American Office Workers Are Living Even Farther From Employers Now

American Office Workers Are Living Even Farther From Employers Now

In 2020, Virginia Martin lived two and a half miles from her office. Today, the distance between her work and home is 156.

Ms. Martin, 37, used to live in Durham, N.C., and drove about 10 minutes to her job as a librarian at Duke. After the onset of remote work, Ms. Martin got her boss’s blessing to return to her hometown, Richmond, Va., in March 2022, so she could raise her two young children with help from family.

As an ’80s-born “child of AIM,” Ms. Martin said of AOL instant messaging, it hadn’t been hard for her to maintain co-worker friendships online. She drives back to the office several times a year for events, most recently for the December holiday party.

Ms. Martin is part of today’s growing ZIP code shift: She is one of the millions of Americans who, thanks to remote and hybrid work, no longer lives close to where she works.

Many Americans now live roughly twice as far from their offices as they did prepandemic. That’s according to a new study, set to be released this week, from economists at Stanford and Gusto, a payroll provider, using data from Gusto. The economists studied employee and employer address data from nearly 6,000 employers across the country and found that the average distance between people’s homes and workplaces rose to 27 miles in 2023 from 10 miles in 2019, more than doubling.

The share of people who live 50 or more miles from where they work rose sevenfold during the pandemic, climbing to 5.5 percent in 2023 from 0.8 percent in 2019. These trends have proved resilient even as employees return to the office, according to the researchers.

This phenomenon — expanding the distance between work and home — has been driven primarily by white-collar workers whose jobs can be done remotely, according to the study. It is one largely concentrated among people who earn more than $100,000 and work in jobs like tech, finance, law, marketing and accounting. Workers who earn under $50,000 a year, and those who work in jobs that cannot be done remotely like retail, health care and manufacturing (the majority of the work force), have barely budged in their average distance from work.

The workers moving away from city centers are often people in their 30s and 40s, who have young children and may want larger homes, rather than those in their 20s and 60s. The group also includes a significant number of workers who were newly hired during the pandemic — which means employers most likely expanded their hiring radius as they embraced hybrid work.

Urban scholars argue that the new data illustrates a longstanding American tradition of high-income earners leaving urban housing markets in pursuit of bigger homes in the suburbs.

“We like big houses, and we like big cars,” said Richard Florida, an expert on cities and author of “The New Urban Crisis.” “It’s part of our post-World War II DNA.”

But remote and hybrid work has supercharged this trend.

A small portion of the work force (around 12 percent now, compared with roughly 50 percent at the peak of Covid lockdowns) is still able to work entirely remotely. Some chose to leave pricey housing markets like San Francisco or New York in favor of new hometowns, sometimes called “Zoom towns.” Others who are working in hybrid environments, in which they have to go to the office only two or three days a week, moved and accepted lengthier “super commutes” in exchange for cheaper housing and more space.

Verna Coleman is one of those super commuters. Ms. Coleman, 41, works for a media company in New York. Before the pandemic, she lived in Brooklyn and went into the office five days a week. In 2020, after remote work started, she bought a house in Cincinnati, where she grew up and wants to raise her two children.

Now Ms. Coleman commutes into her Manhattan office for three days every other week, and leases a small apartment in Harlem.

“It’s only an hour-and-a-half flight, so I frequently cite to people it’s a shorter flight than driving across the George Washington Bridge and sitting in traffic for two and a half hours,” she said. “I take a 6 a.m. flight from Cincinnati, and I’m normally at my desk before 9.”

Some days are more challenging, though — including last week, with foggy skies causing flight delays. “We create the options we have to for our kids and to maintain our careers,” she added.

But the effects of this shift on cities have been troubling, many economists argue, as urban leaders struggle to revive the downtown areas sapped of some workers who used to eat, drink and shop there.

And business leaders are grappling with both the downsides and the blessings of their newly dispersed work forces.

A video game company in Boulder, Colo., called Serenity Forge, adopted a hybrid policy in 2021. The company’s founder, Zhenghua Yang, gets nostalgic for prepandemic days when people hung out at the office over potlucks and Ping-Pong — but also notices that his employees now seem to have a healthier balance between family and professional life.

Noah Lang, chief executive of a benefits platform called Stride, took remote work as a prompt to cut his company’s San Francisco office lease and move his own family out of the city to a house in Marin County.

Being able to hire employees in cities all over the country has been helpful to his business, he said, because Stride provides benefits to gig workers all over America and needs to understand customer experiences far beyond the Bay Area.

“We’re trying to help people who are low- to moderate-income hardworking Americans who in a lot of cases are not in the tech scene,” Mr. Lang said. “They’re not in this bubble of San Francisco.”

The stream of workers, like Mr. Lang, trading cities for suburbia has bred fears among economists about the possibility of a doom loop: Fewer workers commute downtown, which means less business for shops and a diminished sense of safety, which means even fewer people want to commute downtown. Average weekly foot traffic in downtown areas is still three-quarters what it was prepandemic, according to an analysis of mobile device activity in downtown areas by researchers at the University of Toronto.

But many argue that city leaders are up to the challenge of reimagining urban business centers in response to these demographic changes. Mr. Florida, for example, advises city leaders to make their downtown areas into tourist destinations, or even destinations for people who work at home and then socialize in the city. One study of 26 American downtown areas, published last year, found that on average, visitors made up 61 percent of foot traffic in city centers and residents just 11 percent.

“The future of downtown lies much more in becoming an entertainment and culture and amenity and sports center,” Mr. Florida said.

And in the far-flung areas where office workers have set down new roots, urbanists hope that economic activity will follow.

“People are social animals,” said Dan Luscher, who runs the 15 Minute City project, which researches the concept of a city where all amenities are accessible within a 15-minute walking distance. “The person that moves to Tahoe, they’re going to look for a community there. They’re going to be making that place more vibrant. The activity will shift, but it doesn’t go away.”