BLOOMINGTON — Inside a 19,000-square-foot old furniture factory in downtown Bloomington, remote workers gather to start their workdays.
Pat East hops on a work call from an open desk in the middle of the working space. He's the executive director of The Mill, this co-working and incubator space in Bloomington.
"We fully renovated a 100-year-old furniture factory four years ago. So everything in here is top to bottom brand new," East said. "And we did it because we wanted to reboot and reset our economy and bring Bloomington into the new economy. So everything here is related to coworking and startups and investment and everything to support that ecosystem."
The space offers private rooms and desks for startups and entrepreneurs with more a flexible membership than your typical lease, breaking barriers for people trying to get into that space.
East said we let the genie out of the bottle when it comes to remote work during the pandemic, and he says it is going to be impossible to put it back in.
The pandemic catapulted us into the world of remote work and things will never fully go back to the way they used to be.
"Workers love the flexibility of being able to work wherever they want to, whenever they want to," East said. "But I do think that there will be a kind of a renewed emphasis on physical space, just in a much different way than what we've thought about previously."
East says coworking spaces, like The Mill, provide not only the essentials like WiFi, a desk, conference room options, a kitchenette and more, but they provide a community for the remote worker.
"They want a community," East said. "Really finding your place in the world and finding people that you connect with is important. And so having a coworking space, like The Mill, where people can come to and gather and be able to connect with 350 other like-minded folks is really important."
That is the case for William Mundorf. He got a membership at The Mill a few months ago.
He works here in downtown Bloomington even those his financial technology company is out of San Fransisco.
"I came here because I'm in a relationship and she recently moved here," Mundorf said. "So I was looking for the opportunity to live with her, but also still have a more normal work environment and The Mill has been able to offer that."
He said his commute is short but even that is enough distance to separate his work life from his home life.
"It's great to be able to see everybody every day and also there's a lot of benefits here like the coffee and all the different booths in case you want to have a private conversation," Mundorf said. "So it's everything I could want in a coworking space."
Mundorf graduated college not too many years ago and says people in his generation are leaning into the possibility of remote work.
"I was starting to go back in person at my last job. I know that there was a lot of resistance there, especially among my peers, because there is so much more time in the day and more flexibility when you are working from home or working remotely," Mundorf said. "Especially working remotely you can then choose to live where you want and you don't have to be limited by where a company is located."
Ball State Economist Michael Hicks is tracking this trend among recent college grads.
"The new jobs that are coming up are disproportionally remote work. So we know from graduates from college last spring, as much as 50 percent took jobs that are either partially or fully remote," Hicks said. "So that just changes the landscaping, the geography of work."
Hicks said before the pandemic, we saw a single-digit share of Americans working fully remote, around 3 to 4%. There was some hybrid work at the time, but that was less common.
Then during the pandemic with lockdowns and restrictions on gatherings, Hicks says that number jumped from anywhere between one in three to half of Americans working remote or some sort of hybrid.
Now post-pandemic, many workers returned to the office but still, a large number are either partially or fully remote, around 20 to 25%.
He said this quick change in the landscape of labor could impact both downtowns and smaller towns in different ways.
"I think we will see big changes to how downtowns are used, more for people less for business," Hicks said.
He predicts some office spaces may be replaced by more housing in cities including housing for employees at some bigger businesses looking to attract workers.
He says the increase in remote work is an opportunity for smaller towns outside of urban areas to attract these types of workers.
Hicks said communities on the fringes of urban areas with good schools and amenities stand to benefit from an influx of remote workers moving to their communities.
"For communities that don't really have those world-class schools, amenities, housing assets, you still have time to get into that game, but you better hurry up or else you will get left behind," Hicks said.
Cities like Bloomington already have a horse in the race.
Through the organization, Make My Move, East and The Mill created a site called Bloomington Remote.
The goal of the website is to showcase what Bloomington has to offer to the remote worker, including the communal space, The Mill.
"When you go to the website, it is a gorgeous, gorgeous depiction of here's what it is like to live and play in Bloomington. And so a ton of pictures really highlights all the uniqueness of Bloomington," East said. "And we're really unapologetic about here's why you should choose Bloomington. We're not everything to everybody, not every city needs to be."
Through the website, East says they have been able to attract remote workers from across the country and even some from around the world to live and play in Bloomington while their company is based somewhere else.
"The reason why people move here is because they really love the quality of life. They love the membership option here at The Mill, there's an instant community they can tap into. And a lot of times, there's some family reasons. So they want to be close to family, but not too close," East said. "Bloomington is geographically right in the middle of the Midwest, so we hit a lot of spots for folks."
If you want to learn more about membership options and perks at The Mill you can head to its website.
If you want to learn more about living in Bloomington, you can visit Bloomington Remote's website.
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