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Remote work is here to stay – and it could be a boon for Ohio small towns

A computer stands open on a desk.
Remote work could help small cities and towns reverse population loss, according to a researcher at Ohio University.

A historic building in Athens, known as the Armory, has long been vacant. Thanks to federal funds, the downtown landmark is now transitioning into a coworking space.

The small city in southeastern Ohio is trying to invest in its remote workers and attract more people to the area. It’s a trend that could spread to other Ohio small towns, according to Brent Lane, senior Executive in Residence at Ohio University.

“It taps into a very strong preference that a lot of people in the U.S. and for that matter in Ohio have, which is a preference to live in small cities, towns and even rural areas,” Lane said.

Around three-fourths of U.S. workers, who can work from home, do, at least part of the time. Lane said it’s a trend that small cities and rural towns can capitalize on.

Opportunities for growth

During the pandemic, many small towns began advertising as a new home for remote workers – some even offered to pay people to move to their area. While Lane said that can help to bring in some new faces, remote working is actually a stronger tool for bringing people back – people who already know and love an area, but may have moved away for jobs.

“This is an opportunity that hybrid work has brought somewhat unexpectedly, more of that population could both choose to stay, or in many cases move back,” Lane said.

Two men enter a large brick building, with a historical marker out front.
Ohio Southeast Economic Development
The Athens Armory will be refashioned into a coworking space, in hopes of bringing in more hybrid and remote workers.

He points to Athens, home of Ohio University. He says many students there would stick around post-graduation if they had jobs that allowed them to.

Even just having hybrid work opportunities – where part of your time is in the office, the other at home – can expand economic opportunities for an area. Lane said people are willing to commute farther when they only go into the office for a couple days a week.

Remote work could boost the jobs available to Ohioans in the Appalachian region, where labor force participation rates are low.

“People in Athens and in southeast Ohio have some of the longest daily commutes,” he said. “Before the pandemic, people were already having to drive an hour each way quite often to have a job that would be a living wage.”

Investing in infrastructure

Lane said rural communities in Ohio need to consider remote work as a tool to reversing a long trend of population loss in its small towns. Thirty-three of Ohio’s 88 counties lost population from 2010 to 2020, according to the Census Bureau. And the counties with the largest declines were all rural.

Athens County itself lost a little more than 5% of its population from 2020 to 2022, according to the latest census. And Lane said many communities in southeast Ohio are struggling to retain working age residents. Lane calls them “hollow communities'', where residents aged 25-54 are largely missing from the towns. That puts the towns in danger of dying off, Lane said.

“This is the population in any community where people start families, they buy homes, they start businesses. They're really the core of a community population,” he said.

Lane said local governments can do more than just wait and hope that remote workers will settle in their region. They can invest in important infrastructure tools, like broadband and childcare.

They also should ensure that people have access to office supplies like meeting spaces and copy machines, Lane said. That’s where coworking spaces like the ones in Athens come into play. Lane said it’s a way to show to prospective residents that remote work is welcome.

“If we want corporations to continue to allow people to work remotely, those people need to have the tools to do it efficiently,” Lane said.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.