The two just no longer live in a house with a small yard in Brookhaven. Instead, they are in another time zone. They bought a bigger house on five acres outside Nashville. They each have an office in their Middle Tennessee home. They’re closer to his parents. And their two English Setters have room to run.
When she looks out her backdoor, all Weddington sees is green space. “It’s a sense of relief: We are not crazy,” she said. “We can do this.”
For many Americans, the pandemic redefined jobs and workplaces. Shuttered offices and relaxed work-from-home policies meant not having to make daily commutes.
For some, the new flexibility cleared the way for really remote, remote work. They kept their jobs but moved to another part of the United States or stayed put after landing a new job that traditionally was based elsewhere. Many expect it to last long after the pandemic.
While long-distance working existed before the coronavirus, companies have become increasingly open to more employees living far from where their jobs would traditionally be based. The shift poses new benefits — and challenges — for job seekers, employers and, potentially, communities such as metro Atlanta where office-based work is a big part of the economy.
People looking for jobs could dramatically increase the number of positions they pursue without having to factor in cost-of-living changes, pulling kids out of school or being farther away from family and friends. But they also could be competing with more people from virtually anywhere.
Work-from-home job postings increased 199% nationally for the 12 months ending in March compared with the same period a year earlier at CareerBuilder, a job listings and recruitment company.
At another jobs site, Indeed, the number of U.S. job postings mentioning “remote work” and related terms has doubled during the pandemic. The share of those postings grew even as more people returned to offices in recent months.
“The rise of remote work has been one of the most dramatic effects of the pandemic — and might be one of its most long-lasting,” Jed Kolko, the company’s chief economist, wrote in blog earlier this year.
Offices likely aren’t going away and most jobs still don’t offer long-distance flexibility.
A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey in January found nearly 30% of office employees want to work remotely five days a week after COVID-19 is no longer a concern. But the majority surveyed wanted to spend some time at the office each week. And most employers surveyed think they need to.
About 7% of Indeed’s U.S. postings were remote this past February, versus about 3% in January of 2020.
The spike varied by category. About 22% of software development job postings were listed as remote last year compared with nearly 9% in 2019, according to Indeed. For legal jobs, the share grew from nearly 5% to about 16%, banking and finance increased from less than 4% to over 15%, and therapy rose from just over 1% to more than 6%.
The year before the pandemic, Nikki Forman landed a communications job with a nonprofit based in Washington D.C. and asked about remote working from Atlanta, a city she had grown to love. She was told it made more sense for her to be in the office, where she could connect with other staff.
That all changed once the coronavirus swept the nation. The nonprofit sent people to work from home.
Forman left her expensive apartment in Southwest D.C. and her regular walks to monuments along The Mall. She holed up at her parents’ home in Columbus, Ga., working from the family’s kitchen table, backyard and the bedroom where her sister had grown up.
“What that community offered me was the family feeling, the comfort of being home,” she said.
“I started saying ‘ya’ll’ again,” she added.
Late last year, Forman started a new job as an Amazon public relations manager. She was allowed flexibility in where she wanted to live, as long as it was on the East Coast. She advocated for Atlanta and now lives in the Atlantic Station area.
The potential for more people to choose remote work raises broader questions for Atlanta’s economy.
Many of the jobs with remote working options traditionally took place in office buildings and corporate parks, something metro Atlanta has in abundance. In addition to regional outposts of some of the nation’s biggest companies and smaller employers, Georgia holds the headquarters of nearly 20 Fortune 500 businesses, all credited with helping to feed the local economy, tax base and image.
If some employers can pull more workers from all over the nation, will they be more or less likely to base their operations in metro Atlanta? And will Georgia be a magnet for more or fewer workers than before?
Midtown Atlanta snagged numerous corporate research and development operations thanks largely to proximity to Georgia Tech, with its pool of tech students, researchers and alumni. More recently, Atlanta has drawn major jobs announcements from Airbnb and Microsoft, companies hoping to recruit from the city’s pool of Black tech workers.
Georgia Tech Professor Patricia Mokhtarian, who studies the impact of telecom technology on travel behavior, suspects distant working will remain a relatively small part of the jobs picture. While she doesn’t know of any study into its potential ramifications for specific metro areas, she predicts Atlanta will remain attractive because of such advantages as relatively affordable housing and a decent climate, plus the benefits of people and businesses clustering together.
Cathrine Andersen didn’t want to move to metro Atlanta when Buckhead-based business payments company Fleetcor Technologies began talks last fall to buy the small tech company she co-founded and operated with remote employees around the world.
She and her husband were living in San Francisco, but had been planning to move to Austin in Texas, enticed by lower living expenses, more options for outdoor activities, the promise of somewhat fewer tech people and closer proximity to family.
Fleetcor wanted her to keep running things after the acquisition, which in the past would have required a move to Atlanta, where she didn’t know anyone. But the company agreed for her to live where she wanted.
Now, she’s a Fleetcor product development executive and lives near Austin’s famous Barton Springs Pool, which she often walks to for a swim.
None of the 55 people from her original company made the move to Atlanta, Andersen said. “This is the new world. This is how work is now.”
In the past, Fleetcor would never have considered having new hires remain far from company offices, said Crystal Williams, the chief human resources officer.
But the increased flexibility will help the company’s IT department recruit workers from beyond tight job markets such as Atlanta and Nashville, she said. “We are actively looking in markets we would never have searched before for IT talent.”
There are complications to work through, she said. How will they avoid isolation among distant employees, instill corporate culture and encourage strong collaboration?
“We do not have all the answers,” Williams said.
Plenty of employers have been evaluating which of their positions need workers on site full-time, which could best fit under a hybrid model and which allow for almost never setting foot in the office.
Williams doesn’t think many of the company’s existing employees will move far away soon, in part because of the complexity it would add to their own lives. But some are already asking.
Other companies with locally based operations are making similar moves.
Oversight, which helps companies analyze spending transactions and has about 135 local employees, has changed its hiring strategy to recruit more outside metro Atlanta for almost every role, Chief People Officer Jill Sutton wrote. “Oversight’s Return to Office Policy is really, ‘do your best work, where you work best’.”
At Purchasing Power, Chief People Officer Racquel Roberts is glad to be able to hire from beyond people already in Atlanta or willing to migrate here for a job with the provider of purchasing programs through payroll deductions.
That’s a big deal for smaller companies with less recognizable brands, she said. “More employees are going to be looking for companies where they can work 100% remote.”
Credit: JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Credit: JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Weddington, who moved with her husband from Brookhaven to Nashville’s suburbs, said a shift to Tennessee had been the long-term plan. She just thought it would have come much later and required her to quit her current job and find a new one.
But her employer’s thinking seemed to have shifted during the pandemic. So did hers.
On a long stay with family in East Tennessee following the death of her mother and the beginning of the pandemic shutdowns, she and her husband enjoyed peaceful walks in an orchard and fields. They were sold.
“We are planning on being here for the long haul,” she said.