In the growing conversations about remote work, it’s easy to forget that all work is only one part of life.
Despite the growth of remote work and the debates about whether it leads to longer days, remote workers have families, personal hobbies, and a whole life outside of their computers.
While the COVID pandemic thrust the concept of remote work into our common vocabulary, the premise has been around for decades. A Fundera study noted that there has already been a nearly 200% increase in remote working since 2005. However, the pandemic made it clear that people want more flexibility in how they work.
Creating a great place for remote workers, though, is not about statistics, but humanity, which is exactly how the Town of Innisfil is structuring the soon to be released Work from Innisfil program. While remote work is a fundamentally different way of working that comes with its own challenges, the reality is remote workers want a fulfilling life outside of work as well. As more remote workers consider leaving big, expensive cities for a rural alternative, it’s crucial to not forget what really makes a great place to live. Once you have fast internet, it’s about culture, amenities, inclusion, and community.
We’re remote and we like it that way
As the world industrialized and urbanized in the 1960s to 1990s, the world saw the revitalization of the dense urban core. At the same time, companies moved their headquarters into cities. Naturally, skilled knowledge workers flocked to cities, driving up real estate prices and giving developers incentive to build 300 square-foot bachelor units selling for the same price as a mansion in rural areas. The justification? Good jobs were in the city, so unless you wanted a quiet retirement or low-paying career, you’d suck it up in the city.
Up until COVID, remote work was seen as relatively fringe. While millions of people around the world had some form of remote work, whether it was flexibility like “work from home Wednesdays” all the way to full-fledged digital nomadism, the mainstream business world held onto their offices.
It wasn’t until the pandemic forced everyone into their homes that three things happened:
- Anyone who was already remote spoke out and began to aid their clients, colleagues, and friends on how to work remotely.
- Millions more people globally tried out remote work for the first time.
- The majority of people who tried working remotely liked it, and many people who couldn’t work remotely in their current jobs wanted to give remote work a try in a new job.
The Town of Innisfil took note of the emerging trends, and we surveyed town residents and businesses about how the broader remote work movement was impacting them. The results were astounding: 93% of those surveyed either wanted to stay remote or move into a remote job post-COVID, signalling a huge shift away from the idea that productivity came exclusively from the office.
It’s about opportunity and amenities, not location
With remote work as a valid opportunity for millions more knowledge workers, suddenly people can live a little further out of the city where housing is more affordable (or at least you get more for your money). City-dwellers could trade their 1-bedroom condo for a 3-bedroom house with a backyard. But that doesn’t mean it’s a debate of town versus city. Both have amazing things to offer. For remote workers, it’s about offering the kind of community and amenities that are part of a fulfilling career and life.
In our research, we noticed that the freedom to move has grown significantly, but many barriers remain:
Internet: First and foremost, big cities have good wifi. Many small towns don’t, which crosses them off the list completely for remote workers.
Culture and community: Cities provide a hub of culture, restaurants, activities, community groups, interest groups, and sights. This is especially important for remote workers who don’t have an office environment built into their jobs.
Professional development: Remote knowledge workers currently living in cities often have access to innovation hubs, networking groups, and other spaces where they can advance their careers. This is a serious consideration for career-savvy workers who don’t want to lose out on professional development in their prime earning years.
Family: As remote workers think about where they want to live, the choice is as much about their family plans as their careers. It’s critical that any rural areas offer a great family lifestyle.
All towns are (not) the same: It’s easy to see all small towns as, well, the same. That makes it difficult to pick where you might want to move (which certainly isn’t helped by the fact that many small towns don’t actively market their unique factors and cultural draws).
A welcoming environment: Like everyone, remote workers want to feel welcome and included in the area they live.
Bringing real life into remote work
When we asked remote workers what they really wanted, it came as no surprise that the results were not just about working. Instead, we noticed what remote workers from cities really want falls into three categories:
- Work and professional development opportunities.
- Personal, family, and community resources.
- Town culture and connections.
Work and professional development opportunities
When a remote worker leaves a city, there’s a lot they are potentially losing from a career perspective. Even if their work can be delivered remotely, cities often have other professional development opportunities and communities that can be difficult to give up. With that in mind, we learned the key priorities for remote workers are:
Fast internet: A clear and non-negotiable baseline.
Physical infrastructure: Because there is no office, remote workers need both good wifi at home and in innovation hubs or work-eat spaces like cafes or wifi-enabled restaurants.
Professional communities: One of the best parts of big city living is that you can meet people at a wide variety of events. Smaller cities and towns need these events too, so remote workers can meet other remote workers, local entrepreneurs, and other professional connections such as local small business executives or politicians.
Career is first for many remote workers because it connects to everything else. If someone’s career stagnates or they don’t feel professionally supported, it’s unlikely that they will stick around very long.
Personal, family, and community resources
Moving, let alone leaving a big city for a rural alternative, is often a multi-year commitment that can turn into a lifetime. The same applies to remote workers, especially folks in their late 20s or early 30s thinking of starting a family or folks in their 40s and 50s planning for family life then empty-nesting.
When we spoke to remote workers about family and community life, a few key priorities came up:
- Inclusion: All people, regardless of their identity, want to feel welcome and included in the town they move to. They want the opportunity to become a local and take part in all that an area has to offer.
- Social opportunities: Remote workers want to make a real life in the community they move to. That means meeting – and making friends with – locals and other remote workers.
- Resources for kids: When picking a rural alternative to city life, family-minded folks still want opportunities and resources for their children. Even if it doesn’t mimic the city precisely, there has to be opportunities for kids to express their creativity and learn new things, whether in natural beauty or planned environments.
Family and community is critical because it’s how people put roots down and truly feel connected. It’s a common misconception that all remote workers want to be digital nomads, when in reality many people enjoy working remotely but want to settle in one hometown.
Town culture and connections
Apart from feeling included, city-dwelling remote workers are drawn to areas that have a thriving local culture. That doesn’t mean it has to copy the city. Far from it, actually. What we found remote workers truly value is:
- Walkability and transit: While cars are a necessity of rural life, most remote workers want a walkable downtown area wherever they are.
- Affordability and value: If they can’t get a bargain on a property, remote workers at least want more space for the same amount of money.
- Community and proximity: Remote workers want small town staples like farmers markets, local shops, antique markets, and natural beauty like forests or beaches. On top of that, proximity and transit to major urban centres is a strong draw because it means city amenities are not difficult to access. whether for social life or from heading into a city office on occasion.
Town culture and connections offer the underpinnings of a high-quality lifestyle. We learned this was just as critical as the social and professional infrastructure of a town, since it offers more creative outlets for all residents in the town.
Innisfil: A rural alternative
After hearing about what remote workers truly needed from a small town, Innisfil got to work. Our Work from Innisfil program will be geared toward helping remote workers build an enjoyable and fulfilling life outside of the big city chaos. We are growing consciously so we don’t lose our natural beauty and small-town feel, but at the same time are building the amenities, access and variety that are necessary for remote workers.
Instead of focusing only on dollars, we focused on building a better Innisfil for current and future residents, with a specific eye to offering amenities that benefit – and include – everyone.
As we continue to build, here are our focus areas:
Innovation: Our DMZ Innisfil program is built in partnership with Ryerson DMZ, the top university-linked startup accelerator in the world. This newly established innovation hub is not only fostering local entrepreneurship but supports existing entrepreneurs in the area and connects Innisfil’s innovation program directly to downtown Toronto.
Live, walk, play: Downtown Alcona, Innisfil’s biggest population centre, is being built as a mixed-use residential and commercial downtown core built for walkability, culture, and ease of transit access. This means that people living in the suburbs will have a waterfront commercial core and people moving to Innisfil can choose between country living or an affordable “downtown” condo (with human-size square footage this time).
Culture and natural beauty: With farms, rolling hills, and country drives to the west and beautiful Lake Simcoe to the east and north, Innisfil has everything you could want in terms of natural beauty. In Innisfil and surrounding small towns, we’ve got farmers markets, antique stores, festivals, and local shops and restaurants – all a short drive (or Uber ride) away.
Proximity and transit: We’re just down the road from Barrie, a city of over 150,000, and a 45 minute drive north of Toronto. Or, if you prefer living close to the Barrie GO Station, our new Orbit development will offer a walkable community filled with parks, close to the lake, and built for sustainable living with easy access to Barrie and Toronto.
The human touch: Every remote worker considering a move to Innisfil gets to talk with a real live human in the Work from Innisfil program. Have any questions? We’d love to chat.
Creating a community for remote workers is not a matter of fancy incentives and giving things away for free. What we learned was that it’s about building a stronger community that anyone would want to live in. From there, remote workers need a few pieces of physical infrastructure not yet the norm in small towns. However, it’s clear that remote workers might be an employee during working hours, but are humans 365 days a year.