Where your employees are moving (now that they’re working remotely)
Rebecca Zimmermann recently decided to move to Hawaii. She’d been working as an account coordinator for Double Forte, a creative agency out of San Francisco, when stay-at-home orders forced the company’s six office spaces to close. One month into closures Double Forte decided to allow it’s employees to work remotely indefinitely.
Zimmermann jumped at the opportunity. “I began thinking of places I could relocate to that would support my lifestyle,” she says. “That’s when I started considering Hawaii. It’s part of the US, making travel and relocation easier, only has a slight time zone difference and, not to mention, has a climate that I love.”
Her company was supportive, offering their now freed up funds to employees as a stipend for whatever office equipment they might need. “Knowing me well, my manager and other directors were so excited for me,” Zimmermann says. “They knew Hawaii could be a place where I would thrive, not only personally but professionally.”
People are moving
In San Francisco, where Facebook and Twitter first proclaimed their employees would be able to work remotely indefinitely, there has been something of an exodus. Slack, Square, and Uber soon followed in their footsteps with many employees claiming they would move out of the city as a result.
What happened immediately after was not surprising: Vacancy rates in San Francisco and New York rose to new heights, real estate listings in both areas increased, rent prices decreased, and suburbs grew in population density and real estate prices. There’s even an aptly named Instagram account called @empty_sf.
Though the exodus is hardly as dire as media outlets have painted it to be―vacancy rates in San Francisco are currently 10 percent, compared with 5.4 percent last year―it’s understandable why so many have left: Those cities were too expensive to live in to begin with. The companies that operated there had to pay a premium to have office space there and employees paid a premium so they could afford to live there.
Not only that, but employees had to commute from long distances over long periods of time to get to work, dropping their kids off at expensive childcare centers along the way in order to do so. And the wealth required of such an existence excluded large populations of people from being able to join, bringing challenges of diversity and equality.
All that sheer hemorrhaging of wasted time, money, and talent created something of a bubble where apps were created to read children their bedtime stories, hands-free breast pumps allowed mothers to pump during their morning commute, beverage companies were created so busy execs could drink all their meals, desperate renters could spend $2500 a month living in a van, and tech startups could pop up to solve problems nowhere else has.
And then all of that became unnecessary.
In 2019, the San Francisco-based publishing company McSweeney’s came out with a special edition entitled 2040 A.D. It featured nine fictional stories about what different parts of the world would be like in the year 2040, as a result of global climate change. The San Francisco story predicted an exodus from the city as the peninsula flooded, the homeless population proliferated, and the rich people sought higher ground in Tahoe.
Tahoe real estate prices are up 43 percent, by the way.
Maybe it’s only temporary
The very notion that employees might prefer to live elsewhere left me wondering whether remote work might be the single greatest perk a company could offer their employees. Who, free from the tethers of a hard-to-live in environment, might opt instead to live where traffic isn’t the norm and life isn’t expensive? Indeed, that’s one of the reasons my husband and I left the Bay Area five years ago.
It’s not as simple as that, George Davis tells me. As the founder and CEO of Frame.ai, a customer success app based out of New York City, he says that when the company pulled the plug on their New York City office many team members relocated to Pennsylvania or New Jersey―and in his case, Texas―to be closer to family.
“The issue was that the city was especially disabled for parents,” he says. “Cities like NYC operate in an equilibrium: You lose a lot of flexibility because people are in such dense proximity, then you get it back because all kinds of supporting services are available. When something comes along that disrupts the balance, everyone has to recalculate the trade-offs they have been making.”
In other words: It wasn’t a problem to live in the city before because the city had ways of handling childcare, but when childcare became unavailable, employees had to go where they could get it: home. That’s why Rachel Hofstetter left Utah for Idaho when the pandemic hit. “We originally went for a two-week respite and for a little extra childcare help,” she says. “But the childcare help and family bonding were so nice that we ended up staying the whole summer!”
As the CMO of Chatbooks, Hofstetter previously worked from one of three satellite offices in Utah. Now only the Provo office remains and a hybrid work environment has been proposed. “We’ve just announced that we’re also supporting periods of remote work in the future for some employees in some situations,” Hofstetter says. “That might mean regularly working a few days a week from home, or a few weeks working from the in-laws.”
Davis, too, anticipates that these movements are mostly temporary. “We have almost doubled team size in the last few months, so are building a remote culture by necessity,” he says. “That said, we are recruiting primarily within the East Coast―along the Acela belt―to make it easier to get the team together in the future.”
Most Frame.ai team members are staying within a 90-minute orbit of the city, for now. And yet, “There have definitely been moves with permanent real estate impact,” Davis says. “I can say without a doubt on a personal level that it’s hard to imagine bringing my boys back into apartment living.
Maybe it’s permanent
Google, like Frame.ai and Chatbooks, anticipates coming back to their nap pods once it is safe enough to do so. They set a return date― currently summer 2021―so employees could make travel arrangements in the interim, but they fully expect their workforce back in the Bay Area once that deadline has been reached.
Facebook and Twitter, however, like Double Forte, have announced that employees will be able to work remotely indefinitely, allowing their employees to consider more permanent living arrangements. REI, who recently completed a new eight-acre campus, is joining their ranks, selling their unused campus, and allowing employees the freedom to live untethered from their workplace. Even if that means moving to Hawaii.
“As someone who is passionate about health and wellness, a majority of my free time was dedicated to running outside, going to a yoga class, going to the farmers market, and/or cooking,” Zimmermann says. “Mid-pandemic… my apartment became my office, my yoga studio, my hang out spot, my everything. I quickly realized my small, shared apartment in San Francisco was not ideal for working remotely and fulfilling my personal needs.”
Indeed, many who can now work remotely are able to contemplate the implications of that arrangement. Would I rather live closer to family? Closer to the beach? Would I rather live where I could have free access to childcare? Where I could afford a house or have the space to walk my dog? Would I rather live with my sister instead of a roommate?
At the beginning of the pandemic, my husband and I spent a couple of weeks holed up in a Montana cabin with friends. We called it our “WeWork” and we worked from the dining room during the day and took turns making dinner at night. Soon after, my husband drove out to Virginia to spend a month with his parents and my sister flew out to Utah to spend a month with me.
My husband and I are already fortunate to live where we want to live, but the pandemic allowed us to explore an even better way of doing it. Whether those changes turn out to be temporary or permanent ones, I don’t believe we’ll return to the way it was before. After all, who will return to their Bay Area job with an hour-long commute when they can work remotely from the beaches of Hawaii?