For many Americans, getting back to normal means returning to the office. But as the pandemic drags on, some employers (and employees) have discovered that the office is not as essential as it once was. With a laptop and high-speed internet connection, many desk jobs can be done just about anywhere.
A May Gallup poll of remote workers found that half of respondents would prefer to continue to work remotely indefinitely. Some cited ongoing health concerns, but many just like the flexibility and comfort of working from home.
Some major national employers have announced that they are in no hurry to get workers back in the office amid the pandemic. The Washington Post reports Google will not bring its 200,000 employees back until July 2021. Some employees may find that temporary remote arrangements become permanent. Employers could reap savings by downsizing their companies’ physical space. Why pay for an office full of empty cubicles?
While we would argue that a shared workplace better facilitates collaboration and teambuilding, remote work has a lot going for it. Remote workers save on transportation costs and time, reducing commuter traffic, wear and tear on roads and carbon emissions. They save money on work wardrobes and lunches out. And, assuming they can effectively separate their personal and professional lives when both are happening in the same space, remote workers may be able to achieve a better work-life balance.
No longer tethered to the office, remote workers may consider relocating from metropolitan areas to more rural — and affordable — corners of the country. That potential mass migration could be a boon for Maine, which faces the prospect of an aging and shrinking workforce. According to the Portland Press Herald, economists predict that Maine will face a shortage of more than 100,000 workers by 2032 because of baby boomers retiring and the state’s low birth rate.
An influx of working families could help revive Maine small towns and bolster tax rolls and school enrollment. The state’s natural beauty, open spaces and low number of COVID-19 cases have already prompted some out-of-staters to purchase year-round or seasonal residences in the state.
Already well-positioned to attract remote workers, Maine should aggressively market itself to potential new residents and prioritize initiatives that will make the state more appealing. First and foremost is expanding broadband access throughout the state. Increasing child care options, repairing roads and other critical infrastructure, and adopting zoning that encourages and protects the type of neighborhoods that people want to live in are also key.
For college graduates, Maine offers another incentive in the form of the Educational Opportunity Tax Credit. Eligible workers can deduct student loan payments from their state income tax bill. The program helps Mainers alleviate the burden of student loans and can be a powerful recruiting tool for businesses. It could also help entice younger remote workers to build their careers and lives in Maine.
With enormous financial hurdles presented by the novel coronavirus ahead, Maine cannot afford to miss this opportunity to strengthen its workforce and economy.