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New Oxford study reveals remote work failing to bridge the urban-rural divide


New Oxford study reveals remote work failing to bridge the urban-rural divide

Published on
20 Oct 2022
Written by
Fabian Braesemann
New research from the University of Oxford shows how remote digital work is exacerbating the global urban-rurual divide.

New Oxford study reveals remote work failing to bridge the urban-rural divide

Remote digital work like accounting, data entry and graphic design, is exacerbating the global urban-rural divide, according to new analysis from academics at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. This comes despite the pandemic leading to an acceleration in the adoption of information and communication technologies at the workplace and the promise that remote working would distribute work opportunities more evenly across space.

In a new research paper, ‘The global polarisation of remote work’ published in leading journal PLOS ONE, Oxford Internet Institute academics examine the global geography of remote work mediated by online labour platforms.

Their analysis reveals how remote work conducted via online labour platforms such as Fiverr, Freelancer and UpWork mirrors the geographical and skills-based polarisation of labour markets at large, rather than spreading work more evenly across countries and regions.

Dr Fabian Brasemann, lead author of the paper and Departmental Research Lecturer at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford said,

“In our new study, we reveal that working from anywhere is not a technical problem anymore, thanks to digitally enabled remote work, but it remains an economic-institutional one: the remote labour market is globally polarised between countries, between urban and rural areas within countries, and in particular, between job types.  We explain the global distribution of remote platform work with a statistical model: internet infrastructure, the local economy and human capital determine whether a region will host a vivid remote worker community or not.  In general, remote work is being pulled to large metropolitan areas around the globe; rural areas fall behind”.

“All these findings point toward the important connection between skills and place-bound institutions as enablers of remote work. People with access to specialised education, vocational training and local business opportunities – in other words urban dwellers – will be more likely to have in-demand, digital skills. They will find ample opportunities in the remote labour market. People who don’t have the same access to enabling institutions – in other words, people in rural regions – tend not to have the most relevant digital skills. They will have a hard time finding good remote jobs”.

“Policymakers and employment agencies that want to avoid rural labour markets to fall further behind will need to focus on infrastructure, local employment opportunities and digital skills to enable workers in rural environments to access the right types of capabilities for them to participate in the rapidly changing remote labour market.”

Key findings reveal the global polarisation in remote labour markets:

  • The majority of remote platform work comes from metropolitan areas in high-income countries such as North America, West Europe and Australia
  • Most remote platform workers are located in urban areas in East Europe, South Asia and the Philippines
  • Many countries in the Global South only marginally participate in the remote labour market
  • Most of the high-value remote work goes to metropolitan areas: remote platform workers in capital regions earned between 24% and 53% more per hour than their coutnerparts in other regions.

The study is based on an analysis of a data set of more than 1.8million remote jobs during the period between 2013 and 2020 conducted via one of the leading online labour platforms.

The paper also sets out recommendations for platform companies, policymakers and government decision-makers to try to help alleviate some of the structural inequalities in the remote digital labour market, such as:

  • Platform apprenticeships for new remote workers: – assign first online jobs randomly to people without experience to build up their initial credibility
  • Government-led digital work programmes: – Embedding online work programmes in rural areas into larger economic and labour market development schemes
  • Foster enablers of remote work: – Investments in reliable internet access, local employment opportunities and skill-building opportunities in rural areas
  • Incorporate remote platform work into governmental processes: – advertising short-term remote jobs on platforms while promoting living wages
  • Connect rural remote worker communities to global network flows: – set up co-working spaces and physical meeting points for platform workers to help with knowledge exchange and skill-building

Dr Braesemann concludes,

“We believe that remote work can become an instrument of economic empowerment and growth. For this to happen, remote work needs to be embedded in broader economic and labour market development schemes, supporting disadvantaged regions to invest in local skill development and infrastructure. Only in regions that flourish locally, remote workers can succeed globally”.

Download the full paper, “The global polarisation of remote work”, by Fabian Braesemann, Fabian Stephany, Ole Teutloff, Otto Kassi, Mark Graham and Vili Lehdonvrita, published in the leading journal The Public Library of Science ONE (PLOS ONE).

Notes to Editors

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About the OII:

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet. Drawing from many different disciplines, the OII works to understand how individual and collective behaviour online shapes our social, economic and political world. Since its founding in 2001, research from the OII has had a significant impact on policy debate, formulation and implementation around the globe, as well as a secondary impact on people’s wellbeing, safety and understanding. Drawing on many different disciplines, the OII takes a combined approach to tackling society’s big questions, with the aim of positively shaping the development of the digital world for the public good.

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