Insights August 25, 2020

Ditching crowded cities for life in the suburbs

Living Word
By Living Word

As we get increasingly used to working remotely, this may have implications for cities. Remote working allows staff more flexibility, including the choice to potentially live further away from the office and maybe even the city. Add the high cost of rent as well as public health concerns in densely populated areas, and it’s hardly surprising that we can already see a shift from the city dream to a conscious choice to move to more rural areas.

New York Times bestselling author Dan Schawbel wrote an interesting article for LinkedIn in May, titled How Coronavirus is Accelerating the Relocation of Workers From Cities into Suburbs. He argued that, with a higher degree of remote work, there is no need for companies to stay in the big cities in order to hire the best talent – the world is their talent pool. While companies can save money on forgoing expensive office leases, employees subsequently save on commuting costs and rent. “Today’s workers no longer need to be located where the jobs are,” Schawbel argued, “no longer need to interview in person, and no longer require the amenities of large cities.”

Schawbel meant that moves away from the city are motivated by other parameters too. “The shift of city to suburb living is driven by multiple trends colliding together,” he wrote. “This combination of trends includes densely populated cities becoming Petri dishes for the virus, the recession causing people and companies to have less money to spend on rent/leases, millennial parents desiring more space at a lower cost, and the mass adoption of remote work due to social distancing and powered by a strong technology infrastructure.”

Hipsturbia – live, work, play in the suburbs

In fact, almost a third of Americans are considering moving to a less crowded area because of the pandemic, according to a survey conducted in April this year by The Harris Poll. John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll, said in a statement: “Already beset by high rents and clogged streets, the virus is now forcing urbanites to consider social distancing as a lifestyle.” Similarly, a study by Pew Research Center released in July showed that the pandemic is driving more young people in the US to move than in years previously. Around a fifth have changed their home or know someone who did. More than a third of under-30-year-olds said that health or financial concerns had meant that they had to move in with family or take a roommate, or that someone they know had been prompted to move as a result.

Interestingly though, research by the Census Bureau shows that the population growth in major US cities had already started to stagnate before the pandemic, and suburbs had become more attractive as a result of offering plenty of space and a different quality of life. The phenomenon with millennials moving from downtown to smaller communities was identified as “hipsturbia” in the Urban Land Institute and PricewaterhouseCoopers report Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2020. Millennials want all the benefits of city life, such as shopping, restaurants and jobs, but without any of the drawbacks.

It is of course too soon to tell if this trend of relocating to the suburbs is a permanent thing or not, but the pandemic is likely to have a long-lasting effect on cities. As Schwabel concludes: “Companies will no longer be confined to one location nor will define where we work because work is everywhere. The future of work-life is leaner, smarter, flexible and that will create many new opportunities for scale and growth.”

What does this mean for the advertising and communications industry?

The challenge for the advertising industry is now to cater to this new lifestyle and reimagine where people live, work and play. For instance, if fewer people are exposed to advertising in typical urban channels such as public transport, cinemas and big sports events, how can brands make sure to reach their audience? Do brands need to go digital at an even faster rate, or might the generation of city-leavers appreciate an old-school touch with a physical brand presence in their new localities? Is there scope for new forms of brand collaborations, including with online workplace platforms such as Slack, Zoom and Trello?

More than considering place in a geographical sense, brands will need to invest in getting to know their audience in a new way as their lives change. As they leave the cities, how do their shopping behaviours change? Perhaps they need different products and services altogether – and, crucially, perhaps the way and pace in which you talk to them will need a complete overhaul. Localisation has always been about much more than language, but perhaps the coronavirus pandemic will make that truer than ever.