After spending time in Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area, Whitney Johnston moved to Albuquerque in 2018 to be closer to her family.
Her time in the Duke City was supposed to be short, but after she met her husband, she decided to stay and work remotely for her Berkeley, California-based tech company IdeaScale.
While the network of technology workers is smaller in Albuquerque than in the Bay Area, she said, she’s found the smaller city rewarding.
“I think that the lifestyle is really great here,” Johnston told the Journal. “You can build a life for yourself here in New Mexico that you couldn’t build for yourself in San Francisco unless you’re a billionaire.”
Some economic development experts think stories like Johnston’s will get more common in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic shuts offices and forces more employees to work remotely, it could prompt a long-term shift toward remote work, which stands to benefit cities such as Albuquerque in the long run.
“Albuquerque has this really great opportunity in the next 12 months to be that gutsy cool kid that gets to write its own story,” said Annemarie Henton, vice president for business development and marketing at Albuquerque Economic Development.
Some have even argued that attracting remote workers could be a cost-effective way to replace jobs lost during the economic downturn associated with the pandemic.
“I think this is a huge, change-the-world thing,” said John O’Duinn, a California-based expert on remote working who wrote “Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart.”
The data is clear that more workers than ever before are working outside of traditional offices due to the pandemic.
A survey from Healthline Media published in June showed that 52% of Americans are working remotely because of COVID-19, including 63% of workers ages of 25 to 44.
As workers get more comfortable working from home and using remote working software such as Zoom and Slack, some companies have begun reexamining the need for employees in the office – even after those offices can reopen safely.
Technology giants Facebook and Google announced they will allow most employees to work from home through the end of 2020, while Twitter is allowing some workers to work remotely indefinitely.
As remote working becomes more commonplace, Henton and others have argued that workers could be drawn to midsize cities such as Albuquerque, with its relatively low cost of living and abundant sunshine.
“I think attracting people is almost as important as attracting companies,” said Tim Nitti, president and CEO of New Mexico Partnership.
The pandemic’s reshaping of New Mexico’s economy has largely been for the worse.
According to May numbers from the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, the state lost 5,600 jobs year-over-year in its mining and logging subsector, which includes the state’s previously booming oil and gas industry. Leisure and hospitality, another sector that had experienced strong growth recently, shed 37,900 jobs in the 12 months that ended in May.
Mark Lautman, founder of the Community Economics Lab, a nonprofit think tank focused on rethinking economic development, said this period of uncertainty and tight budgets could trickle down to economic development efforts, making it harder to replace those jobs in the future.
As state and local governments look to address their budget shortfalls, Lautman said New Mexico municipalities may take a hard look at the money they spend trying to attract out-of-state companies.
“There’s going to be a massive consolidation of economic development efforts,” Lautman said.
However, O’Duinn said attracting remote workers can be significantly cheaper than attracting companies to a city or state through tax breaks or traditional economic development incentives.
New incentive style
O’Duinn said enticing companies to hire in smaller communities is frequently expensive and counterproductive.
“If you’re trying to convince a company to move to your state … companies know that that’s valuable,” he said.
So he started looking for another way. Several years ago, O’Duinn worked with Vermont to write a law that established Vermont’s Remote Worker Grant Program, a program that covers moving expenses and other costs for remote workers totaling up to $10,000 to attract them to Vermont.
Other communities, including Tulsa, Oklahoma, have adopted similar models. Tulsa Remote, a foundation-funded program that incentivizes remote workers who move to the city, launched in November 2018.
Aaron Bolzle, founder and executive director of the program, said participating workers receive $10,000 and a membership at a local co-working space. Since the program launched, Bolzle said, it has attracted around 250 participants and family members to Tulsa.
“I believe that what has made our program so successful is its focus on community,” Bolzle said.
Option for ABQ?
While Albuquerque doesn’t have such a program, Bolzle said the city could be a good fit for one if it commits to developing an attractive and inclusive community.
“There’s plenty of opportunities for cities like Albuquerque and Tulsa to be the communities that people really want to join,” Bolzle said.
Even without a remote worker program, Henton said, she thinks the virus will prompt workers, particularly in the technology sector, to start looking beyond crowded tech hubs.
She said Albuquerque is large enough to boast cultural amenities such as concerts and art galleries that appeal to younger workers familiar with big cities.
However, it’s still small and inexpensive enough to provide workers with more space than they’d have in cities such as New York and San Francisco, leaving it well-positioned to capitalize on a potential wave of workers looking to move elsewhere.
“Big cities might not be where you can get the quality of life that you need or want,” she said.