Location independence challenges experts, employers and municipalities

Multi-locality refers to everyday life in several spatial and operationally separate places, and movement between them. Remote work and multi-locality, which often go hand in hand in practice, became part of the everyday life of many people at the latest in the acute phase of the coronavirus pandemic. This was particularly the case with those engaged in expert work. Remote work and the opportunity to change the physical work environment in a multi-locational manner increase the freedom experienced by the employee, provide flexibility in terms of working hours and enable, for example, more versatile use of holiday homes. It is sometimes forgotten that opportunities to work remotely mainly concern the highly educated part of the population and expert tasks, whereas a large part of work carried out in the service and care sector cannot be done remotely.
Nainen katsoo läppäriä kahvilassa

At the moment, workplaces are considering ‘returning to the new normal’, which carries different meanings for different speakers. According to reports produced by various organisations and pension insurance companies, both companies and employees have the willingness to continue working remotely as a so-called new normal, but remote work does not suit all tasks and employees’ life situations. Experiences of short-term remote work, or remote work primarily conceived as temporary, have mainly been successful.

However, with the exception of a few pioneering work communities, only few workplaces have as yet gained long-term experiences of the transfer of tacit knowledge in work communities, or the ways in which new employees identify themselves as part of the new work community in organisations operating in multiple locations. What will be the implications if the workplace no longer returns to the regular ‘five days a week at the office’? What does multi-locality as an established practice mean from the perspective of working, living and entrepreneurship? How should municipalities recognise this phenomenon in their own development activities?

Multi-locality studies in Northern Ostrobothnia

The MOPPI project, implemented by the University of Oulu, has studied the experiences and expectations of companies, residents and municipalities in the region regarding remote and multi-location work. For entrepreneurs participating in the survey, the most common needs for the success of remote work are related to well-functioning telecommunications connections and expertise in the use of remote technology. For companies, remote work may reduce travel costs and make people use their working hours more efficiently, but the need to network and connect with people was highlighted in a large number of participating companies. According to the report, companies operating in rural areas, particularly self-employed persons using a home office, would be interested to test out affordable shared facilities, charged at an hourly or monthly rate, for business negotiations and meetings with customers.

From the perspective of employer companies, offering opportunities for remote working could help in the recruitment of experts, as accepting a job would not require moving to the area. This challenges the traditional thinking about the physical proximity of the workplace, home and permanent residence. Strategic planning in municipalities has also followed the principle of single workplaces, trusting that a job offer would bring new permanent residents to the municipality. According to the Municipal Survey in the MOPPI project, some municipalities have reservations about remote work, and they have not yet identified the special characteristics of their own region in terms of multi-locality. For example, towns profiled as tourism destinations could engage in strategic cooperation with each other to balance out the seasonal fluctuations in actual population. It may also be in the interest of municipalities to come up with agile platform economy solutions for multi-location work in order to increase the utilisation rate of residential and commercial properties.

The changing role of municipalities and regions

In other words, multi-locality and location independence do not only affect individuals, but they are also relevant for the work carried out in municipalities and companies, and the services they provide (Kupila, 2022). In the future, people’s mobility and multi-location living and working should also be taken into account in regional planning, research and development. When the physical location of the workplace is no longer a factor determining the employee’s (or entrepreneur’s) place of residence, they use other criteria to select their municipality of residence. In the future, the general attractiveness of the area, services and housing as well as partner’s employment opportunities will be crucial when choosing the place of residence.

Genuine multi-locality could mean that people alternate between different places of living and working. It is already fairly common to divide time between holiday homes and permanent homes, but a more extensive multi-locality extending outside of the holiday seasons will bring with it issues related to, for example, the provision and availability of public services. How to solve children’s daycare and schooling in a situation where their parents work in many places? From the perspective of municipalities, this is also a question of tax revenue, which is used to provide public services also to people with multiple residences (such as transport infrastructure, waste management, health services). While the concept of multi-locality steers people to move about and operate in an area of more than one municipality, this activity evades statistical records almost completely, which means that it does not steer the distribution of funding in regional development, such as state-funded support for infrastructure.

Will our future be location independent?

In the future, multi-locality can strengthen the balance between urban and rural areas if educated and creative people seek a natural living environment and take their jobs to rural areas (Lehtonen & Vihinen, 2020). The future prospect of an individual municipality is determined on the basis of how attractive and sustained the area is from the resident’s perspective. The same applies to employer companies: multi-locality may increase the chances of recruiting the best employees even internationally, if the task is otherwise attractive. Consequently, the importance of the employer brand is emphasised in the competition for employees.

In other words, the phenomenon of multi-locality does not comply with municipal boundaries, but, technically speaking, national boundaries are equally insignificant when working remotely online. This is why the phenomenon should also be examined a matter of priority in cross-border cooperation in, for example, the sparsely populated areas pf northern Finland and Sweden. There are universities and higher education institutions in the largest centres of these areas. After completing their studies, some graduates move from the area to another location, and the employment rates of international students in Finland are worryingly low.

For me as a researcher, the next topics of interest include the realisation of multi-locality from the perspective of recruitment by employer companies, entrepreneurial activities and other forms of employment of highly educated experts, as well as regional development in rural areas in the north. The poor availability of skilled labour is already testing many sectors, and population forecasts in rural and urban areas are growing further apart. If managed well, multi-locality can promote employment, help companies in recruitment, increase the well-being of the working population and even out differences between regions in terms of population forecasts.

Author: Anna-Mari Simunaniemi, PhD, MSc (Tech), Research Director for Micro-Entrepreneurship, Kerttu Saalasti Institute at the University of Oulu

Image: Yank Krukov, Pexels

Means for promoting multi-locality in housing, entrepreneurship and remote work in Northern Ostrobothnia (MOPPI) project. The Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment in Northern Ostrobothnia has granted funding for the project from the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development for 2021–2022. The project manager is Helka-Liisa Hentilä, Unit of Architecture at the University of Oulu.