Work / Life

With Remote Work, How Necessary Is City Living?

a red isolated house sitting on a hill

The coronavirus pandemic, the subsequent transition to telework, and sky-high costs of city living have led some young American professionals to depart from major metropolitan hubs for America’s rural and suburban communities. Businesses are rethinking the necessity of the office.

Christopher Ingraham, a data reporter originally from upstate New York, found himself in a similar position–albeit several years ago. In 2015, Ingraham was based in Washington, D.C. He penned an article at the Washington Post ranking the least and most desirable counties to live in the U.S., based on data from the USDA’s natural amenities index. 

A contentious list like that is bound to get some people going. But it was the choice to label Red Lake County, Minnesota “the absolute worst place to live in America” that drew ire.

Residents of the Minnesota prairie community insisted Ingraham come and see what their slice of Americana had to offer. After visiting later that year, Ingraham loved it. He fell for it so much that he and his wife decided to move there, relocating their three kids from the suburbs of Baltimore to a house in Red Lake Falls, Minnesota, and opting to telework instead of commuting to an office near Capitol Hill.

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They haven’t looked back since. Ingraham recounted his story in his 2019 memoir If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now: Why We Traded the Commuting Life for a Little House on the Prairie.

I spoke with Ingraham about telework, what others mulling over the move from city to small town should consider first, and why he believes telework is the future for America’s white collar workforce.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

On the subjectivity of objective data

Dalvin Aboagye: How do you go about quantifying aspects of life (happiness, quality of an area) that can be pretty subjective?

Christopher Ingraham: The most fun stories to work on are the ones that quantify really weird things that you would think couldn’t be quantified, like natural beauty, for instance, which is what ended up with me in Minnesota. But those kinds of stories are a lot of fun–just learning about different ways you can measure things. There’s a lot of talk about data journalism and how complicated it is, but a lot of the time the most interesting and important stuff comes from just counting stuff that other people haven’t counted before. 

DA: That same perspective went into USDA data used for the original ranking of the best places to live, right? It all boiled down to figuring out what aspects of an area some viewed more favorably than others.

CI: That’s the heart of it, right? You sit down and decide, “Okay, how do we measure beauty?” These economists at the USDA were doing it. They were trying to shed more light on rural migration patterns. People from small towns were moving out of small towns to cities because of jobs. But that rate of movement was different for different areas of the country, and they were trying to put a finger on other factors that might affect that.

They were trying to capture those physical dimensions of places–how nice it is there–that we know are a factor when they’re moving. Of course, that involves some subjective judgments and a reasonable assumption of what the typical person might prefer.

Take topography: is flat better or is hilly better? They said, “Okay, the typical person might like looking at views from hills, and a hilly, rolling landscape is more interesting than a flat one,” and the hilly landscapes got prioritized.

Of course, one of the things that really became clear after I wrote the initial story is the subjectivity of that. Many people love living in the open space of the prairie where it’s completely flat, and living in a more hilly environment makes them feel claustrophobic and hemmed in. This subjectivity is at the heart of it, and it’s at the heart of a lot of data stories that we do. Being aware of that is one of the most challenging things about being in this field. 

On experience beyond data

DA: How did your experience visiting and eventually moving to Red Lake Falls differ from the data? Did it confirm or deny any aspects of the original story?

CI: I was very primed to accept the criteria that the USDA researchers used. It made perfect sense to me. Until I actually went out and visited I had not spent any time in the Midwest. Just visiting and spending a few hours on the ground underscored for me that there are other dimensions at work here.

There is something to be said for a flat landscape and a wide-open sky; there’s a beauty to that. Having lived here as long as I have now–we’re going on five years–you appreciate things that you wouldn’t if you were just driving through. You get to appreciate how the landscape changes, even cornfields and other agricultural landscapes: the textbook stereotypical, boring corn country. Watching how the texture of the land evolves over the course of the year is fascinating.

I know I’m gonna sound like a huge yokel here talking about how beautiful it is to watch the corn grow, but seriously. It was a welcome broadening of my perspective, and I’ll leave it at that.

A better quality of life

DA: How was the transition for you and your family? 

CI: I’m from upstate New York. At its smallest, Oneonta, the town where I was from, had 13,000 people, so I was more primed to accept moving out of the city than I think a lot of D.C. and other lifelong big city people might be.

But it was a shift and it was largely a welcome one. A big factor for us was the economic factor. The cost of living in D.C. and New York and all the other big cities in America is just insane. 

We were able to make things work before we had kids. When you don’t have kids it’s fun living in a cramped, historic place. But I started thinking about the experiences of my childhood and how my childhood was shaped by growing up in a semi-rural area and having a lot of freedom and a lot of open space in a way that I could tell I would not be able to give my own kids in Baltimore and D.C. Thinking about their experience was the big driver that made us want to come out here and try out a totally different life. 

There are absolutely things that we miss. I mentioned this in the book but the food is a big one. We were living in the suburbs of Baltimore. If we got home from work and we were tired and couldn’t cook, we could go grab some takeout food at a Mexican restaurant or a Chinese restaurant or 8,000 different restaurants within a mile of our house. Here we can’t do that.

But overall, it’s been extremely positive. It’s been great for the kids. We have a regular-sized house with a regular-sized yard which is a very banal thing but it’s something we could never have afforded in D.C. Just having that space for ourselves and our kids has been incredibly powerful and rewarding.

Better work through telework

DA: You switched to working remotely once you moved, right? How did your work habits change during that period?

CI: 99% of my work is done with phone and internet, so it was relatively easy for me to make the pitch to my editors–well before the pandemic–that if I’m looking at stuff online I could do that just as easily from Minnesota as I could in D.C. It’s not like I’m a reporter who’s tied to Capitol Hill or anything.

I’ve always said–and I’ve talked to people a lot about this since moving out here–that a lot of white-collar office work in this country does not need to happen in the office. I think a lot of workers have felt that way for a long time where a lot of people have wanted to work remotely and to move to a smaller town.

Surveys show that over half of Americans say they would prefer to live in a small town or a rural area. But 80% of us currently live in big metropolitan areas so there’s this big disconnect there. 

I think one reason you hadn’t seen as much of an explosion in telework prior to the pandemic is because companies and managers were hesitant about it. Now this pandemic has completely turned everything upside down and now people are having to do it.

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At the Post, our office is shut down at least until January 1 so everybody is on remote work until then. The New York Times is the same way. There was someone working for one of the investment banks’ teams of economists who’re now working all remotely and they said it’s been great for their productivity. They’re getting much more work done than they did in the office. I’m hoping that if anything good comes out of this pandemic it’s that we’ll see wider acceptance of telework across the country.

The social benefits of telework

DA: The pandemic has kicked off a brief trend where people who previously were living in a major metropolitan area are now flocking to more rural and suburban parts of the country. Do you see this holding steady? Do you think the push toward telework coupled with high living costs in major cities makes moving out an attractive option?

CI: I think so. After this, there will be more people teleworking than there were before. Prior to the pandemic, something like 5% of American workers worked remotely, and I don’t think it’s going to go below that level again. I think the trends we’re seeing are real and it’s going to be sustained. How large it is is the question.

But I do say that almost universally it’s going to be a positive thing. If you look at the problems that a lot of small towns and rural areas are dealing with right now it’s that they don’t have enough people. They don’t have enough of a tax base. They can’t fund their schools and they can’t sustain a post office or a grocery store because there’s just been this massive population drain over the past fifty years.

The problem cities are having right now is largely pegged to having too many people. You have rental and home prices that are just way too high. You’ve got congested freeways and highways making the commute an absolute nightmare. To the extent that you can get any people–not that it’s ever gonna flip or anything–out of a crowded urban area and into a less crowded suburb or even a smaller town or rural area farther out, it’s going to be a net positive for both places. 

DA: What would be the cultural and political effects of that kind of shift? It sounds like it would be a good counter to the whole red vs. blue conversation that’s only grown larger post-2016.

CI: Politically, in the U.S. since 1980 or so, one of the big dynamics is that we have self-sorted ourselves into like-minded enclaves. Democrats tend to live near other Democrats and Republicans and tend to live near other Republicans. Shaking that up and having Democratically-minded people move into a more conservative rural area is a good thing.

There are going to be points of friction and points of tension, but a lot of the social science research says that many of the problems of our political system today–the polarization and the gridlock–are related to that extreme sorting.

We’re living around people who think like us and we’re less able to compromise. Undoing some of that sorting, even if it’s just a little bit, I absolutely think is a net positive.

I don’t know if it’s going to be on the scale that would actually affect the political system in the country. I honestly hope it would, I think it’d be healthy. But even if it just happens a little bit, I think it’s a good thing for the country.

Broadening perspectives

DA: How have your own beliefs or viewpoints changed since your move to Minnesota?

CI: I’ve become much more careful when I’m characterizing groups of people. I write a fair amount about gun ownership or conservatives and Republicans, so if I’m writing something about conservative gun owners, I stop and think, “Wait a minute, my neighbor across the street. He’s a conservative gun owner.” Am I making this overly broad statement that doesn’t apply to somebody like him at all, or am I being accurate? I think it’s improved my work. It’s made me be more careful and more precise.

DA: It challenges any biases you might have had before.

CI: We’re actually starting to see this now, but I wish the media industry were less concentrated in New York, D.C. and LA. The stereotypical political story is a reporter who parachutes into a small town from D.C. and goes to a diner and talks to whoever is in the diner at that moment.

We’ve seen a million of those stories. They are somewhat illuminating but I think we’d get a much more accurate portrait of the middle of the country if the big city papers and news outlets had reporters who were based in those small towns, who weren’t just parachuting in for a few hours.

It would help break past one of the most pernicious things about our political environment: the notion of blue states and red states. It’s just kind of easy to assume that Utah is all Republican and New York is all Democrat. 

Liberals in the heartland is a category of people that’s just been completely erased. It’s similar to conservatives in big cities although there’s less of an erasure there because reporters are based in the cities so they talk to conservatives near them.

But there’s this whole notion of rural populism, and the fact that there are nonwhite people living in rural areas and putting together political movements is something we’ve almost completely missed in the national conversation.

DA: How do you see all of these trends meshing in the near future?

CI: I am a huge proponent of telework. I hope that more people do it. I’ve talked to a lot of community organizations up here and they’re always like, “Well how do we convince people to move to our area? We’re losing population and we need to convince people to live here.” I always tell them you don’t need to convince workers and their families. The surveys show that the average person wants to live in the small town environment. You have to convince the companies and the managers and the executives because that’s what’s holding people back. They’re tethered to their jobs. 

September 14, 2020