The Post-pandemic Migration Shift? How Remote Work May Be Changing Where We Live

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The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of remote work, especially for high-skilled workers, leading to questions about its impact on internal migration patterns. In our latest blog, Darja Reuschke and Julie MacLeavy explore the link between remote working and migration.

This blog is informed by the research presented in the book chapter ‘Reshaping the geography of work: Remote worker migration and regional dynamics in the post-pandemic era’ by Julie MacLeavy, Suzanne Mills, Katie Mazer and Darja Reuschke, forthcoming in The Handbook of the Future of Work (Routledge, 2025).

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically accelerated the adoption of home-based remote work across industrialised nations and most of Europe. Remote work, defined as working at home or in another location away from the traditional office, had been steadily increasing. However, the pandemic triggered a geographical shift in work, particularly for high-skilled workers who can perform their duties remotely. This shift raises crucial questions: Will the newfound spatial freedom of highly skilled remote workers lead to significant shifts in internal migration patterns? Will we witness a rural renaissance coupled with declining urban populations? Moreover, can struggling regions leverage remote work to retain or attract new residents? This blog explores the link between remote working and internal migration patterns, drawing on current research. We then identify key areas for future research based on these insights.

How significant is remote work to internal migration patterns?

Economist David Autor, in his influential 2001 work on the impact of the Internet on labour markets, predicted that information and communication technologies (ICTs) would fundamentally reshape work. He envisioned online job searches changing how employers find employees, with a wider talent pool becoming available. He also foresaw a transition from physical to online service delivery, further weakening the tie between jobs and specific locations. This weakening, he argued, could be facilitated by outsourcing, where work is done remotely across borders. Notably, Autor considered ICT-facilitated remote work as a prime example of this shift, where the delivery of labour services transforms from on-site to online.

However, the limited empirical evidence on remote work at the time meant Autor did not foresee it as a full substitute for commuting. Instead, he viewed it as a way to extend work hours by enabling certain tasks to be done at home. This aligns with the pre-pandemic reality of remote work, often labelled ‘telecommuting’, which typically involved some commuting on work days. The proportion of employees who carried out most or all of their work from home was very low in 2019/early 2020, with figures as low as 3% in the UK and also rare in the rest of Europe and the USA. Therefore, geographical research was focused on the impact of remote work on commuting patterns and urban sprawl, with questions like whether longer commutes lead to a greater likelihood of adopting remote work practices or not.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, dramatically changed the landscape, with current figures for the UK and some other European countries (Figure 1) suggesting a high proportion of workers who now work primarily or regularly from home. This indicates that remote working is no longer just an occasional practice or alternative to commuting, but rather a more established and integrated element of how work gets done. Confirming Autor’s (2001) predictions, we can see how remote work has become a significant factor in weakening the tie between jobs and specific locations, fulfilling his vision of a more geographically independent workforce.

Figure 1. Percentage of employed persons 15-64 years who ‘usually’ work at home in 2023, by countries

Bar chart showing percentage of employed persons 15-64 years who ‘usually’ work at home in 2023, by countries

Source: Eurostat, Table ‘Employed persons working from home as a percentage of the total employment, by sex, age and professional status (%)’ [lfsa_ehomp]

Clearly, this greater independence from local labour market conditions could enable migration, which raises the question: how has remote working actually transformed internal migration patterns post-pandemic? We still know little about this, although it has been suggested that the consequences of the weakening of geographical restrictions in the labour market through remote working are likely to extend well beyond urban areas. Indeed, while international evidence from several industrialised nations showed a decline in internal migration during the first lockdown in 2020, this was followed by a reported increase in the latter half of 2020. This trend occurred in Germany, Spain, Sweden and the United States and sparked research into pandemic-linked population decline in inner-city areas, along with population growth in rural areas and towns near metropolitan centres, including in Canada. While this research identified some important population shifts, notably from urban to rural areas, it also found that internal migration continued to decline in some countries, like Australia, while in others, such as Great Britain, it fell before rebounding to pre-COVID levels. This suggests that projections of a widespread ‘urban exodus’ or ‘rural revival’ linked to remote work have been country-specific and that further research is needed to specify and explain these variations.

Can remote work, through its influence on migration patterns, revitalise regional development?

The rise in remote work coupled with indications of a substantial but uneven impact on internal migration flows, has sparked a debate about its potential to address challenges in urban and regional development. This debate centres on the possibility of remote work facilitating out-migration from congested cities and large urban areas, with people relocating to more rural or less economically developed regions. Proponents argue that remote work migration can alleviate problems like congestion and pollution while simultaneously rejuvenating struggling rural and ‘left behind’ places. The concept of remote worker in-migration as a development strategy aligns with the promotion of ‘creative rural spaces’. Here, the development of regional creative industries is seen as a pathway to economic growth and cultural vitality provided that challenges like limited infrastructure can be addressed. However, critics argue that the in-migration of high-skilled and high-income remote workers to desirable rural areas could lead to rising housing costs and competition for resources, potentially displacing lower-income residents.

However, the potential benefits of remote work extend beyond out-migration. Instead of simply causing out-migration from urban centres, remote work opportunities could also have the opposite effect: in cities and regions with fewer economic opportunities, particularly those that have historically seen an outflow of young, skilled workers (especially graduates), remote work could act as a retaining force. Staying put in their hometowns could become a more attractive option for these workers, allowing them to avoid the high cost of living in major cities. This is particularly relevant in the UK, where London has long benefited from an influx of young graduates from other regions, creating stark regional imbalances. The difficulty of retaining graduates isn’t just an issue for Northern cities like Manchester or Sheffield, even those in the South East such as Southampton lose a significant proportion of their student population after graduation.

Remote work, then, has the potential to disrupt this pattern and contribute to a more balanced distribution of talent across the UK. The West Midlands, with its established cities like Birmingham, could be a prime beneficiary of this shift. However, Birmingham’s recent out-migration trends, particularly among young people, suggest further investigation is needed to understand if, and how much, remote work is aiding retention in this specific region. In 2019, the West Midlands stood out in comparison to other English regions, as well as Scotland and Wales, because it experienced negative net internal migration, meaning more people were leaving than moving into the region within the UK. The only other region with this trend was London which has been attributed to the so-called ‘escalator effect’, where young people migrate to the capital for career advancement but tend to move elsewhere later in life.

Data on young people (22-30 years old) leaving Birmingham, specifically, shows minimal change or even a slight increase between 2019 and 2022 (an estimated outflow of 25,400 individuals in 2022 versus 24,000 individuals in 2019). These figures include all departures from Birmingham, which is the largest city in the West Midlands region, including movement to nearby cities (e.g. Solihull) and surrounding areas. To definitively assess remote work’s impact on the region’s ability to retain particularly young talent, a more detailed analysis is required. This analysis would need to reveal internal migration patterns within the region to show whether young people are (i) staying put in Birmingham (ii) moving to different areas within the West Midlands region, or (iii) relocating further afield. With a clearer picture of these migration flows, we would then be able to better assess the specific impact of remote work in this locality and its role in the evolving landscape of urban and regional development.

Looking forward: an agenda for research

Historically, internal migration has been on a steady decline in many countries. However, the pandemic, with its forced lockdowns and shift to remote working, has reignited international interest in these migration patterns and trends. The widespread adoption of remote work during the pandemic challenged assumptions about the need for physical proximity to work, leading researchers and policymakers to question whether remote work opportunities could lead to a resurgence of internal migration, particularly as people re-evaluate their living situations and priorities.

As we move forward in a post-pandemic world with increasingly widespread remote work opportunities, the impact on the level of migration remains uncertain. It’s possible that migration could increase, leading to a shift in urban and regional population dynamics. Conversely, we could see a decline in movement as remote work allows people to stay put. In this way, remote work’s influence on migration could mirror how ICTs have previously served to limit migration.

The ultimate impact likely varies significantly between countries. Factors like the pre-pandemic prevalence of remote work and the distribution – or concentration – of the working-age population and of jobs all play a role. To gain a clearer picture, further research is needed. This research should not only explore which regions are sending or receiving (high-skilled) internal migrants but also focus on graduate and worker retention. Key questions include: Can remote work attract and retain talent in economically disadvantaged or sparsely populated regions? And, under what conditions can remote work contribute to the revitalisation of declining or ‘lagging behind’ economies?

As remote work becomes increasingly commonplace, a comprehensive approach is essential for understanding and (potentially) shaping the future of work. While advancements in communication and collaboration tools undoubtedly play a pivotal role, the trajectory of this future hinges on more than just technological capabilities and skills. Policy implementation, particularly how regions respond to and leverage the opportunities for remote work to aid their (re)development, will be a major deciding factor. In essence, the ‘how’ of policy implementation holds equal weight to the ‘what’ of technological advancements when considering the long-term impact of remote work for urban and regional economies.

This blog was written by Dr Darja Reuschke, Associate Professor at City-REDI, University of Birmingham, and Professor Julie MacLeavy, Professor of Economic Geography at the University of Bristol.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI / WMREDI or the University of Birmingham.

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1 thought on “The Post-pandemic Migration Shift? How Remote Work May Be Changing Where We Live”

  1. I think it’s going to be really interesting to see the extent to which people continue to want to live in cities, while ties to their workplace weaken. Will there be a difference in fortune for cities more or less popular as places of consumption / with high amenity values?
    Some early analysis I’ve done on the internal migration statistics for London suggests a sharp increase in out-migration during the pandemic, followed by a return to pre-pandemic migration patterns. I’m really interested to see what the 2022-23 data (coming soon hopefully) says!

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