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How COVID could save Rural BC

Dene Moore: The pandemic is expected to cause a massive shift towards working from home. For affordable, beautiful rural communities with more space than people, this could be a game-changer.
Better than a cubicle – shame about the WiFi, though.

I’ve been working from home, on and off, for almost five years. The problem is the view of the lake from my front window. And the birds with their endless singing and shenanigans. And the dog, which thinks we should spend our days walking through the woods.

Other than that, my work days as a freelance writer are not much different from my work days in a newsroom. I call people. I ask them stuff about stuff. I write the stuff they say about the stuff in articles, and people give me money for it.

When I used to tell people I worked from home, they heard that I was “working” from home. Yeah. Right.

But at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, almost everyone who was still working was working from home, at least in part.

Remote work has proven more than possible for many, and an economic saviour for most.

The federal government says it is looking into making the home office permanent for some of its hundreds of thousands of public service employees. Ottawa already had a not-insignificant number of remote workers among the ranks, prior to the closures of office buildings.

A survey of large company executives by The Conference Board in the United States found 77 per cent expect the trend toward working at least three days a week at home to continue even after COVID is no longer a public health emergency.

“An increase in remote working could become the most influential legacy of COVID-19,” says the board report.

I certainly hope so.

You see, rural British Columbia is dying. The smaller communities like the one where I live are overwhelmingly aged. The economic opportunities are few and generally lower-paying than those in urban centres. Jobs are often concentrated in resource industries that are cyclical, at best, or coming to their economic end, at worst.

Young people are forced to leave to find opportunity elsewhere. The tax base is low, with a very vocal senior component for whom investing in long-term cultural and recreational opportunities is often not a priority.

That means fewer opportunities for children and families, which further drives young people and families elsewhere.

At the same time, urban British Columbia is facing its own crisis. How long will young people keep working in cities where many jobs don’t even come close to covering rent? Where a mid-career professional with a six-figure salary would have to think twice about buying a one-bedroom condo?

The average price of a home sold in northern B.C. in May was $326,578, according to the BC Northern Real Estate Board. That covers the area from the Cariboo and up.

The average price of a detached Vancouver home in February was $1,433,900, according to the market watch report from the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver. The benchmark price of a condo at the time was $677,200.

For comparison, $669,000 where I live in the South Cariboo will buy you this 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom home on Horse Lake lakefront.

In Prince Rupert, this three-bedroom with an ocean view is listed for $674,900.

A thriving digital economy will be the key driver of B.C.’s economic future. It can also be a driver of rural B.C.’s economic and cultural renewal – if we let it. But there’s work to do.

There are challenges to remote work, including the appalling state of rural connectivity. Reliable, high-speed internet is a precursor to being able to work from home or a remote office and the province has recently announced funding to help fix it. There will need to be prolonged, thoughtful planning to address the problem because, believe me, it is appalling and a workable evolution of work means more than a couple of awkward Zoom meetings.

Child care issues will need to be addressed. We are now seeing parents – mostly women – forced out of their working life not by the COVID pandemic but by the lack of available child care.

Employers and employees, and the organizations that represent them, will need to put careful planning and cooperation into fair compensation for home office work and measures of accountability for remote workers. That will have to include clear boundaries in order to manage a healthy work-life balance.

For their part, rural communities need to put in the effort and forethought to create communities where people want to live for the long-term.

The pandemic is still unfolding and we don’t know what the future holds. Most health experts warn that we should expect – at least – a second wave of the virus this fall. Start planning that home office now.

Whatever its other impacts, COVID will certainly be a disruptor – and the way we work may well be one of the virus’s ongoing legacies.

Dene Moore is an award-winning journalist and writer. A news editor and reporter for The Canadian Press news agency for 16 years, Moore is now a freelance journalist living in the South Cariboo. Moore’s two decades in daily journalism took her as far afield as Kandahar as a war correspondent and the Innu communities of Labrador. She has worked in newsrooms in Vancouver, Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon, St. John’s and Edmonton. She has been published in the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s magazine, the New York Times and the Toronto Star, among others. She is a Habs fan and believes this is the year.


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