Spaces   //   September 23, 2022  ■  6 min read

How remote workers are stimulating local economies

Working remotely can be seen as a win for both employers and employees. An employee gets to enjoy their own home, have more time in their day and maybe even travel to work via a remote location or holiday destination. In turn, the employer has access to a larger pool of potential candidates and can cut costs on renting office space. There is a third entity that can benefit too, and that is the community in which a remote worker resides. 

Airbnb released last week a new guide for governments and destinations that outlined recommendations for how communities can benefit economically from the rise of remote working The guide provided an industry-first analysis of global remote work initiatives, called for low-cost and expeditious remote worker visa programs, proposed model tax and financial incentives for remote workers and recommended essential amenities like internet connectivity to support workers. 

It’s clear that there is an opportunity here for local communities.

Before the pandemic, cities and towns had to work to attract entire companies to move their headquarters to their locales. With the rise in remote workers, there’s been a shift and now individuals are targeted instead, which brings in an even more diverse workforce. While Airbnb has teamed up with 20 global destinations to create remote work destinations, there are cities who are working to do this on their own and incentivize folks to stay for a long period of time. 

Tulsa, Oklahoma sees success in their remote worker initiative

One of the most notable is Tulsa’s remote worker incentive program, which gives accepted applicants $10,000 to move to the city, plus free access to a coworking space. The goal of the program is to attract newcomers who can prompt economic growth, further build out the local bench of talent, and provide a jolt to the entrepreneurial ecosystem. 

The conditions include that the individual must be over 18, be able to work in the U.S., stay in Tulsa for 12 months and is a remote worker. The Tulsa Remote program especially targets those who are making around $100,000 a year and are in industries that Tulsa is not yet known for like tech. Since its launch in 2018, the program has welcomed 2,000 people to Oklahoma. 

“Oftentimes we see cities or states that are working hard, paying big incentives to attract a company that brings hundreds of jobs with them,” said Justin Harlan, managing director of Tulsa Remote. “The approach we’re taking is much different in the sense that we are trying to sell to an individual that we know has so much more power to decide where they are doing work by prioritizing quality of life over the geographical presence a job might require of them.”

And beyond anecdotal evidence of the power of bringing remote workers to a new community, a study from the Economic Innovation Group really set in stone what a difference remote workers can make. Although it is only mandated for an individual to stay in Tulsa for a year, 88% stay longer. Daniel Newman, a research and policy analyst at the Economic Innovation Group, said if remote worker incentive programs are going to succeed, that percentage has to be in that high range.

“We didn’t place this bet thinking that people would come for a year and then leave,” said Harlan. “We placed this bet knowing that the $10,000 is well worth that initial investment because when people come to Tulsa and see it for themselves, we see very high retention rates.”

After someone’s application is approved, which is on a rolling deadline and then takes a couple of weeks for a response, they have up to a year to make the move. Tulsa Remote first offers $500 for a trip to visit the city. Harlan said this year so far around 2,000 people have been accepted to the program and around 800 to 900 made the move. 

Once accepted, the $10,000 is split up with $3,000 up front, $500 monthly increments, and then $1,000 at the end for the final payment. However, if you purchase a home, members can get a lump sum to help with those costs. 

“It’ll be interesting to see what share of new participants go that route and use that as the big push to go buy a house in Tulsa,” said Newman. “That would lead to a longer commitment there.”

The whole objective is to find folks who are well into their career, are looking for a change of pace and most importantly want to get involved in the community. “It’s about getting plugged in, helping Tulsa be a better place, and really leaving a lasting impact,” said Harlan.

The numbers don’t lie

The Economic Innovation Group study, which was published last November, found that Tulsa Remote would add $62 million in new local earnings in 2021. That means last year there was an estimated $13.77 boost in new local labor income for every $1 spent toward relocating a remote worker. By 2025 it’s expected that the program will add $500 million in new local earnings and support upwards of 5,000 jobs. 

“Tulsa had difficulty retaining and attracting highly educated workers,” said Newman. “There’s a lot of out migration among people with a public four-year college degree and there is no four-year university in Tulsa. There isn’t this basic economic infrastructure to look and support those workers.”

The Economic Innovation Group found that the median age of Tulsa Remote workers is 35 and 88% have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher. That brings new people into a community that has recorded a net loss of working-age college graduates every year since 2014 and has seen its share of employment in the high-wage professional and business services and information sectors decline over the last 15 years. 

Nearly half of Tulsa Remote members are employed in the professional services or information industries and 37% have considered starting a business in the near future.

“If you can create a critical mass of those workers, then they can help build on networks and then work off each other and help sustain a prolonged growth of that sector,” said Newman. “It’s kind of the chicken and the egg problem. If you don’t have them to begin with, how do you get them and if you don’t have them, why would they come? This is trying to work around that. This won’t naturally happen here without this program.”

What about the return to office?

Although the return to office is making its way back, Harlan said he’s not concerned and doesn’t see an end date in sight for Tulsa Remote. 

“I think we’re going to see more people choosing place over job, and places like Tulsa are going to benefit from that,” said Harlan. “There have been folks whose employers required them to go back to the office and they said they like Tulsa more than wherever the office is.”

In those situations, Tulsa Remote can help individuals either find another remote job or potentially a full-time job in the city. 

Harlan said he’s also seen a fair share of digital nomads apply to the program and use it as an opportunity to live there and call Tulsa their home base while traveling for long weekends or extended periods of time. While these nomads are not their specific target, there is still space for them within the program.

“We’re bringing in really great people that are contributing in meaningful ways to the city beyond the economic impact,” said Harlan. “We can see in real time human beings making a difference.”