RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — One of the key trends in the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic was the push to work anywhere but in the office.
Three years later, and a website now ranks Raleigh among the nation’s best places to do that.
But now that the COVID national emergency is over and federal data indicating more bosses are calling their workers back to the office, does that even mean anything anymore?
THE CLAIM: The website formerly known as Rent.com puts Raleigh in the top 10 on its list of the best cities for remote work.
THE FACTS: The site evaluated the 100 largest cities in the U.S. using three broad criteria:
— Average internet speed and access (40 percent).
— The percent of the population that works from home, along with the number of co-working spaces (30 percent).
— Median rent price (30 percent).
“We looked at the rent prices, because that’s kind of what we do,” said Jon Leckie, a research analyst for the website. “And then we thought about, well, what do you need, really, to work remotely? And so a big thing of that was sort of internet speed and accessibility.”
Leckie says Raleigh scored high for its comparatively low rent prices, with a listed median rent of $1,613, and for the availability of high-speed internet at a relatively low cost. The study says the average internet speed is nearly 120 Mbps.
It also says about a third of the workforce does so outside the office.
The point of the study, Leckie said, is to point out potential places for people who already have secure remote jobs and are looking to relocate.
“If you’re looking to move and you’re looking to rent, I think that that’s probably our main target audience,” he said.
But the key issue is this: Is it coming too late? Is the work-from-home boom over?
Numbers from the Labor Department indicate the share of remote workers has mostly returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Nearly three-quarters of businesses said their employees rarely or never worked remotely in 2022, up from 60 percent in 2021 and approaching the rate of nearly 77 percent that preceded the pandemic, the Labor Department said.
The agency also says the percent of workplaces with some — but not all — of teleworking employees in August and September 2022 was 16.4 percent — or, roughly half of the 29.8 percent that did it in approximately the same time frame a year earlier.
“There’s still a large proportion of people who are untethered from the office and who may be looking to move,” Leckie said.
Two local economists and labor experts agree.
“I think remote working is here to stay — not for a majority of workers, but for a significant, much more significant percentage of workers than pre-pandemic,” said Mike Walden, an economist and professor emeritus at North Carolina State University.
John Quinterno, a professor of the practice at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, says the “dynamic has changed since the pandemic.
“Certain industries are more conducive to it, and I think in those industries you’re seeing resistance to moving back to a full, five-day-a-week in a downtown office location,” he said.
It works in Raleigh’s favor that a growing chunk of its work force is employed in those industries — think tech, finance and sales.
“I think our industrial structure is more exposed to some of these industries, and it’s not surprising that we have a lot of folks there,” Quinterno said. “And then, for folks in other areas, if they have that flexibility, this is an appealing place to live.”
As attractive as Raleigh might be to remote workers, Walden says it could ultimately have an even bigger benefit for the state’s rural areas.
“If you look at North Carolina, I think it’s well known we have this massive urban-rural divide where a lot of the good jobs have gone to urban areas,” he said. “The rural areas have lost a lot of manufacturing, et cetera — textiles, for example. And if you have an increase in people who are working remotely, where they may say, ‘Hey, I want to move to Kinston, Goldsboro,’ just to pick two examples.
“‘I’ve got to go into the office maybe once a week, but that drive’s not that bad,’” he added. “They can get lower-cost housing, they can get more elbow room. That could be a lifestyle that really helps revive those areas.”