Lizzy Duffy telecommuting from home in Helena for a company based in Portland, Ore.

Lizzy Duffy works from home in Helena for a company based in Portland, Ore.

Lizzy Duffy moved back to Montana for love.

After her then-boyfriend (and now fiancé) expressed an interest in moving to Helena to be closer to his family, Duffy knew she wanted to make the move as well. As the duo prepared to move from Portland, Ore., Duffy didn’t have a job waiting in Montana. When she told her company, Sparkloft Media, that she was moving to Montana, Duffy didn’t ask if she could telecommute for work.

“I thought there was no reason for me to work out of Helena, Mont. as far as the office expanding,” Duffy said. “But my company prioritizes people’s personal lives as much as their work. A happy employee makes for better work.”

When Duffy moved to Montana in May, she found herself as part of the new, growing workforce of telecommuters in Big Sky Country.

The Vision

The Montana Chamber of Commerce is on the frontline of hearing about the changing workforce and economy in the Treasure State. So when it created its 10-year strategic plan, Envision 2026, workforce development was a key component.

“With the rapid growth of technology, Montana is now open to not just the West Coast, but the world,” said Webb Brown, the president/ CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce. “In our Envision 2026 plan, we are focusing on different aspects of Montana’s changing workforce. One change we have seen is the growth of telecommuting. We’ve had our own telecommuting employees, as it allows folks the flexibility they are searching for.”

This past fall, the Montana Chamber contracted with Tadpull, a digital marketing and software services company in Bozeman, to conduct market research into Montana’s workforce. The research focused on supporting the return or relocation of Montana natives and “lifestyle migrants”. Tadpull interviewed people from age 30-50 employed in technology, engineering or science industries.

The interview questions focused on several different areas including why people moved, key factors in their moving decisions, alternative locations considered and some of the barriers to overcome with moving. Three key takeaways from the research were that remote workers wanted information on coworking spaces, social outlets and informal information about the towns they were considering moving to.

With this research, the Montana Chamber is planning on launching a website to address these needs for workers and telecommuters with a revamping of the “Come Home to Montana” campaign launched by now Montana’s US Rep. Greg Gianforte.

“From the great research compiled by Tadpull, we now have a better understanding of what workers are looking for,” Brown said. “We know people want to come back and we are excited to launch this website to help improve Montana’s workforce.”

How Montana Joined the Tech Conversation

While the tech sector has rapidly grown in the past five years, Montana has always been in the conversation.

“I think the pace is moving a lot faster than what people are talking about,” said Christina Quick Henderson, the executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance. “There is a big education gap. For decades students heard that you had to leave the state for a good paying job and a lot of times that’s not the case. There is a lack of knowledge for where those companies are.”

Quick Henderson pointed to the sale of RightNow Technologies in Bozeman as a pivotal moment in Montana that “represented the industry had critical mass and that tech was coming into its own.”

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”Mary Tepas” link=”” color=”#23282D” class=”” size=””]”All you need is high speed internet, a telephone and a computer.”[/perfectpullquote]

One member of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance who joined the telecommuting and remote working field early is Doug Odegaard.

As a Montana native, Odegaard grew up in Billings and attended the University of Montana. Out of school Odegaard worked with a software technology company in Billings and traveled around North America. But he missed Missoula and soon found himself back in the Garden City.

After a company he worked for in Missoula ran into financial problems, he decided to leave his job. In 2002, Odegaard started his own company called intraLogix which he runs from his house or wherever he is traveling. Fifteen-years later, Odegaard is happy he took the chance.

“Back then they would look at you funny or they would be like, ‘How can I do that, I would love to do that,’” Odegaard said. “Now you can go online and find all kinds of jobs for companies around the country and world where they don’t care where you work from. You can get a job with a company in the Bay Area or Austin or Seattle with those wages yet still live in the state.”

But when he first started, there were some initial challenges. He said in the past, coffee shops were not as friendly to remote workers. Co-working spaces were not as popular, but now Odegaard said they are popping up all over Montana.

Living the Montana Dream

Duffy admits she never thought she would move back to Montana after she graduated from the University of Montana in 2012. After she lived in Washington D.C. and Portland, she said it became clear that big city living was not the right fit.

At first, the transition to telecommuting was tough.

“I missed my coworkers and had to get used to just being home being at home by myself,” Duffy said. “But now I’ve taken full advantage. If I’m trying to get a walk in, it’s great that I can walk downtown and hang out at a coffee shop or get a cookie.”

Another new telecommuter is Kalispell’s Mary Tepas with Expedition Travel Advisor, a company with offices in Seattle and New York.

Tepas said her first visit to Montana was in 2004 on vacation with her husband. They fell in love with Montana, went back home to Las Vegas and put their house up for sale immediately. It sold in four days and six weeks later they were back in Montana.

In spring of this year, Tepas began doing consulting work from her home. One of her clients was Expedition Travel Advisor. In March, she began working for them full-time from Montana doing sales operations and managing its database.

“The best part of my day is I get to wake up and have a cup of coffee and get to work without having to deal with that time of getting ready and then commuting,” Tepas said. “I’m not a morning person and I enjoy the fact that I can work at my pace. If I’m up at five and want to go to the gym I can. If I want to sleep in I can, and I’ll have a cup of coffee and work later.”

Tepas never imagined she would be a telecommuter and thought she would spend her life in the corporate world going into an office daily. But as technology evolved, telecommuting and working remotely became easier. For Tepas, telecommuting is no different than being in an office.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”Mary Tepas” link=”” color=”#4796B3″ class=”” size=””]”You can work almost anywhere yet still live in this paradise…”[/perfectpullquote]

One challenge has been coworkers who are used to the office lifestyle and don’t understand the benefits of telecommuting, Tepas said. She said she enjoys the flexibility of working from home and is more productive. In an office setting, Tepas said it’s easy to be interrupted or distracted.

While telecommuting takes self discipline, it also opens opportunities for workers to live anywhere in Montana.

“All you need is high speed internet, a telephone and a computer,” Tepas said. “You can work almost anywhere yet still live in this paradise that we live in. If you live 100 miles from the nearest town, but you have talent that could work in a metro area, you can still find work. That to me is the best of both worlds. You utilize talent that you have and you’re not limited to the industries that are in your area. You are no longer limited, it opens doors.”

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