Two women get some sun in Madrid while working from laptops in April. Photo by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images
Workplace Culture

More remote work could send techies out of tech hubs … to a point

Meghan McCarty Carino May 18, 2020
Two women get some sun in Madrid while working from laptops in April. Photo by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

About a fifth of companies in the San Francisco Bay Area are following Twitter’s lead and planning to keep their workforces at home even after stay-at-home orders are lifted, according to a Bay Area Council survey of CEOs. The tech industry’s embrace of remote work during the pandemic raises a question: If everyone is working from home, does that home still need to be in a super-expensive tech hub?

Andrew Edelman has worked his way up in the technology world as a product manager and strategist at companies from Charlotte, North Caroline, to Chicago and now Silicon Valley. 

“From a tech standpoint, this is the place to be,” he said. “But I’ve got four kids and I’ve got a really tiny house.”

He’s now the head of strategic alliances at the workflow automation software company Zapier, which, as a way of retaining employees, offers a $10,000 bonus to move out of the expensive Bay Area. So Edelman is taking the offer and moving his family to Austin, Texas.

“We’re moving from about 1,400 square feet in the Bay Area to almost 3,000 square feet in Texas. And it’s 33% cheaper,” he said.

With Silicon Valley’s iconic campuses, volleyball courts and meditation rooms emptied out for the foreseeable future, the prospect of leaving town for more affordable cities could be gaining appeal.

“It’s going to be really interesting to me to think about what the landscape of the U.S. will look like when people start thinking about another city to live in,” said Aaron Bolzle, executive director of Tulsa Remote, a program funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation to recruit and pay remote workers $10,000 to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma. He’s seen a surge in new applications since the pandemic began.

“There is a certain amount of risk associated with making such a huge shift,” Bolzle said. “With the pandemic, that burden of taking that risk has been removed,” because with so many people working from their dining rooms, it doesn’t matter what city they’re in.

But while many tech jobs are remote-ready, and have been for a while, the industry has clung to the importance of place, said Margaret O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington and author of “The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.”

“There’s this notion that our innovative magic depends on everyone being at the Googleplex, or being at Facebook HQ, or Amazon HQ, so that people can have those accidental serendipitous encounters,” she said.

That logic applies not just within a company but in an entire region. It’s the appeal of agglomeration — tech workers want to be around other tech workers, and they tend to be more innovative when they are.

“That is a pattern that is deeply, deeply rooted. And one pandemic is not going to end that,” O’Mara said.

Which is part of why Edelman chose to decamp to Austin, home to thousands of employees of Apple, Google and Facebook.

“We would have loved to move to somewhere like Wyoming or Kauai,” he said. “But at the same time, staying plugged into the tech scene was really important.”

Which suggests cities that want to attract remote techies, from Topeka to Tulsa, might have a hard time competing against places that already have a lot of them.

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