In 2018, with much fanfare, the Roanoke Valley’s only Fortune 500 company announced that it would move its corporate headquarters from Roanoke to Raleigh. North Carolina offered a $10 million incentive package; in return, Advance Auto pledged to maintain 729 jobs and create 435 more in Raleigh over the next five years – mostly software-related jobs as the company pushed deeper into e-commerce and data analytics.
This summer, with much less fanfare, Advance Auto terminated that incentive agreement with North Carolina. The reason? Because of the advent of remote work, the company can no longer guarantee that those jobs are being performed by workers in North Carolina. They could be anywhere.
Here we have one of the great ironies of the work-from-home movement – and for some communities, one of the great opportunities. Roanoke lost the headquarters to Raleigh four years ago because Raleigh had a bigger and deeper talent pool of information technology workers who would get paid an average annual wage of $106,000. Now Raleigh, one of the nation’s tech capitals, is losing some of those jobs because the workers for companies based there don’t have to actually live there. In a letter to the North Carolina Department of Commerce, Advance said that some of those workers had moved out of state, that many new hires were working remotely, and that to fill some of the positions Advance had hired some workers as far away as India and Taiwan. Like we said, these jobs could be anywhere – potentially even back in Roanoke.
Advance Auto provides a close-to-home example of how quickly the world has changed. In 2018, Roanoke understood it couldn’t really compete with Raleigh for those jobs. In 2022, it can – maybe not for all of them but for those remote workers who are inclined to choose Roanoke over some other place. Of course, that also means Roanoke is competing against, well, maybe the rest of the country and even locations overseas. It really is a brave new world.
We’ve had some tantalizing hints of what the new Age of Zoom might look like – and what it might not look like. As I’ve documented before, some rural areas were seeing more people moving in than moving out even before the pandemic hit. Data collection on migration typically lags so until recently we’ve only had data for the first months of the pandemic, which probably isn’t enough to draw too many conclusions from, as much as we might like to. Now we’re getting some more and it is even more tantalizing – for some places. For others, it might be a disappointment.
The latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau is called the “2021 Public Use Microdata Area Remote Work Map.” On the plus side: It maps what percentage of workers were working remotely in 2021, during the height of the pandemic. On the minus side: This data isn’t available yet for localities, only for what the Census Bureau calls “Public Use Microdata Areas” or, in the language of the federal government, “non-overlapping, statistical geographic areas that partition each state or equivalent entity into geographic areas containing no fewer than 100,000 people each.” In other words, the Census Bureau has sliced up each state. These areas are generally logical but they don’t necessarily line up with other groups we know – metropolitan or micropolitan statistical areas, planning districts, commuting zones and the like. If you’re thinking, gosh, that’s a lot of different groups to keep up with, you’re right, but this is what we’ve got, so that’s what we’ll work with today.
Big-picture: Remote work soared in 2021. No surprise there. Realistically, it’s probably dropped as people return to offices – but not everyone has and not everyone will. Remote work, to some degree, is here to stay; the question is simply to what degree, and where. “We’re 30 years ahead of where anyone expected,” Hamilton Lombard, a demographer with the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center, told a meeting of rural officials recently at Mountain Lake in Giles County.
What we saw pre-pandemic – from data in 2019 – is that remote workers were unevenly distributed in Virginia. They were mostly around Charlottesville and parts of Northern Virginia. The locality with the single highest share of remote workers was Nelson County, where 11.74% of the workforce worked from home. In parts of Northern Virginia, such as western and southern Loudoun County, the figure was 9.52%. Some other parts of Northern Virginia topped 8%. One county on the Northern Neck – Westmoreland County – came in at 9.06%. That may seem odd but isn’t: Nationally, even before the pandemic, we see some vacation spots with higher-than-usual percentages of telecommuters. Westmoreland, along the Potomac River, would fit that definition.
So now what do we see in the 2021 data? We see some acceleration of those trends – and some new ones.
Northern Virginia posted the biggest telecommuting figure in the state, followed by the Interstate 64 corridor from Charlottesville to Richmond.
That part of Loudoun County that before the pandemic had 9.52% of its workforce telecommuting now saw 37.5% doing so – and that was nowhere close to the highest number in Northern Virginia. In 2021, one “public use microdata area” in Northern Virginia saw telecommuters rise to 47% of workers, and two others to 44.7% and 42.24%. Virtually every such area in Northern Virginia saw a third or more of its workers telecommuting. Some outlying parts of Prince William County and Stafford County that had been in the 6% and 8% range jumped to the 21% to 28% range. The lowest telecommuting rate in Northern Virginia during the pandemic – and the only place where the figure was below 20% of the workforce – was the Manassas area at 17.1%. Generally speaking, telecommuting in Northern Virginia tripled or quadrupled or sometimes quintupled, depending on what parts of the region we’re talking about.
Even if most of those telecommuters return to their offices, we know many won’t – which then starts to raise the question of why they’re living in Northern Virginia at all. This is the question that excites lots of rural localities that are hoping to cash in on remote work.
I mentioned that pre-pandemic there was a remote working cluster around Charlottesville – 11.74% in Nelson County, 8.46% in Albemarle County, 8.34% in Fluvanna County, 7.02% in Charlottesville itself, which averaged out to 8.74% for that entire “public use” area. During the pandemic, that jumped to 21.1%.
Around Richmond, Powhatan County was a pre-pandemic telecommuting hotspot – 8.18% – but other localities in the Richmond area were generally in the 6% range. During the pandemic most of those areas rose to 20% or more telecommuters, with the Short Pump area weighing at 34.1%.
When plotted on a map (for your convenience, we’ll re-show the main image above), we see one big single blotch of remote workers that stretches from Charles City County east of Richmond to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Within that zone, the lowest percentage of telecommuters is in part of Richmond along the James River – 19.2%.
Now, looking at Northern Virginia and this Richmond-Charlottesville cluster clearly brings in a lot of government workers. What about other parts of the state? Let’s move on. Not surprisingly, the next biggest concentrations of remote workers are in regions just beyond those metros – from 6.33% to 18.8% in the counties along U.S. 29 between Greene County and Northern Virginia, from 6.17% to 18.7% on the Virginia Peninsula, from 4.54% to 17.7% between Fredericksburg and Hanover County.
To that extent, the map for remote workers looks much like the map for population growth – people push further and further out.
We do see a smaller cluster forming between Blacksburg and Lynchburg. Before the pandemic, the figures ranged from 3.96% in the New River Valley to 5.84% in the swath of territory from Alleghany County to Franklin County (not counting Roanoke and Salem, which were counted separately). During the pandemic, all those localities saw the number of telecommuters rise, with percentages ranging from 11.5% in Roanoke and Salem to 14.5% in the Amherst, Appomattox and Bedford area. (So, yes, what we see is that all areas rose but they did not rise evenly.)
That’s not the kind of increase we saw in Northern Virginia and around Richmond, but we also didn’t have government workers powering this – the odds are these numbers are driven largely by the private sector. During the pandemic, some places in the Blacksburg-to-Lynchburg area had about the same share of remote workers — or in some cases slightly bigger — than the Northern Virginia and the Charlottesville area had pre-pandemic. Again, these numbers will probably come down as people return to offices but they may also give us a hint of what’s to come: The Blacksburg-to-Lynchburg area probably can draw a certain amount of remote workers. It’s the more rural parts of the state that will probably have a harder time because they had a harder time during the height of the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, the Henry-Martinsville-Pittsylvania-Danville area saw 2.96% of its workforce telecommuting. During the pandemic, that area’s remote workforce rose to 6.1% – the lowest of any of these regions.
In Southwest Virginia, the figures in the coal counties pre-pandemic were 2.79%. During the pandemic, that became 6.6%. Before the pandemic, the counties in the triangle bounded by Washington County, Bland County and Carroll County had 3.52% of their workforce telecommuting. During the pandemic, that became 7.9%. Those numbers are low in the context of the pandemic, but not low when compared to 2019 numbers. Put another way, that Washington-Bland-Carroll triangle during the pandemic had about the same share of remote workers that many of Virginia’s biggest remote working counties had pre-pandemic. That’s how much the nature of work shifted.
Keep in mind all these numbers reflect how the economy looked at the time – not surprisingly, communities with more office jobs saw more people working remotely. Communities with fewer office jobs did not. (And, I might also add, communities with weaker or non-existent broadband connections. During the pandemic, I couldn’t work from home because I didn’t have broadband at my home in Botetourt County. Now I do, thanks to the Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative).
What these numbers don’t pick up on are people moving as a result of the pandemic – and the opportunity to work remotely permanently. Anecdotally, we heard of some moves happening in 2021, but these numbers documented here mostly reflect the existing economy. The big question is what moves will we see in the future as we adjust to a “new normal”? That’s a question that may take years to answer. Some employers – even the state government – want workers back in the office. But employers also face a labor shortage – so there’s a give-and-take going on. We see from the Advance Auto example in Raleigh how that’s working out.
Localities in Southwest and Southside would surely like to attract more remote workers for demographic (and tax revenue) reasons, but remote workers won’t be spread evenly, Lombard says. That’s because many remote workers aren’t fully remote – they sometimes still have to go to a main office, be it weekly or monthly or some other frequency. “How do you get people back to the main office?” Lombard asked. “I think that’s a big factor.” The localities that will do best in attracting remote workers, he said, are the ones that are near transportation. They don’t have to have an interstate or an airport or a train stop, but they do need to be close enough to one that it’s not a big hassle for remote workers to get back to the office if they need to. By that score, the patterns we’re seeing evolve above make sense: Rappahannock County stands a better chance of attracting remote workers than Russell County because it’s closer to a big metro; Warren County will do better than Wise County. That’s not to say Russell County and Wise County (or anywhere else in Southwest or Southside) won’t attract any remote workers – they’ll just attract fewer. There’s also the question of how much politics and culture will affect things. As we’ve seeen, some people now factor politics into their relocation decisions; the conservative nature of rural areas may attract some remote workers but scare off others. (I wrote about this in a previous column.)
It’s also useful to pull back and take a broader view. When we do, what do we see? Basically the same patterns all over. During the pandemic, metro areas saw the biggest percentages of remote workers, because that’s where the office-based jobs were. Outlying areas saw the second biggest percentages, more remote areas the lowest.
If you look at the bigger regional map, the thing that surprises me is how low parts of the Shenandoah Valley – from Rockbridge County to Rockingham County, which were about 9% – are compared to elsewhere. Some other observations:
- For those in Roanoke who still have Asheville envy, take note of this: Ashville’s remote worker population rose from 10.64% to 20.3%, comparable to parts of that Charlottesville-to-Richmond corridor, and distinctly higher than those Blacksburg-to-Lynchburg numbers.
- On the other hand, those Blacksburg-to-Lynchburg numbers were comparable with some coastal areas in North and South Carolina. Beach or mountains?
- The Interstate 81 corridor of Tennessee generally had more remote workers than the I-81 corridor through Southwest Virginia. That matches other population trends, which I examined in an earlier column looking at why Tennessee’s population in that area is growing faster than Virginia localities just across the line.
Based on these numbers, I suspect future data is going to show an accelerated Zoom-era migration to rural areas – but it’s not going to be evenly distributed. And I wonder how many states are going to be giving out incentives for jobs that may wind up being remote?