The Botetourt County Courthouse. Courtesy of Doug Kerr.
The Botetourt County Courthouse. Courtesy of Doug Kerr.

I am a trendsetter.

I’d like to think it’s for my taste in music (I’m currently listening to The Beaches, who I followed long before their single “Blame Brett” blew up as the song of the summer on Spotify), but it’s really for my choice of workplace.

I’m a remote worker.

Not surprisingly, remote work peaked during the pandemic and the trend now is for many companies to insist that those workers return to the office. Amazon recently warned hybrid workers that they weren’t showing up in the office enough and CEO Andy Jassy reportedly said if they don’t “badge in” often enough, “it’s probably not going to work out for you.” Elon Musk has complained that working from home is “morally wrong” and compared remote work to horse manure, just in more colorful ways. Even Zoom, which made all this remote work possible, has ordered workers back to the office.

So remote work has peaked, right?

Not quite. The pandemic was an aberration but here are the relevant stats: Remote working was growing before the pandemic (from 5.7% of American workers in 2018 to 22.7% just a year later in 2019). And while it peaked at 41.7% in 2020 and then fell back down, it fell back to a higher percentage than pre-pandemic. Furthermore, that percentage of remote workers continues to rise and is expected to be 27% this year — all that according to figures assembled by the website Zippia.

Maybe we’d have gotten to 27% without the pandemic, but the pandemic likely brought about a “new normal” in which remote work (or hybrid work, in which employees work remotely some of the time and in the office other times) is a more natural thing. And that percentage is expected to keep rising. In 2018, there were about 7 million Americans working remotely; by 2025 that figure is projected to be 36.2 million, Zippia says. That’s a fundamental shift in the American workplace, one that we probably haven’t fully come to grips with. 

One Virginia county is trying.

Gary Larrowe. Courtesy of Larrowe.

Botetourt County Administrator Gary Larrowe has been fascinated by the remote work trend and what it might mean for his county. This summer Botetourt set about trying to survey remote workers in the county. Those results are now in. Botetourt County had 392 people fill out the survey, which was promoted by social media, and identify themselves as remote workers. (Disclosure: I live in Botetourt County and, as a good citizen, I filled out the survey so I’m one of those 392.) Based on census statistics, Botetourt County guesses there may be as many as 2,000 (or more) remote workers in the county. It’s hard to tell because the census stats may not take into account hybrid workers. If that’s so, that seems like a lot of remote workers for a county whose 2023 population is estimated at 33,371. Here’s some possible context: DataUSA says that the largest industries in Botetourt (which may and certainly do draw workers from outside the county) are health care and social assistance (which employs 2,171 people) and manufacturing (which employs 2,085 people). If that 2,000 estimate for remote workers is correct, that would make remote work the third biggest employment sector in the county, ahead of retail (1,955).

“What county wouldn’t be excited to be able to find it has an industry of maybe 2,000 people?” Larrowe asked.

For Larrowe, that’s the point of this survey: To try to quantify the number of remote workers the county has so they can be regarded as a full-fledged industry sector. Historically, we’ve viewed remote workers as “lone wolves,” laboring alone in their homes in front of a computer. However, when viewed in the aggregate, they (maybe we?) start to look like a real economic force.

There’s no reason to think that Botetourt County is unique in any way. “We’re unique in that we’ve surveyed,” Larrowe says.

The darker the county, the greater the percentage of the workforce that is working from home. These are Census Bureau figures from 2019. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.

Until now, the only reliable data on remote workers was a Census Bureau report from the pre-pandemic year of 2019. That report found that 995 people in Botetourt County were working remotely — about 6.27% of the workforce. Based on that finding, the 2,000 estimate now seems completely reasonable. Furthermore, Botetourt County that year wasn’t particularly remarkable. The high in Virginia that year was Nelson County, where 11.7% of the workforce was working remotely; the low was Bland County, at 0.66%. Botetourt was almost smack in the middle. 

What we saw then was that the big concentrations of remote workers in Virginia were around Charlottesville (in Albemarle, Fluvanna and Nelson counties) and in some of the counties near the Chesapeake Bay. Behind them were counties on the outskirts of Richmond and Northern Virginia — and a swath of counties along the mountains ranging from Floyd County north into Rockbridge County and Bath County (and across the state line into Pocahontas and Pendleton counties in West Virginia).

How much have those patterns changed? And how much has the percentage of remote workers changed in each county? We don’t know, and won’t until a new census report comes out later this year. However, the Botetourt survey gives us some insights into what we might see.

1. Remote workers are throughout the county.

For those not familiar with Botetourt, the southern part of the county (nearest Roanoke) has a suburban or exurban feel. The northern part (where I live) is much more rural. The farther north you go, the more rural you get. The survey found remote workers in every part of the county — more in the southern part, because that’s where the bulk of the population is, but the survey found 24 self-identified remote workers even in the Eagle Rock ZIP code in the northernmost part of the county, 5% of the total. 

This would not be possible without broadband. Fortunately, this is one of the rare issues that has produced bipartisan harmony — rural broadband really is the modern-day equivalent of rural electrification in the 1930s. (I wrote about who was responsible for bringing rural broadband to my house in a previous column.) says that 91.1% of Botetourt County now has access to speeds of 25 megabits per second, the standard the Federal Communications Commission uses for broadband. That’s not quite the 100% that Falls Church has, but the once elusive goal of universal rural broadband now seems in sight for many rural counties. Well, in Botetourt County, anyway (it’s hard to drive around the county without seeing a utility truck hauling fiber). 

Not surprisingly, the counties with the lowest broadband penetration in the state are rural counties — generally in Southside, not Southwest. The lowest is Greensville County, where only 35.2% have access to broadband. In neighboring Brunswick County, the figure is 37.6%. In Charlotte County, 38.6%. In Southwest Virginia, the lowest figure is 49.7% in Bland County. On the other hand, Bristol weighs in at 99.6% while even rural Washington County is at 95.7% and Smyth County is just behind at 94.6%. There are exceptions in certain counties, but generally speaking, Southwest Virginia is no longer an outlier for broadband. But back to Botetourt County . . .

2. Relatively few are self-employed.

Of those who responded to the Botetourt survey, 90% are employed by a company, as opposed to being self-employed. To me, this 90% figure suggests that future growth in the number of remote workers is going to depend on the willingness of companies to accept remote workers, rather than entrepreneurship. Most of those surveyed identified their employers. Among them were some Fortune 500 companies: Boeing, Google, Microsoft. Who would have guessed they had a presence here, even if it’s just a single worker? 

3. Most went remote during the pandemic.

Of those who responded, 36% of those from Botetourt said their job was remote before the pandemic; 64% went remote during or after the pandemic, which further hints at the acceleration of remote work.

4. Very few moved to the county because they could work remotely.

Here’s the figure that surprised me most: Of those who identified themselves as relatively new residents of the county, only 3% said they moved to Botetourt because of remote work. We’ve all heard chatter about a Zoom-era migration out of metros to rural areas — and there are census stats that show this is happening — but that doesn’t show up in this survey.

That Zoom-era migration, though, is one reason Botetourt wants to quantify how many remote workers it has. Larrowe would like to market the county as a destination for remote workers. He sees that as one way to address certain worker shortages. If a remote worker moved to Botetourt, perhaps a “trailing spouse” might be a teacher or an emergency medical technician, for instance. Or perhaps it’s the remote worker who is the trailing spouse. Larrowe also sees the potential for remote work to help rural localities hold onto young adults they might otherwise lose to job prospects elsewhere. He said he talked recently to students at Lord Botetourt High School and saw students’ eyes open when he mentioned the number of remote workers already in the county.

Remote workers also offer the prospect of bringing new spendable income into a locality without demanding the sort of expenses that traditional industries would — no controversial rezonings, no taxpayer-supplied infrastructure. On the other hand, new residents might also require certain services, such as schools and whatnot, while not paying, say, the machine and tools taxes that a factory would. For many localities that have been losing population (Botetourt is not one of them), that’s an easy tradeoff to make — the need to add new residents (who might be new workers and certainly would be new customers for local businesses) to reverse a declining economy is paramount.

Larrowe has the idea of creating some kind of official certification for a remote worker-friendly county that could be used for marketing purposes. That’s why the survey asked lots of questions about what remote workers would want to be more successful. Half indicated some interest in co-working spaces, where remote workers might share certain support services, such as access to printers. There’s also a reminder that, for those workers with children at home, remote work can’t double as child care: One popular request was more child care options. (I am out of that demographic; my main distraction is Hazel the cat, who insists on joining every Zoom to supervise. I can at least lock her up in the bathroom. I’m told that’s no longer acceptable with children.)

Larrowe hopes that other localities in the Roanoke Valley will conduct similar surveys so there can be baseline data for the whole region. If localities outside the region wanted to replicate the survey, then we could start to paint an even bigger and clearer picture of how the economy is changing. How many other localities might find that the remote work sector is one of their biggest?

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at