Harrisonburg seeks to appeal to remote workers

The Wetsel’s Seed building is slated to become an innovation hub in 2024 that will have space for remote workers and start-up companies. (File photo)

By Michael Russo, contributor

While remote work was one of notable societal shifts during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not going out of style — at least in Harrisonburg. In fact, local economic development leaders are making remote work a focus of their sales pitches to employers and employees. 

“I am excited about this — this initiative. I think it helps many different areas,” Brian Shull, Harrisonburg’s executive director of economic development. “Yes, we could attract some talent here and also people who are working for other businesses, so that gets us connections with businesses that aren’t physically located here right now.”

Shull said his office focuses on three main priorities: attracting businesses, retaining businesses and allowing them to expand, as well as encouraging entrepreneurship. 

Shull said these strategies can come into play in different ways. For instance, if someone moves to the area for a job, it could allow their partner to work remotely for a company based elsewhere. This flexibility also applies to entrepreneurs, Shull said, who could start up a business from their home in Harrisonburg or a coworking space like The Perch at Magpie or the yet-to-open Harrisonburg Innovation Hub.

The growing potential of the city’s initiative to draw more remote workers to Harrisonburg includes all three of those areas, he said, calling it “a win-win all the way around.”

At the heart of the messaging to prospective workers and employers are Harrisonburg’s characteristics: its proximity to universities and recreation, its affordability, and its accessibility to metropolitan areas. 

Navigating the remote work landscape

Remote work was among the the key focuses of the recent Valley TechCon.23 conference last month that brought business leaders, educators and tech experts to Hotel Madison and Shenandoah Valley Conference Center. 

During one panel, for instance, several experts said Harrisonburg appeals to many people for its high quality of life, as well as lower cost of labor and living compared to areas like northern Virginia and the Richmond area, while still being only two hours away from the nation’s capital. Proximity to local universities like JMU and EMU and ability to tap into their networks of students, faculty and alumni also presents strong benefits, the experts said. 

Kirsten Moore, owner of the coworking space The Perch at Magpie, for instance, said part of remote work is breaking away from the idea that one will be working the typical 9-to-5, 40-hour work week, especially when using a coworking space. Remote workers like her husband, Moore said, have more flexibility, and if they satisfy benchmarks and deliver quality products in their job, they’re still meeting the necessary outcomes. And if that doesn’t take a full eight hours or between traditional bankers’ hours, that’s OK. 

“I do think it is about how do you change that mindset?” Moore said. “We have a lot of people who aren’t there every day, they just kind of need a change of scenery, or they need to focus more than they can focus somewhere else. So there’s definitely a change in learning how to work this way.”

But she said there’s still work to be done in improving the city’s infrastructure and creating more opportunities to “make it easy for cool businesses to come in and do cool things” in Harrisonburg. That’s especially true when remote work can be done anywhere, she told the conference participants, who included policy makers such as Harrisonburg Vice Mayor Laura Dent and city council member Dany Fleming. 

Ben Markowitz, product design lead for health care technology company Rialtic, said remote work isn’t about doing less or more — someone could think of something for a project they’re working on while taking a run on an extended lunch break. It’s simply working differently while maintaining the same level of quality, he said. 

Dozens of people attended the Valley TechCon.23 conference at Hotel Madison in May in which attracting tech innovators and employees emphasized the continued role of remote work. (Photo by Michael Russo)

A not-so-remote reality

Dave Urso, a business consultant and dean of academic affairs at Blue Ridge Community College who moderated the expert panel, told The Citizen that part of the challenge of attracting remote workers is busting myths about what it really looks like. 

“If we’re trying to tell the story, we have to break a framework of going like, ‘remote work looks like I sit at my kitchen table for eight hours a day, five days in a row on a Zoom call doing my email and working,’” Urso said.

While Urso has an academic background he also has experience working with nonprofit organizations and views the benefits of attracting remote workers more holistically. 

“Remote work is about the community 100%,” Urso said. “Can this community thrive by giving remote workers access to resources they want [and] access to that thing they can break away and do in the middle of the afternoon for an hour to feel like they’re breaking up their day with something meaningful?”

When a remote workday becomes more fluid, work-life balance can blur, Urso said. So an employee must be intentional about when to take breaks. Someone taking a long lunch isn’t the end of the world if they’re also responding to messages on their own time.

Urso said remote work isn’t lonely either, as some may think from time working from home and limiting exposure to others during the pandemic. Coworking spaces, Urso said, present opportunities to find community among remote worker peers that one likely wouldn’t in a more traditional work environment.

Urso said if he were to visit The Perch, for example, he could have an open meeting where he and others can discuss problems they’re facing in their jobs. Though he works in academia, he might hear from others who work in healthcare or coding who bring different perspectives to finding a solution.

“I’m like, ‘I never would have thought of that because of my professional blinders. This is amazing,’” Urso said. “I think the coworking space is a resource at step one, but it’s actually like a think tank. What is happening by getting myriad perspectives [and] personalities … into the same space and going, ‘How do we leverage that?’ So the biggest win, I think, is saying, ‘Hey, this coworking space is about your job, but it’s also the community of workers who are like you, collectively lifting us up.’”

Coming soon … 

The Harrisonburg Innovation Hub is set to continue to foster the kind of environment Urso described. Shull said the facility, which will take over the Wetsel Seed Building on West Market Street, will open in early 2024. It is expected to include 60 workspaces that can accommodate up to 100 businesses with office spaces, individual desks and conference spaces for workers to use. 

The new facility is modeled after the Staunton Innovation Hub, which Shull said has been successful since opening in October 2020.

To fill Harrisonburg and the new facility with more remote workers, Shull referred back to the TechCon panel and said alumni from local universities, such as the larger classes from JMU, are the “low-hanging fruit” of who to bring back to the area, even if the companies they work for are based elsewhere. Shull said he thinks it would be a joint effort between the city and universities to keep graduates in the area or entice them to return to Harrisonburg. 

It’s “in everybody’s best interests” to maintain connections among alumni, the schools and the city, he said. 

“They spent four years here, so they had the opportunity to learn all the great opportunities here,” Shull said. “That should be an easy target for us to remind them that they can come back and take advantage of what the Valley has to offer and still work where they need to work remotely.”

A growing population means a growing demand for housing. Shull said a number of housing development projects the city council has approved in the past two years will help address this issue but await finalized finances before breaking ground. 

Urso also suggested temporary housing — which is available through homestays and short-term rentals, like Airbnbs, in Harrisonburg — as an option for people who want to test out what it’s like being a remote worker in the Valley without fully committing right away.

Looking ahead, Urso said it’s up to elected officials to seize the opportunity. 

Shull’s office plans to continue showing off Harrisonburg and seeking to recruit new people while also working with current residents and business owners.

“One of the best things we can do is to continue to promote the Shenandoah Valley lifestyle as a great place to live and raise a family,” Shull said. “So if we continue to just work on the holistic approach of making Harrisonburg the best community we can in all aspects, that will naturally help spread the word to the remote worker crowd as well.”

Thanks for reading  The Citizen, which won the Virginia Press Association’s 2022 News Sweepstakes award as the top online news site in Virginia. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. We value your support.

Scroll to the top of the page

Hosting & Maintenance by eSaner

Thanks for reading The Citizen!

We’re glad you’re enjoying The Citizen, winner of the 2022 VPA News Sweepstakes award as the best online news site in Virginia! We work hard to publish three news stories every week, and depend heavily on reader support to do that.