Like I Was Saying

The Cost of Telecommuters

I think it’s fair to point out that someone working for a startup in Seattle while living in Montana is one of the main contributors to this cost-of-living imbalance

By Kellyn Brown

Last month, General Motors sparked backlash among employees after its senior leadership team announced it would require corporate workers to return to its brick-and-mortar locations at least three days a week. Predictably, the American carmaker soon walked back details in the plan. 

“Our plan was always, and still is, to collaboratively design the solution that best balances the needs of the enterprise with the needs of each of you,” the company’s CEO wrote in an internal memo obtained by CNBC. 

Thus, another American company told its employees they need to return to the office only to change its mind after those employees opposed the move. GM now says some remote work will be phased out, but not before the first quarter of next year. We’ll see. 

Until the labor market loosens up a bit, employers have little leverage to reverse a trend that many job applicants now demand and which has had unintended consequences in communities across the country where the jobs paid less but the cost of living was once more affordable. Places like the Flathead Valley before COVID-19.

Between 2019 and 2021, the number of Americans working remotely tripled, according to a recent survey published by the U.S. Census Bureau, rising from 5.7% to 17.9%. And while the steepest increases were clustered in states like Washington and California with large tech sectors, the share of people working from home in Montana more than doubled, from 6.5% to 14%.

Since most Montana-made jobs cannot be performed from the comfort of one’s home, it’s easy to assume that a large portion of the statewide increase of telecommuters can be attributed to recently arrived transplants. Along with flexible jobs, they brought with them fatter paychecks and drove up real estate prices.

Other regions, especially those in the Mountain West, were also impacted by the millions of employees in this newly mobile workforce able to punch a clock by logging on to the internet. 

This is America, anyone should be able to live in any state they wish. But I think it’s fair to point out that someone working for a startup in Seattle while living in Montana is one of the main contributors to this cost-of-living imbalance. I also think it’s OK to root for them to be called back to work where their salaries more closely reflect the actual cost of living in these respective metropolitans. 

The question now is whether that will happen. Some companies, such as Etsy, have already shifted to a fully remote model and are not going back. After employees in San Francisco said they had no intention of returning to the office there, it was put up for sale. 

Other companies, like GM, are indicating full-time telecommuting is about to end. More management teams want more people back at work even as employees still feel empowered enough to resist. For now. As some of the largest companies in the U.S. (especially in tech) begin laying off employees, and as analysts warn of a potential economic downturn, that may be changing. 

Tesla’s Elon Musk has already declared the end of remote work, although the policy is still being implemented. Other companies say they will soon follow. 

With any luck, the great migration has begun reversing. Or at least waning a bit. 

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