Executive outlook: Revising geographic strategies for U.S. workforce management
Look at the past and present state of workers to map out the future.
For more than a century, workers went where the jobs were. Geography has been a major factor when we think of how to make a living. This pull to geographic locations and the corresponding promise of prosperity has been a defining feature in our history.
High-risk money-making opportunities were all it took to spur mass migrations to far-flung locations.
A chance for prosperity was a key attraction for immigrants who landed in America in the late 1700s, at the dawn of the industrial revolution. This and other mass migrations continued more than 100 years. Thousands of Americans followed the Oregon Trail, took part in the California Gold Rush and moved to the Midwest following the Civil War. The list goes on.
Eventually, companies migrated toward the talent.
Into the 1900s, however, these mass movements tapered. Another trend emerged: In the 1980s, ‘90s and ‘00s, businesses gravitated to a handful of geographic areas around the country boasting deep pools of talent.
Companies in sectors such as medicine, technology, entertainment and others grew in Boston, Silicon Valley, San Francisco, LA, Seattle, Denver and elsewhere. Second tier cities strove to attract similar businesses with the hope of attracting a cluster—a geographic concentration(s) of interconnected companies and institutions in a particular field.
Technology enables workers to become untethered
In the 2000s, economic opportunities evolved to be far less grounded in geography, thanks to high-speed internet. Mindsets about the importance of geographic proximity evolved as well, albeit more on the side of workers. In response, leaders have a heightened interest in hiring the best talent, even if it means the person resides outside of a certain zip code.
It’s a good thing because millions of workers are aggressively seeking work arrangements offering flexibility and control over work-life-balance.
The sheer number of freelancers alone tells the story: In 2017, roughly 57.3 million people in the U.S. called themselves freelancers, an 8.1 percent increase over 2014, according to an article in Forbes. That adds up to 36 percent of the U.S. workforce freelancing in the course of a year.
“The digital economy allows individuals to reach the global market,” said work futurist and economic historian Louis Hyman. A third of workers are making part or all of their income in the alternative work world, according to Hyman.
“But it will require a new mindset,” he says. “Instead of fighting flexibility, we need to understand how to use it to empower workers to take advantage of this revolution.”
It’s simple: break away from a geographic-oriented approach
Not everyone wants to or should live in a large city or metro area. (Even millennials are starting to leave cities for suburbia or rural communities.)
Breaking past geographic boundaries and embracing flexibility is fundamental to attracting and maintaining a workforce. Organizations simply stand to compete better for scarce talent.
“Expanding the search beyond office geography can bring in quality candidates that otherwise would have been overlooked,” said Anthony Smith, CEO of Insightly. He wrote a column for CMS Wire:
“If the best engineer for the job lives in Boston [editor’s note: Or Middleton, WI] but the company headquarters is in San Francisco, the solution shouldn’t be hiring a local candidate who won’t be able to do the job as well. Most business owners would agree that the job should go to the most qualified person.”
You get the best candidates by casting the widest net and making your job attractive, as talented workers have a multitude of possibilities. Adding telecommute as an option makes a job more attractive to a wide swath of candidates.
For instance, almost 30 percent of workers surveyed said they would take a wage cut in order to telecommute, according to an article by HR Drive. Additional insights about remote work arrangements from HR Drive include:
- 80 percent of respondents said telecommuting all the time is the most in-demand type of flexible work arrangement, followed by flexible schedules (71 percent).
- 61 percent of workers say they have left or have considered leaving a job that lacked flexibility options
- More than 75 percent said they would be more loyal to their organization if it offered flexible work options.
- 65 percent think they would be more productive working remotely than at the office.
And if you enjoyed those stats, take a look at the demographics behind those voicing preferences for remote work:
- 3.9 million U.S. employees, or 2.9 percent of the total U.S. workforce, work from home at least half of the time, up from 1.8 million in 2005 (up 115 percent increase since 2005).
- The average telecommuter is 46 years of age or older, has at least a bachelor’s degree, and earns a higher median salary than an in-office worker.
- Roughly the same population of women and men telecommute.
- Telecommuting is more common among employees over 35 years of age and most common among Baby Boomers.
- In more than half of the top U.S. metro areas telecommuting exceeds public transportation as the commute option of choice. It has grown far faster than any other commute mode.
(Source: FlexJobs 2017 State of Telecommuting)
“People across generations and various demographics, such as working parents, freelancers, introverts, those managing chronic illnesses, caretakers, and many more, may have different reasons for why they’re more productive telecommuting, but the bottom line is workers across the board say they get more work done from their home office,” said FlexJobs’ founder and CEO Sara Sutton.
So, what does the future geography of work look like?
When you look at a U.S. map, you can probably envision different hubs radiating from the large, bustling cities. While the list of reasons for these cities to exist and remain just as lively is long, “work opportunity” is going to fall lower and lower.
Mapping out physical locations where work takes place may ultimately become obsolete—better to look for a map of phone towers or areas with WiFi as your best bet.