Work from your patio

Telecommuting booming in Steamboat

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I like to think that reporters are relatively shockproof.

But when I told a local business expert that she was "crazy" during a recent telephone interview, the words came out before I could stop them.

The cause of my shock? This bombshell from Noreen Moore, business resource director for the Routt County Economic Development Cooperative:

"Within six years, 40 percent of corporate workers will be location-neutral," said Moore, who recently completed an extensive study about the growth of location-neutral business and "telecommuting" in Routt County. Telecommuting means working via computer and telephone -- often at home -- for a company that is not located where you live.

That big, daunting number, 40 percent, doesn't refer to Routt County, Moore said, citing research by the Arizona-based management research company Work Design Collaborative, LLC.

That number refers to the entire country.

In other words, by 2012, nearly half of America's corporate workers likely will be working from home, or from a satellite office in the community of their choice.

"You're crazy," I blurted. Visions of an Orwellian, hyper-technologized future whirled in my head. The workplace merging with home, creating rows of bustling drones living in tiny cells where they work, eat and sleep, with everything automated and computerized, no human interaction necessary ... for a moment, my imagination got away from me. Is this the end of chatting at the office water cooler? Of knowing your coffee shop's barista on a first-name basis?

Of needing to leave the house?

I quickly explained to Moore that the word "crazy" was more an expression of surprise than a disbelief in her findings. She laughed, in a soothing way that meant she was not going to hang up the phone. Then she explained to me that, societal implications or not, fewer and fewer people are driving to work these days.

"This is an industry that's growing," Moore said. "It's growing nationally because of broadband (Internet access). The culture accepts the Internet; we accept that we can do business across the computer now. This is a reflection of what's going on globally."

It's also a reflection of what's going on in Routt County.

Moore conducted the study with Scott Ford, a counselor at the Small Business Resource Center at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs. After 61 local interviews began in fall 2005, Moore and Ford found that new telecommuters are coming to Routt County nearly every day.

"This is an invisible industry that is really having quite an effect on our economy," Moore said. "It's a $35 million industry right now."

Moore and Ford estimate that location-neutral businesses add $35 million a year to the local economy, generating $600,000 in sales tax revenue alone. As many as 700 households are at least partly involved in "remote working," according to the study. That number represents about 10 percent of all households in Routt County.

Out of the cupboards

One such household is the Miller-Freutels in Steamboat Springs. Roxane Miller-Freutel is the adult services director at Horizons Specialized Services in Steamboat. Her husband, Tom Miller-Freutel, is the executive vice president of a telecommunications company based in California.

Roxane's office is at 405 Oak St. Tom's office is adjacent to the family's wraparound deck, a few steps from the kitchen.

"It's really hard to keep out of the cupboards," he said, talking about the perils of working from home. "Watching my waistline is a real challenge."

But the benefits of a home office can far outweigh the challenges.

"For me, it was fantastically opportunistic," Miller-Freutel said of the chance several years ago to join a partner in starting Dial 411/CBC, which manages 411 service and internal database management for organizations including the U.S. Coast Guard, Denver Newspaper Agency and University of Texas.

"I couldn't have dreamt of anything that could have worked better for our lifestyle."

The Miller-Freutels have a daughter, Taylor, who next year will be a junior at Steamboat Springs High School. They also have a yellow Labrador retriever, Honey, who is often Tom's only workplace companion.

Thanks to a fast Internet connection and the advent of telephone and video conferencing, Miller-Freutel is able to keep in contact from home with co-workers in Canada, England, Atlanta, Phoenix and Calabasas, Calif., just north of Los Angeles.

"The changing face of business is really a key factor," Miller-Freutel said. "There are many times when I'll sit on my deck and work, overlooking the Yampa Valley."

Rockets to stock markets

Miller-Freutel is one of many telecommuters, similar in age, education and income, who gaze at Emerald Mountain over the top of a computer screen.

According to Moore and Ford's study, 69 percent of location-neutral workers in Routt County are between 35 and 54 years old. The majority are male, by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio. Nearly all have at least one college degree and a household income exceeding $75,000 a year. Most live in Steamboat Springs, though some live in North Routt, South Routt or nonincorporated parts of the county.

Chris Morson is a former scuba diving instructor who lives in a large house on 58 acres of land atop Yellow Jacket Pass, between Steamboat and Oak Creek. He manages investment portfolios for numerous clients.

Morson wakes up at 5:30 each morning to begin work. His computer is only a few feet from his bed. But when Morson dons his telephone headset and begins flipping through folders while talking with his secretary, the transition from home to office is clear.

Moore said that although the demographics may be similar, location-neutral businesses in Routt County span a wide variety.

"These are businesses that range from rocket science to financial management," Moore said. "What it means for us is an amazing opportunity for diversity."

The community question

Interview results showed Moore and Ford that most telecommuters are choosing to live in Routt County for a simple reason: a sense of community.

Is that ironic, given that these are people who spend much of their time at home?

"(Telecommuters) connect to the community by joining civic organizations; they're actually quite connected through that method," Moore said.

In the 61 interviews with telecommuters, Moore and Ford noted ties to 127 local activities or organizations, including children's sports and extracurricular activities, church groups, music groups, charities and more.

Tom Miller-Freutel, for example, is president of the Steamboat Springs School Board. Morson teaches business and investment classes part-time at Colorado Mountain College.

"The sense of community now is an economic asset," Moore said.

Steamboat traditions such as closing Lincoln Avenue for Halloween trick-or-treating and Winter Carnival were often cited in interviews as valuable examples of community, Moore said. Identifying those traditions and values became a key part of the study, she said.

"Our job is to know what our assets are," she said. "Without a doubt, telecommuters are here because (Routt County) is a beautiful place with recreational opportunities -- but what it comes down to is a sense of community."

Moore has shared the study results with town officials in Hayden, Yampa and Oak Creek, as well as the Steamboat Springs City Council.

"We're the first place to ever do this study, from what I can gather," she said. "Every one of the communities (in Routt County) needs to know about this. The impacts of our decisions, from public policy to private decisions, will have an impact on our communities." '

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