Extra distant staff are transferring to small cities as pandemic reshapes the office | AP
CHICAGO — For Marcus Medsker, the pace of life in Quincy, Illinois, is slow. And he likes it that way.
Medsker, a senior client sales manager at Echo Global Logistics, was living in a two-bedroom condo in the River North neighborhood of Chicago just over a year ago. But when his wife became pregnant with their second child, they decided to move to his hometown.
The 37-year-old grew up in Quincy and said his return in December 2020 was somewhat unexpected. But the low cost of living and small-town feel has made life with young kids a lot simpler, and he said his proximity to family has been one of the most special parts of being back.
Before the pandemic, moving to a different city wasn’t really an option for Medsker, who is now the father of three.
“Me working remotely was never really on the table, so until that became fully available, that’s when we kind of decided to look at Quincy,” he said.
Medsker is one of the millions of Americans who has been working from home during the pandemic. As the average number of COVID-19 cases continues to decline across the United States, many employers are cautiously optimistic about returning to the office. But for some, the remote workplace changes are permanent.
According to a January Pew Research Center survey, about 59% of US workers who say their jobs can mainly be done remotely are working from home all or most of the time. Since 2020, the share who say they have relocated away from the area where they work has increased from 9% to 17%.
Many small towns in the Midwest, including Quincy, are trying to attract remote workers by using their sense of community to their advantage. The city advertises on a website called MakeMyMove, where people can browse through a range of incentive packages offered in cities and towns across the United States. If they decide they want to move, they can submit an application to the destination of their choice.
Evan Hock, co-founder and head of product at MakeMyMove, which was launched in December 2020, said he thinks remote work has given people the freedom to tailor their lifestyles to their personal preferences, not the locations of their employers. As a result, he said many remote workers are choosing to relocate to small towns because of affordability and opportunities to connect with the local community.
“It just so happens that a lot of these smaller towns and rural towns offer a lot of what folks that are leaving big cities are looking for,” Hock said.
In fact, Nicholas Epley, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, said the sense of community people find in small towns can sometimes replace some of the social connections that are lost in remote working environments.
Epley said social connection happens more when actual, in-person conversations take place. Though most people understand the value of connections with close family and friends, he said they often underestimate the importance of weaker, more distant connections.
“The acquaintances, the more distant colleagues, even conversations with strangers are also important for our well-being,” he said. “What you’re going to lose when you’re not going into the office routinely is a broader social network that comes from connecting formally and informally with the colleagues that you work with.”
Even though these more distant connections can be lost by working remotely, Epley said it is certainly possible to find them elsewhere, like within a small town. Ultimately, he said where people find meaningful connections depends a lot on the individual and what they do for a living.
‘Just a nice little town’
Quincy resident Ricci Dula has had no shortage of social connection since moving to the area with his family from Redlands, California, in 2019.
As he sipped his iced black salt caramel mocha — the same drink he orders each time he visits Electric Fountain Brewing — he said hello to the only other two patrons in the coffee shop, both of whom knew Dula by name. The father of two said he has grown accustomed to seeing familiar faces in grocery stores and restaurants, which rarely happened when he lived in California.
Quincy, home to about 40,000 residents, has four National Register of Historic Places districts packed with more than 3,500 impressive, architecturally distinct buildings. Ornate stone and brick homes tower over the city’s residential streets, and quaint storefronts are clustered merely blocks away from the banks of the Mississippi River.
Dula joked that his days of road rage are long behind him, as it takes less than 15 minutes to get from one side of the city to the other.
“The sense of community is greater in a smaller town,” said Dula, who moved to Quincy for his career, where he served as the scout executive for the Mississippi Valley Council of the Boy Scouts of America. “From a safety standpoint, from the activities for youth, for growing a family or establishing yourself as an employee, I would say that Quincy’s worth it.”
Residents of other small towns also feel proud of where they live; some have even come up with their own creative incentives to attract new families.
In Greensburg, Indiana, the relocation package includes $5,000, gift cards to the seasonal farmers market, and, among other things, a “Grandparents on Demand” service, in which longtime resident Tami Wenning and her husband offer free baby-sitting for those who move to the area.
Located in Decatur County, halfway between Indianapolis and Cincinnati, Greensburg is home to 13,000 residents.
Wenning has lived in Decatur County her whole life, and she said she came up with Grandparents on Demand when she was asked to help brainstorm ideas for MakeMyMove. She wanted to showcase how welcoming the community is, and since she has kids and grandkids of her own, she said she knows there are times when parents need to trust someone to watch their children.
As a result, whether new families are in need of a date night or someone to fill in for Grandparents’ Day at school, Wenning said she and her husband are happy to volunteer.
“It’s second nature around here; you want to step in and help somebody out with their kids,” she said. “It’s the coolest thing on Earth being a grandparent.”
Remote workers Kasey and Doug Waltz moved to Greensburg from Mason, Ohio, in November, and they said they have already come to appreciate the safety, community and convenience of a small town. As the parents of two children under the age of 2, they said the incentives really resonated with their needs.
“The area’s phenomenal; anything that we ever want is right around us,” Doug Waltz said. “It’s just a nice little town.”
‘What they value in life’
In Quincy, “Help Wanted” signs hang in the windows of many businesses along the city’s main streets. Mayor Mike Troup said there are more than 700 full-time positions open even though unemployment in the area is below 3%.
To address Quincy’s aging and stagnant population, the Great River Economic Development Foundation, the city and county’s lead economic development organization, launched a campaign called “Quincy’s Calling” in September .
Quincy’s Calling works in tandem with another city initiative that provides a financial incentive for individuals and families to move. Participants may apply for a $5,000 rebate on property taxes or a $3,500 rebate on rent or lease payments if they take a job in Adams County and reside within Quincy’s city limits for a designated period of time.
In the past five months, more than 55 families have moved to Quincy through the Quincy’s Calling campaign — including a number of remote workers.
Kyle Moore, the foundation president, said he thinks the accessibility of remote work has influenced the success of the campaign.
“I definitely think that the pandemic has caused people to pause and look at what they value in life and the quality of life they want to lead,” Moore said.
For barbershop owners Elizabeth and Matthew Thomas, the cost of their 10,000-square-foot Victorian stone mansion was too good to pass up. The couple moved from the San Francisco Bay Area a year and a half ago and opened Gold Line Barbershop just a week arriving after.
Matthew Thomas is particularly interested in Quincy’s history. The walls of the barbershop are covered with newspaper clippings that detail the city’s criminal past during the Prohibition era; a story Thomas said he finds “fascinating.” He is passionate about protecting the old homes in the area, so he said he thinks the city’s effort to attract new residents is a great idea.
“A lot of these giant, beautiful architecturally significant Victorian mansions on the north end and the south side of town were kind of left behind, and they’re just waiting to be saved,” he said. “Every time I drive around down there, it’s like, I want to buy more.”
Moore, the foundation president, said the early success of the Quincy’s Calling campaign has been encouraging, and he hopes the positive momentum will continue to grow.
“I think if you would have asked us when it started, that we would have had, you know, 25 folks in a year, we would have been happy,” he said. “We hope every year that we can snowball this.”
Despite the ever-evolving nature of the pandemic, remote work is here to stay. According to data scientists at Ladders, a jobs site for positions that pay more than $100,000, 25% of all the jobs in North America will be fully remote by the end of the year.
The doors to the office are still shuttered for Quincy resident Medsker, and even if they reopen, he said he will only have to make the trip to Chicago occasionally.
Medsker said having his kids changed everything, and relocating to a small town gave him the simple life he could not find in Chicago.
“We never really considered Quincy as an option, and then, you know, as we dug more into it, things became more clear,” he said. “We wouldn’t take the decision back for anything.”
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