Just before the emergence of COVID-19, I published a peer-reviewed academic article on how migration from one region to another is affected by the widespread adoption of advanced information and communications technologies (or ICTs) – such as those used to support remote working (Cooke & Shuttleworth, 2018, The Effects of Information and Communication Technologies on Residential Mobility and Migration, Population, Space and Place). The results of this study offer important insights into current discussions about how the growth of remote working will affect where people live.
Succinctly, we found that the use of ICTs reduced migration. My research shows that the current uptick in residential change will be a passing trend and will also, in the long run, be associated with even lower rates of migration between places. Let me explain: The accepted view is that the transition to remote work and the use of associated technologies will result in greater mobility because 1) people have better information about alternative places to live, 2) moving is less isolating because migrants can keep in touch through social media with people and places left behind, and 3) people have more freedom to choose a place of residence less based on proximity to a fixed place of work and more based on other geographic characteristics such as natural and cultural amenities.
But my research shows that this is not what happens: these technologies cause people to move less – not more. Why? 1) advanced information and communication technologies can cause a reduction in moving because people are less likely to make a bad migration causing them to move again; 2) ICTs can sever the ties which link employment and educational opportunities and migration because people can change jobs and pursue higher education without moving; and 3) ICTs foster attachment to place by improving the search local jobs, housing, romantic partners, affinity groups, and cultural and political events, and also through the accumulation of local information.
How can my research on the reduction in migration due to the widespread adoption of ICTs help to understand the immediate uptick in migration due to COVID-19 and what will happen in the long-run? People are using the transition to remote working to move to a more preferred place of residence – even if it is just from a more dense setting to an outlying suburb – but many of these moves are moves that were not possible before the transition to remote working. What will happen after this adjustment? First, if their new place of residence is one that they have selected because they are now free from the need to live near their physical place of work, then it is reasonable to assume that they view their new location as more ideal. If so, then why would they want to leave in the future? Second, for many, the transition to remote work severs the strong bond between a future job change and the need to move. Third, as people remain in a place for longer periods, they will become more rooted in that place and will find the idea of a move to be less and less desirable. Finally, migration is something that is learned – the more a person migrates, the more likely they will move again and – likewise – the less a person migrates the less likely they will move. Hence, as migration becomes less necessary and less appealing, people will come to see migration as riskier and riskier and maintaining their current place of residence as more attractive and safer.
The risk is to presume that – in the long run – the workforce will continue to be more mobile due to the rise in remote working. Rather, the long-term impacts of COVID-19 and the switch for many workers to remote working will be to reduce mobility and increase attachment to place.