Home is where the work is: Telecommuters choose to work in Grand County
Software engineer Steve Klabak begins working each day at 6 a.m. He's not just an early riser; that is when his co-workers in Indianapolis start their workday. "I typically work on Indiana time," Klabak said. "Normal business hours I work are 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. I do a fair amount of collaborative work, but it's not a problem because of instant messaging, video conferencing, and conference calls." Klabak was already employed by Flexware Innovation, a small manufacturing I.T. company, when he relocated to the Fraser Valley in 2012. He is forging new territory, not only by venturing out west, but also as the first and the only employee working remotely on the company's 30-person payroll. "They were happy to keep me on and allow me to work from home out here. It started on a trial basis. I think it was a good opportunity to experiment with it." His commute is very short — just steps to his home office — and he finds that working remotely fits his temperament and gives him the work-life balance he wants. "I have the right personality; I can work independently," he said. "During the summer, I'll bike most every day after work. And on big powder days, I can usually sneak out for a couple of hours." Klabak is one of an undetermined number of workers who choose to live in Grand County while working for a company based elsewhere, traditionally called telecommuters or remote workers. According to DiAnn Butler, coordinator of Grand County's economic development office, a change is under way to "location-neutral businesses," an economic term that refers to entrepreneurs and other types of careers that can be based anywhere because of technology. "They could live anywhere in the world. A lot of people who are living here permanently and are members of our communities — just like anyone else — are working remotely," she said. Butler doesn't have a firm grasp on how many of these workers are here, nor what they do. She would like to conduct a county-wide survey to find out. More information might lead to the creation of new jobs in the county. "What we are trying to determine is," Butler said, "'Does their industry need products or other services that we could somehow make or supply here?'" A trend hard to trace In a 2012 U.S. Census American Community survey on commuting habits, 8.6 percent of workers in Grand County identified themselves as "working from home." But because the sample size for Grand County is so small, there is a lot of room for error in the research, according to Bill Thonnes, public information officer at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. "This U.S. Census Survey simply asked people if they had no commute all or part of the time. This would capture all telecommuters but the Census Bureau's numbers also include the self-employed who have no employer-employee relationship," he said, meaning that other home-based businesses, such as home day care providers, are included in that number. Colorado ranks 8th among states with job seekers actively looking for remote work, according to FlexJobs, a San Francisco-based company that aggregates flexible, part-time, and telecommuting job listings and makes them available to subscribers for a fee. "Job seekers shouldn't let their geographic location limit their job search options. It's often the case that telecommuters wind up working for companies based in another state," said FlexJobs CEO, Sara Sutton Fell, in a press release. Limited data makes it hard to know if opportunities to work from home are shrinking or growing. But advances in technology and more widespread internet access make it certainly easier now than in the past. Jane Blackstone, economic development director for the Steamboat Springs Chamber of Commerce, noticed a definite correlation between the prevalence of high-speed internet and the increase in location-neutral business activity. "In 2000, we had about 5 percent of the workforce in home-based business," she said. "By 2009 it was 10 percent — boom — it was suddenly a big jump… These folks want to live in beautiful locations, but they need the services, like broadband, to do their work." Steamboat Springs now actively markets itself as a destination for location-neutral businesses. "We are getting the word out that it is possible to live where you want to live in a community like Steamboat Springs and do your business," she said. Blackstone didn't identify one specific industry in which Steamboat is seeing growth, but professional services, scientific, technical and consulting fields are among the top. Sometimes missing out The desire to live in the mountains drew Sally Spillman, a director of finance at Hewlett Packard, to the Fraser Valley in 2001. She and her husband were both working for the tech giant and living in Fort Collins, Colo. But they had a condo here and then decided to build a home. "We said, 'Gosh, we're building this nice house in Winter Park. Why don't we live there?' It worked out I was able to work from home remotely from Winter Park. They [H.P.] were definitely open to this — we are a technology company. We provide the infrastructure to allow people to do this." Spillman sees the option to work at home as a benefit that should be offered to those who have a proven track record with a company. "The preference is that I would be in the office," she said. "Partly because I have 25 years of experience that I could be sharing with people, but I'm not there. The pendulum is swinging back toward people working in the office for collaboration." Like all telecommuters, her livelihood relies on reliable internet. "In the time that I have been doing this, it's changed. The technology has changed. I don't have a home phone anymore, it's all voice over I.P.," she said. Although Grand County and internet providers are making great strides in improving broadband in even more remote area's of Grand, the area as a whole has lagged behind other parts of the state for access to high-speed internet that meets the demands of today's user. "The bandwidth limitations here impair my ability to do my job. That is probably my biggest frustration," Spillman said. In some ways, her flexibility as a home-based worker benefits her employer. Since Spillman supervises people who live all over the world, she works odd hours. "I have meetings at 5 in the morning and at 10 at night. I am able to cover the time zones very effectively," she said. "My husband actually jokes that I need more hobbies. I'll work weekends — whenever." Family and lifestyle tie Spillman to the area, even as she has sacrificed some professional mobility. Her two sons consider Grand County home; they go to school here, and one is competing in snowboarding at the national level. "It's a personal choice I made. Was it the best choice for my career? No. It's not the best move you can make to further your career," she said. Creativity inspired Wife and husband team Stephanie and Jim Kroepf left Denver corporate jobs in March 2014 to live full-time in the Grand Lake area and write for a living. The couple writes novels targeted towards teenage boys, which they describe as a modern-day Hardy Boys. The couple has fully adopted Grand Lake as their home. With flexibility in their schedules, they dove into volunteering with community organizations. Between them they serve on eight different boards and committees in the area. "You can have an effect in a town of this size that you can't have in a big city," said Stephanie. "You can make a difference." Their home office is in the Columbine Lake area. "The beauty of the place is very inspiring," said Jim. "We literally walk around the lake every single day and we plot out our stories in our book. "We have the greatest office in the world."