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Workplace redefined: Telecommuting boosts rural job opportunities

Heather Koffler of Morgan relies on her smartphone, email, video chat technology and the social media to telecommute each week to two jobs in Willmar. She’s in Willmar two to three days a week and works from home the rest of the time. She’s shown here via Google Chat, one of the tools she uses to communicate with co-workers. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

When the Southwest Initiative Foundation moved its headquarters from Granite Falls to Hutchinson 15 years ago, the organization also made another change.

Instead of having everyone come to the office every day, most of them started telecommuting.

With its wide regional presence and programs that build resources and economic development in rural communities, the move was right for the foundation, said Sherry Ristau, executive director.

“It really serves the mission of this organization,” she said. “We’re absolutely convinced this is the future, and we’re helping demonstrate how it’s being done.”

Recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show Minnesota is a hotbed for telecommuting.

How widespread the teleworking trend might be, especially in rural Minnesota, isn’t entirely clear. “It often goes under the radar,” observes Cameron Macht, regional analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Statistics usually include telecommuting in the broader category of “working from home,” which covers farming and many types of self-employment. But the census numbers showing a rise in telecommuting were borne out in a similar report last year by Connect Minnesota. That report found a steady increase in the number of Minnesota workers who divide their time between working in a traditional office and working at home or in the field, using technology to connect.

For the Southwest Initiative Foundation, the decision to adopt telecommuting was deliberate, Ristau said.

“There are certainly key administrative positions that need to be in Hutchinson, but the professional staff can live anywhere,” she said. “We have staff in Willmar, Montevideo, Worthington, Cottonwood, Ghent.”

This mode of working has become so fine-tuned that someone can call the main office in Hutchinson and be forwarded to a staff person without even knowing the call is being transferred somewhere else, Ristau said. “It is seamless.”

Telecommuters cite many advantages: lower gas costs, less vehicle wear and tear, more flexibility, greater productivity.

Heather Koffler lives in Morgan, near Redwood Falls, and works in Willmar as marketing director for Bennett Office Technologies. Last month she also joined REDStar Creative in Willmar.

She commutes to Willmar three or four days a week and works at home the rest of the time.

She loves the arrangement, Koffler said by email. “It has enabled me to be more productive, comfortable and happy. If I wasn’t able to telecommute, I would have to drive two hours a day, five days a week … that’s 10 hours every week I would just spend driving. That’s 500 hours a year or 62.5 work days. Telecommuting has literally given me more of an opportunity to live life.”

Another benefit: She’s more productive.

“Everyone has those days at the office where you just feel like you’re spinning your wheels because you’re trying to get something accomplished and you seem to have a neon sign above your desk that says ‘Please come and interrupt me,’” she said. “Let’s face it, some days those interruptions are welcome but some days they’re not. Telecommuting allows you to focus without having those interruptions.”

A critical element in making telecommuting successful has been access to technology.

One of the challenges for employers is ensuring employees have the equipment they need and that the technology is current, Ristau said. “We have had to make an investment in technology and staff training.”

Another challenge is keeping telecommuters connected to the workplace and giving them adequate direction and feedback.

Building workplace relationships is “definitely the biggest challenge,” Koffler said. Although she uses technology in the form of email, smartphone, social media and video chats to help bridge the gap, she also has learned the importance of communication.

“If you are bad at talking to each other, it probably won’t work,” she said.

The Southwest Initiative Foundation has “learned a lot” since the staff began telecommuting, Ristau said.

 “Not everybody can do this,” she said. “It needs to be someone who is very self-directed, self-motivated. It’s working well for us but it has taken time.”

What telecommuting has done is redefine the workplace, said Jean Spaulding, assistant director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

“It’s a great way to be part of a larger organization and also be part of a rural community,” she said.

“We really want to be a successful model of this because of what it could mean,” Ristau said. “If you have the right things in place, I think there’s no limit to the possibilities in terms of getting the best talent. There is, I think, huge opportunity for all of rural America.”

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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