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Source: Kjell Svenskberg/Ekenäs municipality


This study set out to investigate if remote and hybrid work has enlarged the areas around capitals that profit from their labour markets by looking at potential impacts on five smaller towns.  These smaller towns were chosen as they were not the first-hand choice for commuting to and from the capitals before the pandemic and, in that sense, were perceived as a stress test regarding the boundaries of influence from capitals. However, the study found little proof that remote and hybrid work trends have changed the attractivity patterns of these towns. Municipalities reported that there were no formal strategies related to remote work and that there was great uncertainty as to what the trend of remote work might signify going forward. It was also clear that municipalities did not have access to statistics or other formal information related to remote and hybrid workers in their jurisdiction; therefore, they did not have evidence upon which to build potential remote work strategies. To be able to form efficient strategies, more knowledge on who remote workers are, how they travel, and what services they use (among other things) would be valuable. More time may also be required before planners can capture developments related to remote work post-pandemic. Additionally, it is possible that only a small portion of populations in small towns are affected by remote work, and that there may be less incentive or need for municipalities to actively pursue remote work policies or planning developments.
The study found no immediate impact of remote work trends on urban planning, but remote work has, at least partly, influenced the larger work of making small towns more attractive. This seems to confirm the findings in Randall et al. (2022b), where 46% of the regional and municipal respondents in a survey considered increased opportunities for remote work to be one of many factors for both permanent and temporary population developments in their region or municipality, and one-third considered it an important factor. Interestingly, all the five towns seem to apply the same recipe to improve urban attractiveness although they have different points of departure.
The way remote work plays out in a town, for example whether it is done only remotely or in a hybrid format, influences potential effects on urban and regional planning. According to Randall et al. (2022a), most expressed a wish to work remotely 2-3 days per week, suggesting the importance of hybrid workplaces and geographical flexibility. This applies also to the context of this study and is confirmed by regional reports (HBS Economics & Hanne Shapiro Futures, 2023; ÖMS, 2023). The observations that many work in a hybrid format, mixing days in the office with days working remotely, have implications for local and regional travel patterns, as well as housing markets and the use of digital infrastructure and co-working spaces. The need to travel regularly to a workplace further from home also indicates that the zone around larger towns that has the potential to attract hybrid workers will have its limits and be strongly linked to time and ease of travel.
Like full-time commuters, hybrid workers are potentially more concerned with local transportation and commuting times within and from the town, as they need to be able to access the workplace more often (usually every week). It might be assumed that they also use transportation and the town in a way that is similar to both on-site workers and full-time commuters which might be hard to predict for planners as use will depend on which days hybrid workers commute and what goods and services they get locally or at the place where their workplace is situated. Housing demand is more likely to be geared towards areas that have easy access to transportation nodes, but less so compared to population groups that commute every day. When people work part-time from home, the need for a separate office room or space might also be perceived as less important (compared to those who always work remotely). This may help to decrease demand for space. Commuting patterns will also decide demand for digital infrastructure. When it comes to co-working facilities, the interviewees from the small towns hypothesized that hybrid workers might have less interest in co-working facilities as they have access to a fully equipped workplace and social contact with colleagues and work partners some days a week. Therefore, compared to those who always work remotely, hybrid workers may not have the same interest to co-work with others on days they work remotely. All in all, planners might regard hybrid workers as part of the commuting population, but with a greater local presence in the town, which might increase demand for local goods and services. Though this is a simplified summary of the situation, it may assist in getting a clearer picture of what town features are favourable to hybrid workers.
Towns that have large shares of tourists and second-home owners face additional uncertainties. It is difficult to measure the impact of remote work opportunities on the frequency of visits by tourists and second-home owners. It is also a challenge to measure the ways tourists and second-home owners engage in a town or use its services. Despite this uncertainty, Ekenäs, the only town in this study with a distinct touristic character, is proactive and already investigate potentials and brand the town as ideal for remote work.
Although remote and hybrid work seems to be accepted as a new normal in all five towns in this study, there is ongoing discussion about the future of full-time on-site work, remote work, and hybrid work. Compared to larger towns and cities, small towns are considering how shorter distances between homes and workplaces, as well as lower shares of potential remote jobs, might play a role in decisions for remote work practices. Fairness is another important dimension that has emerged in such discussions, which might have unique implications in the context of small towns, for example in relation to control and trust in smaller communities.
Regional reports (HBS Economics & Hanne Shapiro Futures; ÖMS 2023) indicate that there are high proportions of self-employed and higher educated people that work remotely, which might make them especially interesting to smaller towns wishing to attract these categories. Interviewees in this study also report that remote or hybrid work opportunities play a role in recruitment of higher qualified staff that are often difficult to attract to smaller towns. Remote or hybrid forms of work allow for employees living in other towns or rural areas to take employment in these towns without having to move there. Although, such arrangements do not lead to population increase, they are mentioned as valuable to smaller towns as they assist in maintaining important functions and services that benefit the permanent population and in that way add to the attractiveness of the town.
More time is needed to capture which remote and hybrid work patterns will prevail long term and how these patterns will affect smaller towns near capital cities. More knowledge on the extent and characteristics of remote and hybrid work patterns in the local context can give input to what policy and planning measures are important to attract new populations and visitors.