Photo By Leonid Kunyansky
Column By Derek Remer
The Covid-19 pandemic is hitting rural communities hard, though this is not often easy to see. The number of coronavirus cases in Graham County and Greenlee County is rising relatively slowly, but the area remains vulnerable to the disease in a number of less obvious ways.
One of these is that our economy is finding it difficult to adjust to the lockdown orders imposed by the federal government. As we’ve previously reported, companies are furloughing staff, including some of our area’s largest employers, such as the miners at the Safford mining operation. In other parts of the nation, and in other sectors of the economy, it’s possible for employees to work from home. This is not true for miners.
In other ways, of course, citizens are responding to the crisis in creative, surprising ways. The virtual graduation ceremonies that were done for junior high and high schools are just one example of that. Whether virtual working and virtual schooling are right for our communities, though, remains an open question. That’s what we’ll look at in this article.
Covid-19 and remote working
In order to see some of the problems, and some of the opportunities, presented by remote work, it’s worth looking at what is happening around the country. Some of the largest, and wealthiest, corporations in the US now require that all of their employees work from home: Twitter, Microsoft, and Apple have taken this approach. Alongside them, hundreds of small companies have also sought to move to remote work.
These shifts rely on technologies that are not new, but that have seen huge increases in demand over the past few months. Microsoft Teams, which lets workers video chat, message, and share documents, has seen a 500% increase in the number of meetings, calls, and conferences since January. In response to this heightened demand, many companies now offer remote work systems for free, with Google recently announcing that it would make access free to its Hangouts Meet video conferencing software and Google Classroom, which helps teachers manage coursework.
Is remote work an opportunity for eastern Arizona?
It goes without saying, of course, that not all jobs can be done remotely. It’s also worth noting that even those jobs that seem eminently suited to working from home – software engineering and customer service, for instance – can be more stressful when done from home. The reason for this is simple: loneliness. Studies have shown that prolonged isolation is associated with a 26% risk of premature death, and other research indicates that it shrinks the hippocampus, the part of the brain related to learning.
Despite this, many companies and employers around the country claim that remote work is the future of our economy. The Wall Street Journal has recently predicted, for instance, that the high cost of living in cities like San Francisco and New York will encourage younger people to move to more rural areas and work remotely.
Whether our local area will see the benefits of these shifts is a difficult question. In many ways, central Arizona is well suited to remote work. Many of our small cities combine great natural beauty with modern internet infrastructure. The city of Payson, for instance, hits all the speed benchmarks when it comes to download and upload metrics despite its middle of the Tonto National Forest location. Day trips to Phoenix are quick, whilst the area offers remote workers plenty of opportunities for recreation.
On the other hand, it’s clear that many of the “traditional” industries of our area are unlikely to move to remote work any time soon, and that many in our area would be very reluctant to do so even if offered the chance. Despite the supposed gains in productivity, and increase in profits, that remote work can offer large corporations, it also risks undermining the kind of community spirit that is currently one of our biggest assets.
Of course, the future need not be one in which everyone works remotely or one that doesn’t allow anyone to. And in fact, many of the workers now furloughed across the state are taking the opportunity to learn new IT skills that might pay dividends in the future.
This is a particularly good time to do so, and not only because many of us are spending so long at home. Many large educational companies have made their courses free for the duration of the outbreak, and so new skills are easier to develop than ever before. In other words, if you can’t work your job remotely right now, you can use this time to build up your skills, and maybe get a new job that offers more flexibility.
Some in our community are already taking this approach. Local craftsmen, for instance, are sharing their expertise online, allowing others the opportunity to learn new skills. Our teachers have also been adapting to the pandemic, using online learning platforms to continue educating children even during this time of crisis. In these cases, we can see the real value that remote working technologies bring to our county: the ability to bring residents closer together and to strengthen community bonds.
All this said, anecdotal evidence suggests that our community is suffering more than most from the pandemic. With little opportunity to work from home, a large number of citizens are suffering from reduced working hours, lower paychecks, and boredom.
Nonetheless, the future might be bright. If we can use this opportunity to develop our IT skills, then it might be that we can also have the advantages of the kind of remote working that Google’s employees have been enjoying: a better work/life balance, and the flexibility to decide our own schedules.
And who knows – as remote work becomes more common, we might even see an influx of tech workers at some point.