Tulsa’s innovative program supports remote workers and economic development through COVID-19 and beyond

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Even prior to 2020, remote working was becoming an increasingly popular option as collaborative technology platforms and decentralized teams freed workers from their physical office locations. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, supercharged and, in many cases, mandated remote work as offices around the world shut down.

While existing remote work challenges, such as the loss of innovation hubs, are layered with unique COVID-19-related hurdles, the world will undoubtedly see a continued increase in remote working, even after offices reopen. Employers have seen that remote teams can collaborate successfully, and employees will be reluctant to leave the geographic and scheduling flexibility that remote work has provided. Postpandemic, remote work could help alleviate some of the inequalities and mobility issues for the future workforce and help certain demographic groups, such as new parents or those who can’t afford to live in expensive urban areas. Companies too can benefit—by needing less office space and by attracting and retaining happier, more productive workers.

Remote work also presents opportunities for communities to revitalize local economies and develop new industries. Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, is boosting local economic growth through a remote-working program called Tulsa Remote. Participants in the program, who must already be working in a job that allows them to work from anywhere, receive $10,000 for relocation to Tulsa, membership to a local coworking space, help connecting to the Tulsa community, and assistance finding housing. The program began as an experiment on how to attract and retain talent in Tulsa and transformed into a successful program that has drawn more than 50,000 applicants in only a few years. The initiative has brought more than 1,300 remote workers to the Tulsa area and is making a meaningful impression on the local economy. According to a recent economic impact report from the Economic Innovation Group, for every dollar spent on the Tulsa Remote program, there has been an estimated $13.77 return in new local labor income to the region. In addition, the average income of participants is nearly $105,000 and four in ten participants plan to start their own entrepreneurial ventures in Tulsa. The program’s success so far has been in its ability to support remote workers through providing a community, professional support, and incentives, while also introducing people to a low-cost city they may not have considered before.

Ben Stewart, executive director of Tulsa Remote
Ben Stewart, executive director of Tulsa Remote
Ben Stewart, executive director of Tulsa Remote

Ben Stewart, the executive director of Tulsa Remote, sees a unique community value from the program as a recruiting engine that diversifies the talent ecosystem by bringing in workers with quality jobs, an entrepreneurial spirit, and sought-after skills into the area. Stewart is proud that the program has attracted diverse applicants, from a former Harlem Globetrotter to professionals from top firms such as Apple, Google, and Microsoft, and that 90 percent of participants have stayed in Tulsa after the yearlong program is completed. “Remote working due to the pandemic really supercharged the program, as millions more Americans can choose where they work,” says Stewart.

One of the biggest challenges many remote workers face is the feeling of isolation and the struggle of building a professional community, which was particularly acute during COVID-19-related lockdowns. Programs like Tulsa Remote can help build this connectivity through support networks, meetups, professional events, and coworking spaces. Even during the lockdown, Tulsa Remote not only held the now-ubiquitous virtual town halls and happy hours but led virtual training sessions on topics like best practices in board leadership to help members explore volunteer board opportunities in the community. Stewart shared that “people don’t necessarily enjoy a Zoom meetup after being on a computer screen all day, so we tried to hold shared experiences that felt authentic and unique, while still following safety guidelines.” Some of these included an outdoor concert at an abandoned loft space, a documentary screening of Tulsa Remote’s journey at a drive-in theater, and a Christmas light tour of Tulsa with a curated map and cocoa stations. One of the program’s participants, Taylor Allen, shared that she was concerned about losing community during remote work, but that Tulsa Remote has helped connect her to other workers sharing similar personal and professional interests.

Many remote workers face feelings of isolation. Programs like Tulsa Remote can help build connectivity through support networks, meetups, and professional events.

Despite the challenges that crop up when working away from an office, many remote workers have found solace in the freedom that this type of working arrangement can provide. “Knowing there aren’t arbitrary reasons for being tied to a desk, I can adapt and make my schedule around the mindset of what it means to be at work, for myself,” explains Nashaira Ofori. Likewise, Obum Ukabam found that flexible hours and freedom from a traditional schedule allowed him to work when he’s at his “best and produce better quality output.”

Obum Ukabam
Obum Ukabam
Obum Ukabam

The Tulsa Remote program, however, is not necessarily the right program for all cities hoping to attract highly paid remote workers. Tulsa was categorized by McKinsey Global Institute’s recent Future of Work report as a “stable city” in the “mixed middle,” described as having modest postrecession GDP and population growth, a prosperous past but uncertain future, and neither thriving nor in distress. For a city like Tulsa to attract remote workers, Stewart believes that the “place making has to happen first”—and that the social infrastructure, such a vibrant arts scene and appealing public spaces, needs to be in place before launching a remote-work program. Examples in Tulsa include the Gathering Place, a 100-acre waterfront park recently ranked by USA Today as the best city park, the Philbrook Museum of Art, the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, the Bob Dylan Center, and a thriving culinary scene.

With remote work now abruptly moved to the mainstream, what advice can Tulsa Remote participants share with those that already have a long-distance relationship with their office? “Remote work requires a passion for what you’re doing—with delight comes discipline,” says Allen.

While it’s hard to imagine exactly what the future of work will look like, remote work will likely remain an important component. Programs like Tulsa Remote are looking to help shape the relationship and discussion between remote workers and employers. Stewart believes that some of the power dynamics have shifted to the individual by providing more agency and giving workers more autonomy to make decisions that are right for themselves and their families.

Tulsa Remote provides one innovative example of how to manage changes as technology and external conditions redefine workers’ relationship with the office. Or as Tulsa Remote participant Ukabam observes, “Tulsa Remote took a chance on something that is going to be the future, by showing remote workers how to have great lives across the country.”

Learn more about Tulsa Remote and its participants in these stories from NBC News, Bloomberg CityLab, and Fast Company.

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