Traci L. Austin, Danica Schieber, and Ashton Mouton
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused profound changes in the ways we understand and navigate the world of work. In particular, the sudden shift to remote work that began in the spring of 2020 has prompted changes in how we define the “office” itself. Not only are employees working from home and only rarely going to a centralized workplace, but in some cases, the “office” is located in a different city, state, or country, or perhaps does not exist in physical form at all. This shift presents challenges for employees, as it has shifted the ways in which they must, for example, establish and sustain professional relationships, engage with company culture, demonstrate commitment to their jobs, or be visible and available to co-workers and managers. The transformation in and of the workplace also offers benefits; however, in particular, many employees may now choose to live and work in different cities, states, or even countries than the ones in which their employers are located.
This article profiles an interconnected set of assignments in which students explore a cost-of-living tool to help them navigate these new, pandemic-prompted choices. In addition, it reinforces communication-related skills that were crucial in the pre-pandemic workplace and will remain so in the future: e.g., teamwork, information literacy, critical thinking, and common message strategies. We have included all of our assignment descriptions, recommendations for instructors, and a brief discussion of student impact.
Background: The Impact of the Pandemic on the Idea of the Workplace
From its beginning in the spring of 2020, the pandemic prompted widespread mandatory work from home (WFM) in organizations across the U.S. as well as globally (Kniffin et al., 2020; Levanon, 2020); this, in turn, prompted profound changes in how employees and companies alike define, negotiate, and communicate in the workplace and other professional environments (Mouton et al., 2021). In the past, for example, working for a given company typically meant that employees would live near the company’s physical location; during the pandemic, however, “geographically independent” work arrangements—in which employees are not required to be in a physical location—became more common and also more attractive to workers and employers alike (Prengler et al., 2021). Indeed, many U.S. cities and states have capitalized on this trend by offering incentives to attract employed remote workers to relocate to their communities (e.g., Tulsa Remote, 2021; 281 Relocate, 2021).
These shifts will likely outlast the pandemic; for example, Levanon (2020) predicts that 20-30% of jobs will remain work from home (WFH) post-pandemic compared to only 5% pre-pandemic, and he also notes that the willingness of companies to hire outside of their geographic commuting zone has increased by 24%. Workers themselves have begun to expect flexibility in their working arrangements, with many willing to change jobs in favor of ones that allowed them to spend more time outside of the office environment (Barrero, Bloom, & Davis, 2021). Kniffin et al. (2020) compare the scale of changes to the Great Depression and WWII in terms of impacts on both individuals and organizations and indicates that we are likely to see more changes to come. In this context, it is important for business communication instructors to prepare students for new professional settings and situations they will encounter during the pandemic and in the times that follow. To aid in this, this article will profile an interconnected set of case-based assignments that reinforce fundamental business and professional communication skills while giving students the opportunity to practice them in the challenging new world of the post-pandemic workplace.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the changes it has prompted in the workplace have inspired this case and assignments. To build on students’ previous learning, the case incorporates a concept that many students will find familiar: cost of living. While students may not understand the methods or data used to calculate the specific cost of living of cities, they are often generally aware that common costs are more expensive in some areas than others. To expand their knowledge—and to show them how cost of living data can be useful to them as individuals and future business professionals—the case introduces students to organizations that research and compile the cost of living of cities around the U.S.; one of these is the Center for Community and Economic Research or C2ER (C2ER, 2020a). Since 1968, the C2ER has compiled the Cost of Living Index (CoLI), which calculates the average prices of more than 60 goods and services that represent common expenditures for consumers (e.g., a gallon of milk, a movie ticket, a pair of tennis shoes, a doctor visit) at the local level.
In these assignments, students play the roles of employees or managers at B2ER, an imaginary business and economic research company based in San Diego, California. In these roles, they gather, analyze, and present cost-of-living data in support of a variety of business decisions and actions (i.e., how to adapt the data-gathering process to a remote environment, where to live as a “geographically independent” employee, and how to persuade employees to stay with the company when leadership decides to relocate to another area of the country). Further in-class discussions can help students explore related topics, such as using cost-of-living data to determine if a salary offer is sufficient for their needs, or as potential future business leaders, how to set attractive pay for employees. Cost of living data is concrete, familiar, and easy to understand, so it serves as a useful tool for introducing students to the importance of using valid information in both professional and personal decisions.
The cost-of-living research (e.g., the process of gathering the data as well as the data itself) is featured in three assignments:
- A set of instructions in which students, playing the role of managers at B2ER, provide guidance to volunteers/employees for collecting annual cost-of-living data;
- A team-based research project in which students, playing the role of employees at B2ER, research potential locations for “geographically independent” work and present their findings in a report; and
- A negative/persuasive email, in which students, playing the role of B2ER leadership, announce the relocation of the company to employees.
These assignments bring together two threads related to the cost-of-living index: the importance of data for making sound decisions, and the role data can play in enhancing business and professional communication. Before beginning the assignments, students read chapters from Peter Cardon’s Business Communication: Developing Leaders for a Networked World (3rd Edition) to learn about principles and concepts related to the genres and strategies applied in this assignment. Full descriptions of each assignment are below.
Assignment 1: Creating a Set of Instructions
During the pandemic, the move to remote work opened the doors to permanent or semi-permanent work-from-home arrangements for millions of employees (Mims, 2020; Ritchel, 2020). Not all jobs or work functions can take place easily in a virtual environment. For example, much of C2ER’s pricing information is gathered in person by volunteers who visit many of the stores, offices, and other outlets that supply the data they seek. Out of concern for the safety of their volunteers, the organization canceled the data-gathering sessions for the second quarter of 2020 (C2ER, 2020b).
Using this situation as a starting point, the students, assuming the role of managers in B2ER, write instructions for remotely collecting prices for items similar to those used to calculate cost-of-living data at C2ER and similar organizations, from milk, eggs, and shampoo to vet visits, movie tickets, and yoga classes. To successfully complete this assignment, students must determine the best way to remotely collect this cost-of-living data and then write clear directions for B2ER volunteers to follow. Before completing this assignment, students read Chapter 6 (Improving Readability with Style and Design) and Chapter 9 (Routine Business Messages) from Peter Cardon. This material helps them learn about organizing, composing, and formatting instructions and other routine business documents. A copy of the instructions given to students can be found in Appendix A.
Assignment 2: Team Report
For this assignment, students write from a different perspective, i.e., that of a B2ER employee living in San Diego whose job has gone fully remote and who is interested in moving to another city in the U.S. For this assignment, students research and present information on two to four cities and select one as their new home. Before beginning this assignment, students read Chapter 12 (Research and Business Proposals and Planning for Business Proposals) and Chapter 13 (Completing Business Proposals and Business Reports) from Peter Cardon. This project includes a series of individual and team activities; these are described briefly below, and a full set of instructions for students can be found in Appendix B:
- Team Activity/Selection of Cities: As a team, students choose two to four cities in the U.S. as potential new home bases for themselves; one city is San Diego, the home of B2ER; another is their current, “real life” hometown (or nearby city); and the others are from a list created by the instructor.
- Individual Activity/City Profile: Each student then creates a “City Profile” for one of the chosen communities; this profile includes information on amenities (gathered from secondary sources) as well as detailed cost-of-living data from “fact sheets” created by the instructor. (See Appendix C for an example of a fact sheet.) Students submit this activity individually and receive individual grades.
- Team Activity/Selecting New City: As a team, students review each other’s city profiles and choose whether to relocate, and to which city, based on their research.
- Team Activity/Composing and Compiling Report: In this activity, students combine the members’ individual city profiles into a recommendation report that addresses the overall question: Should I relocate, and, if so, to which city? The goal is to provide experience with teamwork and with composing the standard sections of a business report. The individually written City Profiles become the findings section of the report; as a team, the students compose the introduction, conclusion, recommendations, and transitional material to tie the City Profiles together into a cohesive report.
As an alternative framework, students could assume the roles of members of a workgroup tasked with identifying a city to which B2ER would relocate as a company. While not used by the authors, this framework would still be clearly and logically linked to the third assignment, the negative/persuasive message, described below.
Assignment 3: Writing a Persuasive Email with a Negative Message
In this assignment, the students are asked to assume the role of leadership at B2ER; in this role, they compose a bad-news message announcing the relocation of B2ER from San Diego to one of the cities profiled in their team report. They must then persuade the employees to move to that city and give clear audience benefits for the move. For background on composing and delivering negative and persuasive business messages, the students read Chapter 10 (Persuasive Messages) and Chapter 11 (Bad-News Messages) from Peter Cardon. They also review Chapter 7 (Email and Other Traditional Tools for Business Communication). A copy of the instructions for students can be found in Appendix D.
This is an individual assignment, but it could be a team project if desired. Another option for this assignment—which was not used in this class—is to ask students to write a negative message from company leadership to “geographically independent” employees explaining that employees who move to an area with a lower cost of living will have their salaries adjusted accordingly downward. This is a practice that several companies, including Facebook and Microsoft, have implemented (Buhayar, 2020).
Recommendations for Instructors and Student Impact
The assignments described here were implemented in the spring and summer of 2021 in five sections of a junior-level business communication course at a mid-sized university in the southwest. Approximately 155 students participated across four sections.
One of the goals of the assignments was to explore the problems and opportunities that have arisen for individuals in the WFH environment and to examine the extent to which knowledge of cost-of-living data may be used to improve an employee’s working situation. In a Qualtrics survey given to students at the end of the summer 2021 session, students were asked to rank 10 factors in terms of importance to them when choosing a city or region to work and/or live: cost of living, climate/weather, proximity to family/friends/home town, distance from family/friends/home town, educational system (elementary through higher education), availability of quality health care, crime rate/statistics, commute time/traffic/availability of public transportation, culture/entertainment/lifestyle, and outdoor life. Seventy percent of students ranked the cost of living as the first or second most important factor; the next most important factor—proximity to family, friends, or hometown—was a distant second.
A minor goal associated with this assignment was to foster a global perspective for students in alignment with the mission and vision of the College of Business. Cost of living could be a tool to help students consider professional and personal opportunities in other areas of the U.S. or the world. Our university, however, happens to be located in an area of the U.S. with a relatively low cost of living; when the students learned this, they enthusiastically used the data in arguments in favor of remaining in, or relocating to, their “home” area. If encouraging students to broaden their horizons past their home communities is a priority, instructors could consider modifying the assignments to include different cities for students to research and advocate.
Finally, the approach to managing teams was designed to ensure that the work of the group would not be negatively impacted by the participation—or lack thereof—of individual members. The most extensive parts of the team project were the City Profiles, which were composed by individual students without input from other team members; these activities were submitted individually, and the students received individual grades for them. The group tasks (e.g., composing the introduction, conclusion, and transitions, as well as editing and formatting) were intended to be minimal in comparison. If a student did not engage with their team at any point, that student’s profile would simply not be included in the final report. The remaining team members would then compose the common sections without the input of the missing member; participating members received a team grade for the report, but non-participating members did not receive any points. If in extreme cases, only one team member was active in the class, that person would compose an introduction and conclusion on their own, add it to their previously written city profile, edit and format the document, and submit as an individual. During the pre-vaccine pandemic, as well as in the post-vaccine pandemic readjustment period, external pressures often caused students to disengage from the course; this approach to team management helped to ensure that their sudden absence did not create a burden for their team.
The assignments described in this article are aimed at helping students retain and re-explore enduring skills and build new ones. As college students who are entering the workforce will soon discover, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way many businesses deal with remote work. Students will need new knowledge, tools, and skills in order to successfully navigate an altered workforce; however, pre-pandemic skills—teamwork, information literacy, critical thinking, and common business message strategies—remain important. At the most basic level, students will be better able to understand how work-from-home opportunities and cost of living expenses should be taken into account when applying for jobs in their own and other cities. More broadly, students will be empowered to make career decisions that lead to more fulfilling professional and personal lives while practicing both pre-pandemic and post-pandemic skills.
Greater Bemidji. (2021). 281 Relocate. https://www.218relocate.com/
Barrero, J. M., Bloom, N., & Davis, S. J. (2021, July 21). Let me work from home, or I will find another job. University of Chicago, Becker Friedman Institute for Economics. Working Paper No. 2021-87. http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3890988
Buyahar, N. (2020, December 18). The work-from-home boom is here to stay. Get ready for pay cuts. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-12-17/work-from-home-tech-companies-cut-pay-of-workers-moving-out-of-big-cities
Cardon, P. W. (2017). Business Communication: Developing Leaders for a Networked World, 3rd Edition. McGraw-Hill Education.
C2ER. (2020a). Cost of living index. C2ER. http://coli.org/
C2ER. (2020b). Quarter 2 data collection and publication cancelled. C2ER. http://coli.org/quarter-2-data-collection-and-publication-cancelled/
Kniffin, K. M., Narayanan, J., Anseel, F., Antonakis, J., Ashford, S. P., Bakker, A. B., . . . van Vugt, M. (2020). COVID-19 and the workplace: Implications, issues, and insights for future research and action. American Psychologist, 76(1), 63-77. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/amp0000716
Levanon, G. (2020, November 23). Remote work: The biggest legacy of Covid-19. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/gadlevanon/2020/11/23/remote-work-the-biggest-legacy-of-covid-19/?sh=1f9f08957f59
Mims, C. (2020, September 12). Goodbye, open office. Hello, “dynamic workplace.” Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/goodbye-open-office-hello-dynamic-workplace-11599883273.
Mouton, A., Sánchez Sánchez, V., Renner, M.M., & Deutsch Cermin, A. (2021). Fostering a reimagined professional stability: An autoethnographic exploration of how our (work) group found hope and healing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Survive & Thrive: A Journal for Medical Humanities and Narrative as Medicine, 6(1), 18. https://repository.stcloudstate.edu/survive_thrive/vol6/iss1/18
Prengler, M. K., Klotz, A. C., & Murphy, C. (2021). A grounded model of autonomy calibration in location-independent work arrangements. Academy of Management Annual Meeting Proceedings, 2021(1), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.5465/AMBPP.2021.152
Ritchel, M. (2020, May 4). The pandemic may mean the end of the open-floor office. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/04/health/coronavirus-office-makeover.html
Tulsa Remote. (2021). https://tulsaremote.com/#hero
Appendix A: Assignment 1 – Creating a Set of Instructions
The purpose of this assignment is to help you apply critical thinking skills to a common business communication issue. You will compose a set of instructions for gathering data.
You’ve probably heard the term, “cost of living” (CoL). According to Investopedia (2020), CoL is “the amount of money needed to sustain a certain standard of living by affording expenses such as housing, food, taxes, and healthcare” (para. 1). Cost of living plays a role in a lot of our life decisions; for example, it’s what we use to determine if a salary offer for a new job in a new city is good—or not-so-good.
CoL is determined by collecting and comparing data on the retail price of certain common items in cities and towns across the U.S., then comparing them. For this assignment, you’ll use the list of items on the Fact Sheet, provided on Blackboard. [See Appendix D].
You are a manager at B2ER, a company that gathers cost-of-living data once a year. Normally, your company uses volunteers who make personal visits to grocery stores, drugstores, department stores, etc., to gather pricing information. However, due to concerns and restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, your volunteers are hesitant to gather the prices of items in person; therefore, you must create a plan for remotely gathering the data. Here’s what you’ll do:
- Think about how YOU would go about gathering the prices for the items on the Fact Sheet from retail outlets or service providers IN YOUR ZIP CODE without visiting the places in person. You may need to think of more than one strategy.
- Create a set of instructions that will help a volunteer REMOTELY gather the information for all of the items on the sheet. See Chapter 9 of Cardon’s text for descriptions and examples of instructions.
- Turn in your document through the link provided on Blackboard.
Appendix B: Assignment 2 – Conducting City Profiles Research and Reporting Results as a Team
You work for B2ER, a company that gathers and assesses cost-of-living data for the U.S. The company is located in San Diego, California. There are lots of things to love about San Diego: great weather, fantastic beaches, great restaurants, sports, etc. There are also some not-so-lovable aspects; however, housing and other costs are among the highest in the country, and San Diego is the 13th most congested city in the country. Your salary doesn’t go far in San Diego, and the financial and personal costs of living in a high-density urban area also are taking their toll[A2].
You have decided to investigate moving to another, less expensive city. Your company is willing to let you work remotely for the long term, so you don’t have to worry about finding a new job. The issue is, where to go?
Money isn’t everything, so you want to move to a place that also will give you a high QUALITY of life. Over the next few weeks, you will gather information about the cities on your target list to help you make an informed decision about where to move.
First . . .
Each student on your team will choose one of the cities below. If you are the only person on your team, you may choose any of the options below.
- Student 1: San Diego, California
- Student 2: Tulsa, Oklahoma or Austin, Texas
- Student 3: One of the cities from this list: https://www.kiplinger.com/slideshow/real- estate/t006-s001-cheapest-u-s-cities-to-live-in-2019/index.html
- Student 4: Another of the cities from this list: https://www.kiplinger.com/slideshow/real- estate/t006-s001-cheapest-u-s-cities-to-live-in-2019/index.html
Instructions and Due Dates
Individual City Profiles
For your chosen city, you are to write a brief report (1-2 pages) in which you present information about the following topics:
- General information about the city: location, population, geography, climate/weather, any unique features
- Amenities. This can include any of the following: recreation (including outdoor recreation), sports, entertainment, food/food scene, music scene, culture, arts, tourism, etc.
- One other topic of your choosing from this list: education (K-12, higher ed, or both), health care, poverty/unemployment, diversity, or anything else of interest to you personally that you find in your research.
- Housing (include cost of living information related to renting or purchasing a home). How does this compare with the cost of buying and renting in San Diego?
- Overall cost of living: how much lower (or higher) is the cost of living between your city and the national average? Between your chosen city and San Diego?
Submit your City Profile through the link on Blackboard. Remember, the City Profile is an individual assignment, and you will receive an individual grade for it.
For the activities below, you and your team members will receive a single, group grade.
- As a team, review the individual city profiles and decide which city is the best option for relocation.
- Compose an introduction to your report describing your purpose, methods, options for relocation, and the final choice for your future home city.
- Copy and paste your individual city profiles into the body of the paper.
- As a team, write a short recommendation section (1-2 paragraphs) in which you describe which of the cities you have chosen to relocate to, and why. Your recommendation should be based on the information in your individual city profiles.
- As a team, compose any transitional material necessary to make a cohesive and coherent. Follow the principles you read about in Chapters 12 and 13 in the Cardon text.
- Edit the paper so that the formatting is consistent. Follow the editing principles you read about in Chapter 6.
Appendix C: Fact Sheet on Conroe, TX
Third Quarter 2020 Cost of Living Data
|Summary: Conroe’s overall cost of living is 91.1% of the national average. In other words, it’s slightly cheaper to live in Conroe compared to the U.S. average.|
|2||Ground Beef (per pound)||$ 4.43|
|4||Frying chicken||$ 0.98|
|6||Half Gallon of Milk||$ 1.82|
|7||Dozen Eggs||$ 1.62|
|9||Parmesan cheese||$ 3.70|
|11||Banana (lb.)||$ 0.44|
|14||Orange Juice||$ 3.31|
|18||Sweet Peas||$ 1.06|
|21||Cascade (dishwasher soap)||$ 6.57|
|22||Cooking Oil||$ 5.59|
|23||Frozen Meal||$ 2.04|
|24||Frozen Corn||$ 1.22|
|25||Potato Chips (bag)||$ 3.56|
|26||Coke (2 liter)||$ 1.89|
|28A||Home Price||$ 277,249|
|32||Tire Balancing||$ 46.00|
|34||Optometrist Visit||$ 84.67|
|35||Doctor Visit (without insurance)||$ 111.20|
|36||Dentist Visit (without insurance)||$ 119.00|
|37||Ibuprofen (1 bottle)||$ 9.12|
|38||Prescription Drug (Insulin)||$ 488.57|
|39||Hamburger (Quarter Pounder, Sandwich only)||$ 4.29|
|40||Pizza (Medium Cheese||$ 10.59|
|41||Chicken Sandwich||$ 3.91|
|43||Beauty Salon visit (haircut)||$42.25|
|50||Washing machine repair||$77.25|
|53||Yoga (1 drop-in class)||$16.67|
Appendix D: Assignment 3 – Writing a Persuasive Email with a Negative Message
Unfortunately, in business, not all messages are positive. Negative, or “bad news,” messages are also relatively common. These kinds of messages include rejecting job applicants, denying claims from customers or requests from employees, disagreeing with a co-worker’s suggestion or idea, notifying your supervisor or customers of a mistake you made, and many more. When delivering bad news, it is especially important to use respect, courtesy, and care so that the receiver maintains a positive (or at least neutral) impression of you and the company for which you work.
You are the CEO of BearKat Business and Economic Research (or B2ER), located in San Diego, California. Recently, your company has moved to a remote model for employees—in other words, roughly half of your employees will be working from home on a permanent basis.
Many of the current employees of B2ER —all of whom live in the San Diego metro area—are excited about the change, because it means they can live and work anywhere in the U.S. San Diego has one of the highest costs of living in the country, and salaries in the metro tend to be higher as well. Your employees have done the math, and their San Diego salaries will allow them to live like kings and queens in places like Tulsa, Oklahoma, Jonesboro, Arkansas, or McAllen, Texas. Thus many of your employees are planning to leave San Diego for greener (or at least cheaper) pastures.
This strikes you as a pretty good idea, actually. The lease you pay on your office facilities is sky-high; and with the switch to remote work, you were considering looking for smaller, less-expensive facilities in the San Diego suburbs. But if you are going to move anyway, why not go even farther afield? Why not relocate the entire company to one of the less expensive cities your employees have been researching?
Compose an email to all B2ER employees announcing that the company will be relocating to a new city. Choose the city from your city profile OR any of those in your team report.
This email has two goals:
- announcing the relocation, including the new city and a time frame.
- convincing the employees to remain employed with B2ER. (Remember, some of your employees may want to stay in San Diego; even those who are thinking of moving may not want to move to a city YOU have chosen for the new company headquarters. Therefore, this should be treated as a negative message with persuasive elements.)
Your message should:
- Use business email format (See Ch. 7 for examples).
- Use standard bad-news format described in Chapter 11 in the Cardon text for guidance.
- In the explanation section, discuss benefits TO THE EMPLOYEES of relocating to your chosen city. In addition to the cost of living, you can talk about the amenities and other topics you discussed in your profiles/team report. You can do new research if you want.
- Cite the sources you used in your explanation section and include the full reference at the end of the message. Follow APA format (7th Edition).
Traci L. Austin is an Associate Professor of Business Communication in the College of Business Administration at Sam Houston State University. She teaches undergraduate business communication as well as managerial communication for the college’s EMBA program. She has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and holds master’s degrees in Instructional Systems Design and Technology from Sam Houston State University and in linguistics from The Ohio State University. Her research interests include communication pedagogy, information literacy, and accessible teaching and learning.
Dr. Danica Schieber is an Assistant Professor of Business Communication at Sam Houston State University. She teaches classes on Business Communication and Business Projects and Presentations. She is also the Academic and Community Engagement Coordinator for COBA and loves serving as the faculty advisor for Phi Chi Theta, Beta Theta chapter. Some of her research interests include analysis of language in financial reporting documentation, transfer theory, and client project-based learning.
Dr. Ashton Mouton is an Assistant Professor of Business Communication at Sam Houston State University. She teaches classes related to business communication as well as the design and presentation of business projects. Her service and mentoring efforts are dedicated to inclusion, diversity, equity, and access. Her research examines project and message design, organizational structure, and career success, as well as gender and intersectionality issues.
Traci L. Austin, Danica Schieber, & Ashton Mouton. (2021). Should I Stay or Should I Go: Empowering Student Employment Choices in the Age of COVID-19. the Western ABC Bulletin, 3.2