By: Meredith King
Note: The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect an institutional position of the Gardner Institute. We hope the opinions shared contribute to the marketplace of ideas and help people as they formulate their own INFORMED DECISIONS™.
Before the word “pandemic” had entered our everyday vernacular, negative stigmas around teleworking prevented most companies from offering a flexible work plan for their employees or creating full-time teleworking opportunities. Now one year into remote work, many of those stigmas have been eliminated and employees are seeking the flexibility that teleworking provides. As employers begin formulating what the new normal will look like for their companies, they are poised to create a teleworking-friendly environment, opening opportunities for rural towns across the state.
In November 2018 the State of Utah made a goal to create or move 2,055 jobs to partial or complete teleworking. At the time, the state identified 30% of government jobs that could move to a part-time or full-time teleworking position. However, as the world shifted in April 2020, large swaths of both the public and private sector moved to teleworking in a matter of days.
In a recent internal survey, over 4,600 state employees noted they would prefer staying fully or partially in a remote work situation. In the business community, employers are learning that the new normal will likely include virtual meetings as many of their employees continue teleworking. Among employed adults who say that, for the most part, the responsibilities of their job can be done from home, 54% say they would want to work from home after the pandemic ends.[i]
So what could this mean for rural towns, some of which have seen declining populations for almost a decade? As American workers embrace working from home, rural communities have the potential to tap into this more flexible workforce. All they need is “broadband, blues, and beer.”
First, teleworking requires access to good, reliable broadband. Utah currently ranks 29th for broadband access. While some rural counties like San Juan, Rich, and Millard have less than 60% broadband coverage, others like Piute, Beaver, and Garfield have close to 100% coverage. The need for broadband is not lost on state government. Governor Cox’s FY22 Budget Recommendations included $50 million for rural broadband infrastructure. The Legislature ultimately allotted $10 million in one-time and $200,000 ongoing funds for rural fiber, broadband, and Wi-Fi internet infrastructure. Providing reliable high-speed internet will help make teleworking a reality for areas outside the Wasatch Front.
Second, local support and a sense of community can entice newcomers and keep locals who would otherwise live near high-wage jobs on the Wasatch Front. Tax and policy incentives can help induce companies to hire teleworking employees from rural towns with an available workforce. For example, Price City in Carbon County is updating its business incubator into a more modern coworking space and relaxing its home-occupied business permitting for office use. Prioritizing placemaking policy, or policy that will enhance a town’s livability, can attract and keep residents and businesses in rural Utah. Summit County created an Outdoor Hospitality Grant during the pandemic to help restaurants, galleries, and entertainment facilities provide outdoor dining and entertaining options. GoUtah also recently launched the Utah Main Street Pilot Program to revitalize downtowns in rural communities.
While companies begin to establish what their new normal entails, rural communities can create an opportunity for teleworkers by providing strong connectivity – both to the internet and the community – and welcoming jobs and families to their towns.
Meredith King is a research associate at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
[i] Parker, K., Horowitz, J.M. (9 December 2020) How the Coronavirus Outbreak Has – and Hasn’t – Changed the Way Americans Work. Pew Research Center.