COVID, Remote Work & De-Urbanization

Hi friends! Today I wanted to share a little thought I was having about people moving out of the city, and the potential that the COVID pandemic has created for de-urbanization.

In my industry (the games industry), almost every company I know is switching to a hybrid model where desks are made available in an office for employees, but they’re not required to come into the office to work. Other studios are switching to fully remote work, forfeiting their office space or desk rental in shared workspaces. Most people I know who are starting new companies in this almost-post-COVID world are setting up for remote work because of the freedom it offers for relocation, the global hiring pool as opposed to a local one, and the ability for employees to be closer to family.

Rent is either becoming or has already become insane in most city centres, and with more work going remote, it’s much easier to live outside the city and earn city wages. If you can earn a San Francisco salary while avoiding paying $43,000 per month in rent, why would you bother living in San Francisco? In my company, I’ve already had two employees move to houses outside the city (about an hour outside of Montreal), where the houses are actually moderately affordable. This keeps them close enough to the city to come in for things they can only find in Montreal, and even to commute into work once a week, which is our current plan for employees moving forward.

It makes sense then that people will increasingly leave the city if they’re prioritizing owning property, starting a family, or just generally wanting more space or to be closer to nature. This seems pretty obvious for office jobs that don’t require people to be in the same place at the same time, but this line of thinking usually gets blocked by the idea that this only works for people in these office jobs. Beyond that, it’s only the ones who can afford to buy a house (and a car, because you can’t really live out there without one). So what about the other folks? Well, factories are already outside of city centres, but those workers generally live near the city because of their other needs. What about all of the service jobs? Most people (including most service workers) in the city don’t own property, or can’t afford houses, and don’t have the ability to simply leave to live out in the country. The same goes for artists, who need to be near a bustling city with lots of gigs available. So what of them?

Image from CTV news article

My thinking—and this is not based on research or any real knowledge in the subject, just my own thinking (it’s just my blog after all!)—is that we might see a de-urbanization and spread out into not only the suburbs, but actually to smaller towns in general. I’ve heard people mention that St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, a small town near Montreal, has been seeing a ton of people move there since property is still mostly affordable. Imagine earning a San Francisco salary but your rent is $800 for a beautiful place, living alone? So if we’ve got high-earning “office-job” types in these small towns, and an increase in general population, the service job demand is going to increase. And it’s more affordable to live out there already, so if the demand is there then the service workers might happily move out there. With this increase in population will come an increase in demand for entertainment. People will build factories just outside these smaller towns, since living in these towns will be affordable to factory workers as well with a better quality of life than they might otherwise have had in the city.

I imagine a near-future where lots of small to medium-sized towns (think St-Jean, but also bigger ones like Guelph, Trois-Rivières, Waterloo, Hamilton) grow and become big enough to serve all of the various needs that someone might have—even if they like the hustle and bustle of the city life. This spread into small towns could have various effects on all people in terms of quality of life, education, sustainability, and more. I kind of see it as the opposite of those dystopian novels or movies where everyone is living on top of each other in a state of extreme pollution and stratification between classes. But maybe I’m just being optimistic, as usual. We’ll see!

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