Universities are pushing remote corporate staff to move from urban centers to college towns, as companies seek to maintain flexible working arrangements for their employees.
At least two colleges – Purdue University and West Virginia University – are supporting programs for these remote workers, betting that this way of working will have lasted after the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the shift to dispersed workplaces.
Universities have a long history of hosting business incubators, but the new programs represent another way the pandemic has changed the way colleges think about who works on campus and why. Many universities are considering how employee wishes for remote work will affect their own human resource policies. These colleges, however, are playing a game for other people’s employees, showing that campuses will influence and be affected by this major change in where Americans live and work.
Purdue is set to host a visitors’ weekend for a small group of candidates for a so-called “telecommuting communityIn the campus business and research park, which is operated by the university’s research foundation and a development company. These people will uproot their lives – some with a bargain price of $ 5,000 – to move to West Lafayette, Indiana. They can live at reduced rates in units built in Purdue Park and access campus facilities, including the library and a co-working space.
This is a “one-in-a-generation” business change in which “all companies are rethinking their corporate footprint,” said David Broecker, chief innovation officer for the Purdue Research Foundation. The foundation is one of the entities supporting the work-from-Purdue program. University campuses could be ideal places for individuals or businesses to set up strategic clusters as they move away from large headquarters, he said.
Such an atmosphere is what drew Jon Antel to the program. Antel, who worked remotely in New Jersey during the pandemic, misses the “sense of community that comes from being in college and being surrounded by a lot of people you know.” He started looking for incentive programs for remote workers in March.
Antel works in information technology at SelectQuote Insurance Services and has never been to Indiana. Yet he is “99%” sure that he will pass through the program in August for at least a year. “I don’t see anything holding me back.”
Part of the reason he’s interested in the program is that he went to a small college, and Purdue will provide a different environment.
“I will be able to experience some of this academic stuff – the real academic stuff,” including the connection with a PhD. students to explore if this path might interest him, he said.
The University of West Virginia and its state tourism agency are teamin the middle of trying at recruit outdoor enthusiasts in Morgantown, Shepherdstown and Lewisburg. The campus offers free certifications – teleworking or remote management – via its business school. Other incentives, backed by donors and the state, include $ 12,000 in cash over two years, subsidizing activities like skiing and rafting, as well as co-working spaces and social programs.
The idea of a remote work program predated the pandemic, but Covid-19 accelerated employees’ ability to choose where they worked – and that deepened their interest in the outdoors, Danny said, too. Twilley, Associate Dean of Brad University and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaboration. (A $ 25 million donation from the Smiths to the University Last year will finance, among other things, several of the incentives to program participants, including cash payments, Twilley said.)
More than 7,000 people have applied and the campus plans to choose 50 people for its first cohort, in Morgantown. The university plans to move to the other locations later.
One of the reasons why universities may be well placed to be stewards of this program? They are well versed in retention strategies, which are routinely deployed to ensure students stay on track until graduation, Twilley said. He said the university is planning an orientation program to build a sense of place and belonging, as well as monthly recreational activities.
Continuing to work remotely remains popular 15 months after many workplaces closed their in-person offices. Professors at Stanford University; the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, in Mexico City; and the University of Chicago interrogates 33,250 people on their views on remote work, and of the 21,280 people able to work remotely, around 31% said they wanted to work from home five days a week. A redfin survey, the real estate brokerage firm, found that more than 60% of those surveyed in the New York City area would consider moving if they could work remotely full-time. (In Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle, more than half of those polled said the same thing.)
Remote workers want to be in places with amenities – places with “substantial infrastructure” and an “integrated community,” said Evan Hock, co-founder of MakeMyMove, which promotes incentive packages for relocations and has listed offers from both West Virginia and Purdu. The company and Purdue jointly developed the incentive program, he said. He expects college towns to capture the interest of these employees, he said. “At the end of the day, the university’s bet is that more smart people in an area are better.”
Universities have long been selling points for community leaders seeking to broaden the appeal of their regions to potential new residents, an effort that may well be spurred by the pandemic. But now it’s happening as colleges rethink their own employees’ relationships with their workplaces.
HR staff and other college leaders are wondering if white-collar workers who don’t interact with students – think data analysts, accountants, and lawyers – should be allowed to work remotely during the semester fall and beyond.
A big question is whether the in-person experience that administrators point out as a selling point – both for potential new hires and potential students – would erode with more work from home among college staff.
In a post on employees working in person, administrators at Lehigh University wrote that “after more than a year of separation, we want to strengthen the sense of belonging to Lehigh. … You will soon remember why working on our beautiful campus with our exceptional staff and faculty is such a special experience.
It is this dynamism that colleges are selling with remote work magnet programs to recruit outside staff in campus areas. University towns offer plenty of opportunities for collaboration, which will be attractive to remote workers, Broecker said.
If Purdue employees worked remotely, would that reduce the appeal? No, said Antel, the IT clerk. In his field, “we are made to work remotely. The real value I see in Purdue, ”he said,“ is being with the direct participants in the program and being with masters and graduate students.
When Antel decided if he wanted to say yes to the Purdue program, he walked into the bedroom of Shahil Shrestha, his roommate and college friend, with a piece of paper. It was time to make a pro-con list. He had to make a decision the next morning.
Shrestha had been skeptical. But he mulled over with Antel, and by the end of the conversation, Antel had planned to say yes – and Shrestha decided to apply as well. Shrestha works remotely in member services and data analytics at the Arthur W. Page Society, a professional group for communications managers, and he is also pursuing a master’s degree in data science online.
“I was looking for an academic environment, a more dynamic environment,” said Shrestha. Next weekend, he will be one of eight applicants for the program to tour the campus, take a tour, meet other participants and tour the coworking space. He plans to spend some more time exploring the state there.