Monday, June 22, 2009

Geographic Arbitrage: Telecommuting

I'm in love with the term "geographic arbitrage". If you are still wondering what it means, then consider the following Cleveland context:

As a newcomer to the region I’ve noticed that a lot of people who grew up here still have open emotional wounds about the region’s decline from its prime. Which is completely understandable. But regions and nations are subject to long (40-50 year) economic cycles, and a big part of my decision to come here was to be in the right place geographically as we move into a new information-based economic cycle.

So why not move to Silicon Valley if I think the next big wave is information-based? As another part of the Forbes article observes, “How 20th century.”

“This is the 21st century, man! Today you can enjoy the best of both worlds:

1. Live where you want.
2. Get paid like you’re in a big city
3. Never be isolated or bored.

“Say you’re a bright knowledge worker and have spent a decade or more in your industry, sharpening your skills, making the right contacts. You earn a decent salary on the metro coast, but those dollars just don’t stretch like they used to. So you decide to shake off the costly coastal infrastructure and relocate to a cheaper rural region. But you maintain your ties to the larger metro area and pull down the same amount of money as you did when you were living in Profligate Corners. In other words, you still harvest your dollars from Silicon Valley, Washington and New York, but now you spend and invest them in Bend or Boise [editorial edition on my part: or Cleveland!].

How can one live in Cleveland, but get paid like a New Yorker? Telecommuting. What's good for the worker is also good for the business:

"Employees are requesting the freedom and flexibility to work remotely, but in many cases it's driven by employers," says Elsbeth Mehrer, manager of workforce development for Calgary Economic Development (CED). ...

... "Our own research suggests employees ... can reduce their actual expenses by about $5,000 a year when they shift to a telecommuting model," says Craig Wilson, a best practices consultant with Avaya Inc., an Internet-based telephone services and technology firm.

But it's not just employees that stand to save money and time by spending less money on gas, lunches, coffee breaks and other work expenses.

Employers are realizing the bottom-line benefits, too.

"One employer simply didn't have the desks to house all of the people they needed, so they had some very specific targets they needed to hit so they could send a good proportion of their staff home," Mehrer says.

In addition to reduced real estate costs, it's another tool to help attract and retain a wider pool of talent. "You have this ability to tap into this workforce that is otherwise not accessible to you," she says.

Retirees, stay-at-home parents, students and the physically disabled are among the groups more likely to consider a job that allows them to telecommute. "It allows employers to reach out to a whole new set of labour markets," Wilson says.

I've seen evidence of Washington, DC-based companies using Pittsburgh as a location for geographic arbitrage. Following established pathways of out-migration is a great idea, thus creating the potential for urban economic pairs untethered from the proximity rule. With a talent shortage still looming on the horizon, casting a wider net for labor is sound business sense.

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