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Retaining present population and attracting new inhabitants

To retain current populations and attract new inhabitants was described as a given goal by municipal representatives in all five towns in this study. A positive population trend is considered important for the development of the towns, maintaining town life, securing a certain level of services, making housing construction viable, potentially creating company spinoffs, and so on. Remote work opportunities could lessen constraints of local job markets and widen the choice of jobs and workplaces of both present and future populations, thus making life in a small town more attractive. When work is decoupled from the workplace to a certain extent, there is also a chance to attract populations that add to the attractiveness of the town although they do not live there permanently.
There are several ways in which people may use remote work opportunities that could have implications for small towns. On the one hand, people may move to small towns whilst maintaining their jobs in larger cities. In this instance, they may predominantly work remotely or in a hybrid format.  On the other hand, people may continue to live in larger cities but expand their job search and willingness to be employed by companies or institutions located in smaller towns. Still, others may participate in multilocality through their role as second homeowners or by temporarily living in another town for studies or job training. The five towns included here highlight a range of these alternatives (for example, second homeowners in Ekenäs, a specialized work force in Kalundborg and Oxelösund and students in Kongsvinger and Kalundborg).
When people living in a town do not commute every day but work remotely or multilocally, they are more likely to use local services and public spaces. As they save time, their chance to engage in the local community also increases. Workers and students living elsewhere but who regularly visit the town for work or to study also contribute to maintaining certain services and may be persuaded to move to the town after getting to know it and its inhabitants. This group might also support vital functions in the town when they take up local jobs that are difficult to recruit for. However, there are both positive and negative aspects of multilocality. Multilocal populations, such as second-home owners, might contribute to sustaining local services and investing—both monetarily and socially—in the area, but they may also increase the burden on municipal services while simultaneously paying income tax elsewhere (and thus not contributing taxes locally). Further, they might influence local prices of goods and services, including housing prices, which might have both positive and negative effects for permanent local populations. Below, multilocal populations in the five towns are described, followed by the perceived potentials of remote work.

Multilocal populations

Although an influx of populations that work remotely has been observed in the studied towns, it is difficult to statistically distinguish between the population increase credited to remote work-related opportunities and general population increase from other factors. This also goes for the potential use of second homes for remote work. This lack of knowledge on the hard facts of multilocality leads to uncertainty about how to use potential remote work opportunities, and the five municipalities do not plan explicitly for multilocal populations. This uncertainty is echoed in a study by the Swedish regional cooperation ÖMS, where many municipalities described remote work opportunities as interesting with potential future work implications, but that it does not have larger significance for planning at present. Respondents either reported that it is too early to make conclusions on developments related to remote work or that it is a phenomenon with relevance only to a smaller proportion of inhabitants and workers and, therefore, it must take a backseat among more urgent matters. It was also pointed out that remote work trends may change quickly depending on decisions by larger employers. (ÖMS, 2023)
However, regional and national studies on the impact of remote work provide indications that are useful for understanding the bigger picture. A study on migration patterns made by the Stockholm Region showed that 33% of those moving out of Stockholm County to another county stated that remote work opportunities had influenced their decision to move (Andersson & Wolf 2022). In this group, self-employed and highly educated persons were overrepresented. Among those that could work remotely half of their time or more, a larger share kept their jobs in Stockholm County after moving. The two factors deemed most important for moving out were housing as well as nature and outdoor activities. All in all, 45% of the Swedish working population worked remotely in 2022 (Taskinen, 2023). According to a Danish study, 35% of the work force regularly work from home at least one day per week. Among those working remotely, workers in traditional office jobs and in digital or knowledge-based sectors are overrepresented. Although remote work might not be the sole explanation, it is noted that distances to workplaces have increased for those that can work remotely, while the same pattern has not emerged for groups that cannot work remotely. The trend is especially pronounced in larger Danish cities (HBS Economics & Hanne Shapiro Futures, 2023). In Norway, 44% of the work force works remotely, but a majority of this group works less than half of the time from home. Office workers were more likely to work from home. The age group with the highest percentage of remote workers was 40-49-year-olds. (Sæternes & Aamodt 2023). According to the Icelandic labour market survey, about 47% of the labour force worked remotely to some degree in 2023, compared to approximately 30% before the pandemic (Statistics Iceland, 2024). In Finland, about 40% of the working population worked remotely in 2022. Finland also had one of the highest levels in Europe of people working more than half of the time from home (24%; Taskinen, 2023). These reports indicate a need to follow the development and learn more about what opportunities remote work can (and cannot) afford to smaller towns.
In the towns in this study, the type of multilocal populations that are observed are partly different depending on the character of the towns, but also partly shared. One group that these towns all have in common is people that have their permanent residence in the town but work fully or partly remotely in the town or from somewhere else. However, as mentioned above, this group is difficult to map. All towns have a certain proportion of commuters, but how many of them also work remotely some of the time is unknown, as is their share of remote work. It is also evident that remote or hybrid work is seen as a two-way exchange: it can attract new permanent or seasonal populations, but it can also be an opportunity to recruit highly qualified personnel not living in the town. In some of the municipalities, part-time remote work was an accepted working mode for key personnel living in other towns or regions already before the pandemic.
A slightly more visible group is multilocal individuals employed by the larger industries and their suppliers in the industrial towns Kalundborg and Oxelösund. These employees are partly in the towns on limited-term assignments and, although they stay for some time (from a few weeks to months and even years), they are not expected to settle permanently. A certain proportion of these are multinational specialized workers that only work in the town but spend their free time elsewhere (so-called fly-in-fly-out populations). Many of these multilocal employees are expected to have on-site jobs, but on-site and remote work might also be combined. 
Seasonal inhabitants, mainly tourists and second-home owners, constitute a major group in Ekenäs and Hvolsvöllur, while they are expected to be a marginal group in the other towns. In Ekenäs, tourists and second-home owners are perceived as potential new inhabitants, and marketing is often directed towards these groups (see next chapter for an example of this). It has been observed that, lately, when there is larger acceptance of remote work, multilocal populations tend to extend their stays, especially in the warmer season. As a contrast, municipalities in South of Iceland with a high number of second homes, have experienced an increased demand for basic services like snow removal and garbage collection all year round. Most of these municipalities have a very small permanent population, and it is difficult for them to justify spending resources on the second-home populations since dual residence is not permitted (yet), and the municipalities receive very limited income from these populations.  
Kalundborg, Kongsvinger, and Oxelösund also have higher education facilities that offer mainly on-site but also distance learning, therefore attracting students is a high priority. Municipal representatives express wishes for students to live in the town permanently as they are seen as an opportunity to vitalize the town and to become future permanent residents. Moreover, the interviewees believed that students do not wish to study remotely, but that experiences from the pandemic showed that on-campus education is preferred. However, offering distance courses may be an opportunity for smaller educational facilities to keep up the number of students and maintain the curriculum. The use of distance learning opportunities by inhabitants as a way to continue to live in a small town (while studying at a distance at institutions in other cities) is not a topic discussed by municipalities. Hence, remote opportunities are said to mainly refer to work rather than studies in these towns.

Commuting and remote work in Southern Iceland

According to a survey carried out in 2017, 60% of commuters in Southern Iceland commuted by car (The Icelandic Regional Development Institute, 2018). In Iceland, road safety during winter is a challenge regarding hybrid work opportunities as the national highway is closed from time to time due to extreme weather conditions. The national highway runs through Hvolsvöllur and is the major link to other urban areas. A survey on the effects of remote work on the national road system was conducted for the Icelandic Road Administration in 2023. The survey showed that, in the South of Iceland, only 35% of the responders travel five days per week to the capital region for work, indicating that people in South of Iceland are more likely to be able to work partly remotely. Furthermore, 30% of the responders in South of Iceland said they could do their job from home most of the week or always, and 41% of those said their number of trips to the Reykjavík area had decreased since the covid pandemic. When asked what most affects their opportunities to commute to the capital region for work, 92% said weather (referring to the closure of the national highway; Rannsóknarmiðstöð Háskólans á Akureyri, 2024).   

Perceived potentials of remote work trends

The municipalities in this study all identify remote work as an opportunity to retain current population and attract new inhabitants as well as seasonal populations. “Returnees”, or people who grew up in the town but moved away, are especially targeted. Furthermore, remote work is seen as an opportunity to recruit highly qualified or specialized personnel in both the private and public sectors. Two interviewees also pointed to facilitated recruitment processes when the future employee’s spouse was offered remote or hybrid work arrangements. That way, the move to a new town was facilitated by the possibility for one’s partner to keep his or her current job position or by widening the possibilities to find new employment. Further, remote work was said to enable transfer of smaller businesses to new, cheaper locations with a better work-life balance.
When it comes to keeping present inhabitants in the town, the Norwegian interviewees in Kongsvinger considered remote work especially important in relation to the younger population and people working in the private sector, but to some extent also the public sector. Although it was emphasized that there are no statistics, the municipal representatives reported that young people who grew up in Kongsvinger moved back during and after the pandemic. Some who worked from home in the Oslo region during the pandemic learned that it works well and saw the opportunity to move back based on hybrid work. A larger share of them seem to work in private businesses in the Oslo region or at least one of the partners in the family does. However, there are also experiences of people currently living in Kongsvinger who seek new job opportunities in the capital based on hybrid work opportunities.
Hvolsvöllur, which used to be a small, tightly knit community based on family ties, has also seen the advantage of a new multilocal population that enlarges and diversifies the community. In the South of Iceland, most municipalities rely on agriculture and tourism as their main industries. Here, the city sees remote work, as well as remote working hubs and facilities, as a way to provide opportunities for creating new jobs. This is particularly important for the green transition, when the phasing out of certain industries may influence employment patterns over time.  Moreover, in Iceland, the endeavour to spread development and job opportunities outside the capital region has induced the state to introduce a policy that encourages jobs without a specified physical location. The goal is that all civil service jobs should be without a specified location, unless the job specifically requires physical presence, such that residence does not affect the hiring process (Alþingi, 2022). To support this development, a series of remote work hubs have been established around the country. However, an evaluation showed that a majority of managers found it unlikely that they would advertise a job without specified location in the near future (Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs, 2021).
The case study towns are dependent on manufacturing industries or larger public employers where most work opportunities are geographically fixed. In these towns, a more diversified population and business sector could improve employment opportunities and liveability. When it comes to the towns dominated by certain industries, such as Oxelösund and Kalundborg, these industries now demand more highly skilled or specialised labour. This creates a pressure to improve town attractiveness as the towns do not wish to experience scenarios where skilled labour only work in the towns but do not wish to live in them. The most obvious case is in Oxelösund, Sweden, where the ongoing transition to carbon-free steel production demands a highly skilled work force. Remote work from other municipalities is seen as an opportunity to attract people with different competencies and profiles than those of the current population. It is hoped that (with time) these employees might choose to move to Oxelösund and bring their families. One interviewee also mentioned the possibility that spouses may bring or found new businesses. Ekenäs mainly relies on public employers and businesses whose operations need to be carried out on-site. However, remote work is seen as an opportunity to attract new sorts of businesses and inhabitants with different competencies than the present population.
Although some municipalities expressed concerns that employees that do not move to the town in which they work might not stay long term, one municipality discussed the advantage of being able to attract staff with experiences from other municipalities when remote work is allowed. Workers with experiences from other settings can, for example, create learning opportunities that would be especially valuable for small municipalities with limited resources. This is seen as a way to maintain high quality in both business and public services (including planning) which can be achieved even if the employee does not permanently relocate to the smaller town. Municipal representatives from other towns confirmed that it is easier to recruit when remote work is offered.