MELROSE, Iowa — The commute to work is a short one for Emma Conway. It’s just down the hall.
The trend toward more and more people working from home offices is not a new one. It has been happening for years. But the COVID-19 pandemic has turned a steady trickle of change into a torrent as large numbers of people are pushed into working from home. And even after COVID is history, many of those people will likely continue to work from home.
That could help rural areas, but there are no guarantees.
“COVID will help some rural communities,” says David Peters, a rural sociologist at Iowa State University.
But he says not all communities will benefit.
Conway began working from home in 2018, when she took a job working for Great Plains Livestock Consulting. As a consultant assistant, she helps design feed rations for producers.
“I really enjoy it,” she says. “It’s not perfect, but it works for me.”
It offers flexibility that is useful on the farm. She is available to help her husband if he needs a ride to or from the field or when he needs an extra body to sort livestock. It also eliminates the time and cost of commuting.
For those reasons, rural economic development advocates have long looked toward home offices as a way of either keeping people in small towns or of attracting them to live and work there. People who prefer the rural lifestyle can work from anywhere, the argument goes.
The reality is a little messier.
One issue is the love-hate relationship many home workers have with the internet. Internet access is a necessity for those working at home, Peters says. But there are still many rural areas with poor access. While leaders of both political parties support expanded rural internet, and many grant programs have been offered to boost connectivity, Peters says that until the federal government launches something similar to the 1930s push for rural electrification, there will be gaps.
“You need broadband,” he says.
Conway agrees. She says rural internet access and speed can sometimes be an issue.
“Internet can be a struggle … but it works about 99% of the time,” she says.
A second factor is that many jobs are simply not conducive to telecommuting. Rural areas have traditionally leaned heavily on manufacturing or on agricultural jobs that in some cases simply can’t be done remotely.
But Peters says the biggest factor that rural economic advocates often ignore is quality of life. Too often, he says, the emphasis is on how cheap it is to live in a rural area or on trying to lure individual businesses to a town. Two of the biggest keys, he says, are local leadership and quality of life.
Because of the quality of life issue, the COVID push for working at home may help some rural communities that are either near a metropolitan area or that are on a lake or near some other attraction for workers.
It offers a clear opportunity for farmers or farm spouses to be able to remain on the farm or return to the farm, but hordes of people are not going to flock to small-town Iowa or Illinois just because they can work at home. That’s why trails and parks and other amenities are important. It is also why the towns that are within commuting distance of a metropolitan area still have an advantage.
Still, for Conway, the chance to live on a farm with her husband and to still work in her profession is a good thing.