When the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Jack Calcutt’s bosses in the Greater New York area to allow remote work, he and his family moved to Topeka, Kansas, and what was to have been a temporary arrangement became permanent.
“We ended up buying a home in late summer or early fall of last year. And then it became clear that the world was going to change permanently from a technology standpoint. We would be able to work remotely for a longer period of time, indefinitely,” said Mr. Calcutt, a sales manager for the financial data company FactSet.
Although Mr. Calcutt and others have migrated from metropolises to smaller cities and towns during the pandemic, census data shows that the 10 largest U.S. cities have grown in the past decade. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston each has more than 2 million people, and all 10 of the largest cities have populations of 1 million or more.
Some “micro areas” have experienced population growth as well, the Census Bureau said in August. A micro area is one or more adjacent counties with at least one “urban core area” of 10,000 to 50,000 people. North Dakota had the two fastest-growing micro areas, Williston and Dickinson, followed by Bozeman, Montana; Rexburg, Idaho; and Heber, Utah.
Williston, Bozeman, Rexburg and Heber were among the six micro areas whose populations climbed at least 15,000 from 2010 to 2020. Hilo, Hawaii, and Jefferson, Georgia, were the other two micro areas.
City dwellers have found a host of reasons to homestead in smaller towns and suburbs. Many want to leave behind high taxes and crime rates and find quieter neighborhoods and less congestion.
Remote work, however, has become a key factor. More than a third of employers anticipate that 40% or more of their staff will work mostly remotely after the pandemic. That is up from 5% before the global spread of COVID-19, according to a survey by The Conference Board, a business research nonprofit.
The survey found that about a quarter of employers said they were willing to hire fully remote workers in the U.S., and 7% reported they would hire globally. Only 13% said they would refuse to hire remote workers.
States and towns seeking to increase their populations — and their tax bases — are well aware of the shift. In Kansas, the relocation program Choose Topeka offered $10,000 to Mr. Calcutt to buy his home there.
Choose Topeka, which began in late 2019, expanded to include remote workers in August 2020 and has since received more than 500 applications. The program has accepted 19 remote workers from cities such as New York, Chicago and Palo Alto, California, said program spokesman Bob Ross.
“Because the pandemic has allowed people to reassess what they want out of their own lives, it is allowing people to give a place like Topeka a second look,” Mr. Ross said. “In that regard, I’m glad that people are discovering what our city has to offer because they have choices now.
“Topeka over the last 10 years has been intentionally reinvesting in itself and has been working aggressively to transform its image as a regional player,” he said. “We put a lot of money into the community in terms of economic revitalization. … We knew that, back in December of 2019, that we were going to need to compete for talent just to continue to power this type of economic revitalization.”
Mr. Ross said Choose Topeka’s 19 remote workers have an average yearly salary of $80,000 and brought in about $1.5 million to Shawnee County during their first year. Program staffers expect 25% of the workforce to remain remote and plan to evaluate the long-term need to attract remote workers, he said.
Forbes magazine, citing an analysis of applications from LinkedIn, recently reported that several smaller, less-costly metropolitan areas are attracting remote workers. In August, remote work opportunities in the U.S. made up about 30% of all applications to paid job postings on the employment site. That’s triple the rate from a year ago.
About 21% of job applicants nationwide are more likely to reside in cities with fewer than 100,000 people, Forbes said.
Top cities where residents are applying for remote work on LinkedIn are Bend, Oregon; Asheville, North Carolina; Wilmington, Delaware; Johnson City, Tennessee; and Eugene, Oregon.
Other cities that have made the list are Portland, Maine; Roanoke, Virginia; Cape Coral, Florida; Omaha, Nebraska; Louisville, Kentucky; Las Vegas; and Salt Lake City.
The Hawaiian island of Oahu is offering free round-trip tickets to qualified applicants as part of its “Movers and Shakas” relocation initiative. The shaka is the ubiquitous thumb-and-pinkie gesture meaning “aloha” in Hawaii.)
Program director Nicole Lim said the initiative allows remote workers to create professional connections while enjoying the tropical pleasures of Hawaii and contributing to the community. It also tries to bring back Native Hawaiians to reverse the island’s “brain drain,” she said.
Island business and community leaders started Movers and Shakas to attract longer-term, responsible visitors after noticing how the pandemic ravaged the tourism industry, she said.
“We’re really trying to identify needle movers — those who are going to have an exponential impact on Hawaii, whether it’s creating remote jobs or remote internships or potentially moving back home, bringing really strong, senior talent in as well,” Ms. Lim said.
Weon Yuan, a Hawaii native who had been working in upstate New York, permanently moved to Oahu through the program. The IBM software engineer, who can work entirely remotely, said Hawaii’s plan to attract “brain gain” and business beyond tourism resonated with him.
“My job has made it flexible for me to work anywhere, so I didn’t necessarily have to stay in New York,” Mr. Yuan said. “I would rather work in a place where I can enjoy the scenery and environment, especially since I was born and raised in Hawaii. So I have friends and family that I still keep in contact with from the years I was in New York.”
Other places offering relocation incentives include Morgantown, West Virginia; The Shoals, Alabama; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and northwest Arkansas, according to the financial data website NextAdvisor.
Mark Muro, a senior fellow of the metropolitan policy program at the Brookings Institution, said people who move long distances from big cities account for a small portion of the migration shift during the pandemic.
“At the national scale, a relatively small number of workers are moving from the big coastal metropolises to relatively nearby exurban counties, often just outside the immediate metro boundary. We are not seeing massive flows of long-distance migration,” Mr. Muro said.
“Far more moves enabled by remote work entail moving from the city core to the suburbs. This is visiting trauma in downtown business districts and is beginning to drive sprawl — not good,” he said. “The gravest impacts are resulting from urban residents’ migration to the suburbs and, more significantly, avoidance of the office, which reduces downtown lunch, dinner and happy hour sales associated with healthy downtown work.”
Mr. Calcutt said he applied for several jobs in Topeka while living in Bridgeport, Connecticut, but the opportunities were never attractive enough for him to move. The pandemic and the transition to remote work gave him more incentive to move to the Midwest and be close to his wife’s family.
“We would’ve liked to move back this way for her sooner, but it just never worked out from an employment standpoint. I always felt like I had better opportunities in the New York City area,” he said.
“But when we realized we could take the job with us and be out here, we decided to go,” Mr. Calcutt said. “It’s going great. I’m really happy we made this choice, and we’re really happy where we are.”