How do regions attract in-bound investments in the era of remote work?

By Kavan Bhandary

The great remote work experiment is changing the way companies think about their talent acquisition. Many workplaces will not return to the old ways.

Their hands may have been forced but companies have embraced this new model and recognised its latent potential to massively broaden the pool of available talent. Economic activity is becoming more dispersed. Cities, which have proved resilient to past disruptions, are facing competition from other regions. The pandemic has already boosted the appeal to corporations of suburban locations according to Site Selectors Guild. ‘Work from home’ has freed millions of workers from their daily commute. Traditional business districts hubs may choose to invest in better mobility infrastructure if they are to attract them back.

Emerging trends have been supercharged

The trend was already emerging with concepts such as the ‘gig economy’ and ‘open talent’ gaining traction over recent years. Investments in talent platforms are booming. Five years ago McKinsey estimated these ‘matchmaking’ solutions would add US$2.7trillion to global GDP by 2025. Whether culturally driven or tech-led, Covid-19 has supercharged these trends.

This change in the way companies think about talent, and where it resides, has profound implications for regional authorities that want to attract in-bound investment and jobs. In the past regions offered incentives to investors based on the number of jobs being created locally. If the investor no longer sees that as a meaningful metric, what can the region do to differentiate itself and retain its appeal?

Once a vaccine is available, companies will compete for talent based on their flexibility and willingness to enable a better work/life balance. As the dust settles, those that respond positively will win, those that drag their feet will likely see attrition spike.

“In the past employees who stayed home had to overcome the suspicion that they were bunking off. Now those who insist on being at the office sound self-important”, says The Economist.

Stand out from the crowd

Regions must develop distinct offerings that appeal in a new world of work.

Build a robust digital strategy

Remote work is only possible when reliable and resilient digital infrastructure exists. Locations should have a strong digital strategy in place and present evidence that it allows workers to operate seamlessly within their increasingly wide boundaries. Since market dynamics change at such speed, companies see digital transformation as a vital path to growth. Can your region support and enable their ambitions? Access to 5G and super-fast broadband must be part of the plan.

Promote flexible employment policies

Regions may consider offering incentives to teleworkers. By making themselves magnets for highly skilled talent they can give themselves a competitive edge. Some states of the USA were already incentivising remote workers before the pandemic hit. Many more are doing so now. Where transport links were previously a priority, other factors such as access to nature, local community and other lifestyle factors will become important. Are you making the most of your natural assets and putting them at the heart of your value proposition?

Twin locally to win

Forging links between towns and cities in far-flung parts of the world originated in the aftermath of World War II as a way to promote friendship and reconciliation. More recently local officials, such as mayors, have seen the potential to build strategic alliances between cities. Most often the focus is on international pairings, but cities might find opportunities closer to home. Hub and spoke-type clusters which give in-bound companies access to dispersed talent within a region can offer competitive advantage. Do you have existing partnerships that can be dusted off or new ones to forge?

Look to the future

Some places have historically built brand value on the back of their appeal as hubs and markets; think London, New York, and Hong Kong. But times change. Rome, Athens and Constantinople were once the global hotspots famed for their bazaars. Now they compete more for tourist dollars than for FDI. The Bay Area of San Francisco was a little-known centre for military technology until the 1970s when it became the epicentre of a computing boom and Silicon Valley was born. It now has the third highest GDP of anywhere in the world. Are you set to be a new star of the 21st century?

Remote works’ unintended consequences

The mythology of Silicon Valley is rooted in the spontaneous coffee shop meetings that seeded billion-dollar businesses. Without the serendipity of chance get-togethers at the Creamery or the local hipster cafe or watercooler chats we may see a dip in start-up activity. And work from home will rob many of the chance of an office romance which, despite the concerns of HR professionals, have been the spark for many happy unions. I’m sure someone is getting ready to launch a remote work romance app!

All aspects of our lives have changed in the past half year. Old orders have been replaced. New rules offer new opportunities. As companies come to terms with the realities of remote work at scale, they will need partners who can respond creatively.

McKinsey, 2015:
The Economist, 2020:

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