife’s family lives there and the couple needed help with child care.
Allow [employees] to work remotely and enable them to live in more affordable areas. That’s the equivalent of handing them a raise, only it doesn’t cost employers a penny.
Mike and his wife now have family to help care for their kids. What kind of premium do you think the couple places on that? Why would an employer stand in the way, especially when there’s nothing to prevent Mike from performing his duties from Fresno?
Not only that, but in Fresno, Mike and his wife were happy to find affordable housing, a co-working space, less traffic and a vibrant city with a young, talented workforce building for the next generation, especially coming out of the local college, California State University, Fresno.
For employers, productivity is usually the main concern. In this regard the evidence is overwhelming. In July, Harvard Business School published a study that found a “work from anywhere” policy was 4.4% more effective at improving efficiency than traditional work-from-home policies that require workers to reside near the office.
In addition, at Upwork we’ve found that remote workers tend to be more loyal. Attrition rates here from 2015 through 2018 on average were 14% lower for remote workers than in-office employees.
Another factor for those who want to opt out of the top tech centers: Across the country, many less populated, more affordable mid-tier cities are trying to become more attractive to tech workers. Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Vermont made big news not long ago when they introduced incentives for knowledge workers to live locally and work remotely.
But if you’re one of the people dreaming of a better life, don’t wait for a city to pay you or for the stars to be perfectly aligned. Just go.
Hopefully, your managers will understand that while New York, Seattle and the Bay Area are beautiful and exciting places, they’re not for everyone.
— By Stephane Kasriel, Upwork CEO
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