What Small Towns and Cities Need To Attract and Retain Remote Workers

According to remote CEOs, consultants, and other small towns


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Today: We’re talking about small towns and the opportunity before them to capture a lot of city folks who, for the first time in their careers, are remote workers. 

With recent major company announcements about remote work, tens of thousands of employees previously tied to an urban downtown are being given a choice. The romantic notion of a white picket fence, some land, and a 4,000 square-foot home for the same price as your downtown studio apartment is becoming a very real possibility. 

But what would it really take to make city-dwelling remote workers move to smaller towns? 

I posted this question out to my network, both social media and personal, and asked a few all-remote companies for their answer to a simple question: What can small towns / small town governments do to attract remote workers?

The answers were fascinating, and a study for anyone making policy decisions.

Here are the sections:

  • The essential start

  • Action and policy items

  • Crafting a marketing strategy to attract remote workers

  • Towns and cities to take inspiration from

  • Other examples of programs in the works

  • Remote transformation consultants

  • Further reading

Let’s get started, shall we?

The essential: Internet

For remote workers to leave their comfortable city enclaves - tight as they may be but with lightning fast wifi on every corner - internet in small towns needs to be: 

  • Reliable. 

  • Fast (10-25+ mbps).

  • Unlimited (not throttled). 

  • Not a monopoly (which often leads to slower service at a higher cost). 

This list might read like a privileged city person not understanding how small towns work, but there’s a very practical need here. As more types of work become remote and as more people work remotely, two things happen:

  1. More video meetings. 

  2. More complex technical jobs are being done remotely. 

Both of these things mean internet usage is skyrocketing, and remote workers simply cannot do their jobs without fast, reliable, unlimited internet. 

I’d be grateful if you shared this post with any government workers you know that are passionate about making their towns succeed


Action and policy items 

A lot of attracting remote workers from cities is understanding how city infrastructure supports entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, and remote workers. New shifts in how we organize ourselves means that there are many opportunities for small towns to win.

Cold hard cash

Moving, even for well-paid remote workers, is expensive. This is particularly true when leaving the city to take on a property in the country, buying a car for the first time, and handling property maintenance (not condo maintenance) for the first time.

The easiest way to quell this fear is to help pick up the tab. In specific, looking at: 

  • Grants from local governments to encourage entrepreneurship / encourage entrepreneurs to relocate their businesses. 

  • A living or moving stipend to ease the initial transition. 

  • Rebating the cost of property to lower the barriers to entry for a remote worker to buy a home (potential here to tie further rebates to restoring dilapidated / abandoned / historic homes in the area).

  • Student loan repayment grants when you relocate / stay.

  • Other tax rebates to incentivize moving and staying. 

The key with these incentives is that they have to be connected to staying and living in the town, not just putting some money down for the sake of a rebate.

There is a direct cost to these programs, but the ROI comes in the form of well-paid workers buying property, food, buying from local businesses, and paying local taxes, among other cultural and financial benefits of a growing population in small towns.

Transit and mobility

One thing cities have over small towns is walkability to amenities and transit (even if it’s just a few busses). While people understand that small towns will require a vehicle to get around, not everyone wants to leave a walkable city to become car-dependent in the country. 

Here’s what small towns can work on to address the unique transit challenges of remote workers: 

  • Easy and / or subsidized transit to airports or train stations. 

  • Transit of some sort that would let people come downtown to bars or events at night and safely get home.

  • Reliable grocery options / potential for delivery that isn’t only based in major supermarkets (partner with local entrepreneurs where possible). 

Since many remote workers will likely travel for work or head into a city office every now and again, these kinds of transit relationships are critical. 

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The family tree

If you’re looking to attract young families, here’s what you need to consider: 

High quality childcare programs. Remote workers might often work from home, but that doesn’t mean they want kids home all day, too. 

Programs for youth that encourage creativity and entrepreneurship. Leaving the city often means leaving epicentres of culture, museums, and other creative programs. Small towns don’t need to replicate all of this, but need to provide some. 

Noise laws could also be a draw for remote workers at home or families that want quiet evenings. 

“[T]he best way to attract remote workers is to make sure it’s a place people want to live and raise their families.” - Greg Gershman, Ad Hoc CEO and Co-Founder

Remote, but not alone

Despite working from home, remote workers may still want to check into an office feel, be in the downtown area, or even take meetings in person on occasion. With that in mind, towns need to support the physical infrastructure of remote work.

Reimagine physical spaces such as libraries and community centres to become coworking spaces. 

Set up local innovation hubs so that remote entrepreneurs can get the same vibes they’d get in a city and be surrounded by budding entrepreneurship.

Encourage local cafes and restaurants to open their doors to remote workers where feasible (in particular, helping them get wifi set up if they don’t have it already).  

Crafting a marketing strategy to attract remote workers

When remote workers make the decision to leave the city, they are able to move to a wide variety of places. Marketing what you have already (and how it fits their lifestyle desires) will help you win. 

Inclusiveness and friendliness 

Many people are concerned about discrimination in small towns. Whether that’s true or not of your town, it’s a reality that will keep a remote worker from moving if they fear for their safety or fear social ostracization. 

Further, city dwellers moving to small towns still want to experience the vibrancy of local culture. It doesn’t need to match the city, and in fact probably shouldn’t. Instead, market what’s already present in your town: 

  • Inclusiveness, open-mindedness, and a reputation for friendliness.

  • Local community lore, stories, art, festivals, events, and traditions that newcomers are welcome in. 

  • The town’s history and growth stories. 

Walking after (and before) midnight

Beyond feeling safe, remote workers will need to create their own social infrastructure, since they don’t have anything built-in from an office. To attract these remote workers, highlight the different social, friend-building, and mingling opportunities in your town: 

  • Local clubs, sports, and entertainment. 

  • “Watering holes” like cafes, galleries, and community centres. 

  • Street festivals or events where newcomers can meet locals. 

  • Walkable downtowns where you could run into and meet new people.

  • Niche-interest things that apply to your town: eco-friendly features, specific history of your region, or unique cultural events (like a renaissance fair).

Wide open spaces

What small towns provide that city life never quite can is nature, space, and local habitat. Market whatever you have as loudly as you can: 

  • Beach / water. 

  • Rolling hills. 

  • Mountains. 

  • Forests. 

  • Trails / hike-ability. 

  • Natural history / monuments.

A big part of this won’t just be that it’s there, but that it’s accessible. So be sure to talk not only about proximity to downtown or living areas, but also capacity and privacy (for example: small town beaches are far less likely to be packed than a beach in the city).

Extended family and community

Remote workers might be individuals or single families, but they have extended families to think about, too. Plus, if you’re looking to draw someone for the long-term, you need to think about every phase of life: 

  • Good schools. 

  • Good restaurants (particularly locally-run, non-chain restaurants). 

  • Good healthcare. 

  • Retirement homes. 

  • Independently-run shops for essentials (not only big-box or chain). 

Small towns won’t be able to match the quantity of what’s available in a city, but that’s fine. It’s more about having some uniqueness while providing the essentials.

Money, money, money

While stipends and cash are great to get on people’s radars, the reality is that if someone’s making a long-term living decision they want to know about long-term costs. You should be as transparent as possible about: 

  • Average housing / rent prices / affordable housing options. 

  • Average food prices (if they are significantly different than the city).

  • Property and other local taxes. 

  • General costs of living in your town.

From a marketing perspective, an easy way to do this would be to create persona-based lifestyle expenses. For instance, a single remote worker renting a small house, versus a young family in a big home, versus middle-aged empty-nesters in an apartment. Show what the estimated total cost of living would be (minus any incentives provided), so people can assess the whole cost for themselves.

Towns and cities to take inspiration from 

Places in the US and Europe have already realized the power of attracting remote workers and small businesses. With COVID and the push to remote work, many programs initially focused on getting small businesses to relocate have now been expanded to focus on remote workers.

e-Estonia (Estonia)

One of the first to jump on the remote work train, Estonia advertises its incredible “digital society” including broadband access and affordable housing. The small European country also now offers remote worker visas, making immigration easy.

More info: https://e-estonia.com/

TulsaRemote (Tulsa, Oklahoma)

Tulsa, Oklahoma is offering $10,000 cash (part when you move, part stipend, and the rest after your first year), desk space in its downtown core, and a community of remote workers so you’re not alone when you move.

More info: https://tulsaremote.com/

RemoteShoals (Shoals, Alabama)

Shoals, Alabama, is a town of 14,000 people. However, its RemoteShoals program, which offers a $10,000 grant to remote workers who relocate to the town, heavily advertises that it’s within a 2 hour drive of: Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, and Birmingham. Leaning on its low cost of living, the program also advertises the unique culture, beach access, and welcoming community of “The Shoals.” 

More info: https://remoteshoals.com/

Other examples of programs in the works

Not every city has splashy websites like e-Estonia, Tulsa, or Shoals, but many cities and towns are offering different incentives to attract remote workers around the world: 

  • The remote village of Antikythera, Greece is offering a monthly stipend to encourage people to move there. 

  • Galway, Ireland, built an innovation hub called Portershed that encourages remote workers and businesses to settle in the city across the country from Dublin.

  • The state of Vermont had a remote worker grant program, though the funds are now completely dolled out (as of writing).

  • Savannah, Georgia, offers a $2,000 relocation incentive for remote workers and various other financial incentives for businesses to relocate to the region.

  • The town of Udaipur, India, is getting a new makeover for remote workers including a local innovation hub, an initiative led by consultant Bhagyashree Pancholy.

Remote transformation consultants

Looking to learn more about the ins and outs of making your small town more remote-friendly? These consultants already work with businesses and governments around the world:

Further reading on this trend

Want to learn more? Here are three articles worth skimming: 

Cities offer cash as they compete for new residents amid remote work boom by Jared Lindzon.

Paying Remote Workers to Relocate Gets a Pandemic-Era Boost by Sarah Holder.

Analysis of the TulsaRemote experiment (from Feb 2020) in Bloomberg.

bird's eye view of body of water near mountain

Photo via Rod Long on Unsplash.