Sukriti Chadha was working in New York as a developer for Yahoo, never imagining life outside of a major city, when the pandemic landed and changed all her plans.
"I never even envisioned going to even Chicago, to be honest," says Chadha, who has been working remotely and living with friends on Lookout Mountain since April. "In March, it felt really unsafe to be in New York. The numbers were going crazy. Chattanooga seemed like a really cool place to be."
Now, Chadha says, she's wondering if life in a mid-sized city might suit her just fine.
"People with my skill set are in huge numbers in cities like New York, and here I've been able to meet so many people and build relationships because there aren't as many me's here," says Chadha, who landed a new job with Spotify in September. "I'm starting to think about maybe this makes sense for longer term, but I haven't made up my mind yet."
The data is still wobbly, but there are strong indications that the pandemic will open up a world of possibilities for people who want to keep their big-city jobs but live in smaller communities, says Molly Blankenship, vice president of talent initiatives for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and executive director of Chattanooga 2.0.
"Certainly the pandemic has posed enormous challenges, but there are opportunities embedded in it, and we see a really timely opportunity to recruit remote worker talent," she says. "There's a pretty significant mass exodus from those larger markets."
A survey from real estate data clearinghouse Redfin in May showed more than 50% of people in New York, Seattle, San Francisco and Boston would move if work-from-home arrangements became permanent.
"Redfin is preparing for a seismic demographic shift toward smaller cities," Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman writes in an online post about the findings.
According to a Pew Research Center survey in July, 22% of U.S. adults either moved or know someone who moved during the pandemic. By comparison, in 2019, the Census Bureau reported fewer than 10% of Americans moved to new places, the lowest rate since it began tracking moves in 1947.
Goodbye, big city
harles Wood, vice president of economic development for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, says the exodus from big cities may be tough to quantify at the moment, but there's enough anecdotal evidence to suggest it's an important trend to chase. Chattanooga's reasonable cost of living, high-speed internet infrastructure and natural beauty are all selling points that appeal to folks looking to make a move, Wood says.
"We started polling some investors around should we be recruiting remote workers in spring and early summer - should be we doing it knowing we probably aren't going to be able to show specific results?" Wood says. "The feedback from investors was absolutely we should still do this. There's enough anecdotal evidence that this makes sense."
And while individual data on the trend hasn't come into sharp focus just yet, it's clear that businesses are less likely right now to be making relocation decisions than their employees, he adds.
"Companies right now are not making location decisions for offices," he says. "The companies we're talking to are trying to reduce their corporate footprint, but the individuals who work for them are making those decisions."
In 2019, Andrew Voss was living in Los Angeles and working at his dream job as a rocket scientist for SpaceX, but he was restless - and so was his wife, Adeline.
"She is the type of person who understands space and community and, like, being a human being more than a robotic engineer man," Voss laughs. "She got to L.A. and it became more apparent that was never going to be our forever place."
Voss had moved to Los Angeles in 2016, after graduating from Vanderbilt University and working as an intern at SpaceX during college. Adeline joined him in the summer of 2019, after working for a while in Denmark after college.
When they started considering moving out of L.A., they were initially targeting 2023 since Andrew had some financial incentives to stay at SpaceX for a few more years. But they also had the feeling they were burning daylight.
"In the fall of 2019, I started connecting some some dots in my head," Andrew says. "I had some revelations and prayer that maybe I didn't need all those incentives from SpaceX, and we could start our family now and just get started establishing ourselves in a new place."
Andrew is from Columbia, South Carolina, and Adeline is from Birmingham, Alabama, and they had both been to Chattanooga for short visits during college.
"We had both been struck by the magic of Chattanooga from those trips," Andrew says.
Adeline had a remote job with a tech company she could do from anywhere. Andrew knew he wouldn't find an aerospace job in Chattanooga, but he had an idea for a nonprofit educational startup - and knew the city had a growing entrepreneurial scene.
In March, they made the leap. Two weeks after they got here, the pandemic hit.
"Those were a cool two weeks," Andrew says.
His vision for launching rocketry teams at area schools was temporarily off course - he couldn't see trying to form a nonprofit and asking for funding in an environment where those resources should go to economic recovery. But he sold a few schools on the idea of a rocketry team and got his business, Tiger Team University, off the ground that way.
"I carried on, and just a handful of people gave me opportunities," he says. "This has been the linchpin of Tiger Team getting to be where it is today."
He's also teaching at an online school called Astronova that began at SpaceX.
"I have online students from around the world," Andrew says. "I've got an unbelievable little rocket scientist in Sicily, and a ton in L.A."
And Chattanooga feels like home, he says.
"I love outdoor beauty and to live in a nice quiet place with mountains and gorgeous stuff," he says. "Chattanooga has a very special outdoor scene."
Chadha is also sold on the natural beauty of the area, she says.
"I've gotten to see a fair bit - coffee at Rembrandt's, the river, the Tennessee Aquarium," she says. "There's a good combination of all of that and things to do, but also the nature side of things. I haven't seen that combination anywhere else."
Being in an unfamiliar place with a long-distance gig hasn't slowed her down a bit.
Chadha, who moved to the U.S. from India in 2010 to attend Princeton, has completed her pilot's license at Lovell Field, worked with Red Bank High School students to develop technology for students on the autism spectrum, and collaborated with a technology accelerator in Australia.
"They normally don't collaborate with people here because of the distance," she says. "It's working beautifully."
But the remote work trend isn't just drawing new people to the area - it's also allowing folks who want to stay in the Scenic City to take jobs out of town.
After 23 years with family ministry First Things First in Chattanooga, CEO Julie Baumgardner is starting a new job with the WinShape Foundation in Mt. Berry, Georgia. The ministry created by Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy and his wife Jeanette is based in Mt. Berry, Georgia, which is 75 miles south of Chattanooga. Baumgardner will remain in Chattanooga, where she has lived since 1987, and work remotely much of the time, spending a day or two a week at the office.
"It's the best of both worlds," Baumgardner says.
Most employees of the foundation are working remotely, and there's a growing acceptance of remote work that probably wouldn't have been possible without the jarring changes delivered by the pandemic, she says.
"It's been a game-changer for so many entities," Baumgardner says. "People can be productive at home. Yes, there are challenges, but I also think that people have done a lot of adapting and adjusting and getting in a groove and figuring things out."
It's not clear whether this long-distance arrangement would have been possible without the pandemic, but she does know that the job wouldn't have been an option if she had been required to move, Baumgardner says. Her in-laws live next door, and her husband is a Chattanooga native.
"That could have potentially been a dealbreaker," she says.
Chattanooga's proximity to major metros Atlanta and Nashville has always been a selling point, and works even more in its favor when it comes to remote work, Wood says. Even for remote workers, presence is sometimes important, and Chattanooga is nearby enough to make it feasible.
"It's likely companies will still want some proximity to a corporate location," Wood says. "Moving to Montana might be a challenge, but moving to Chattanooga where you can be in the office at 9 a.m. in Atlanta may not be a challenge."
Baumgardner says the ability to easily be in the office a day or two a week was also a factor in her new long-distance job.
The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce launched a website in December — ChattanoogaCalling.com — to connect local jobseekers to opportunities for employment and training, and recruit people who are considering moving to Chattanooga.
"They were very willing to be flexible, but they were very clear that presence mattered," she says. "Presence is super important when it's safe to be present."
At the same time, the focus on recruiting remote workers doesn't come at the expense of work to train and recruit local talent, Wood says.
"This is no way takes away from the pipeline development of talent," he says.
The Chamber launched a website in December - ChattanoogaCalling.com - to connect local jobseekers to opportunities for employment and training, with a secondary focus on recruiting people who are considering moving to Chattanooga.
"We have a lot of people who are already here in Chattanooga who are a critical part of our pipelines and workforce," Wood says. "This is a unique opportunity to target people who could have a significant impact on Chattanooga, but not at the expense of our efforts locally."