We’ve all seen them: those folks who seem to spend all their time hanging out in downtown cafés sipping coffee while they work their laptops and cell phones. “Doesn’t this person have a job?” one might think. But chances are they’re actually doing their job—they’re just not your typical 9-to-5 office drones.
Instead, they may be members of a growing class of workers: telecommuters. Consultant Jack Nilles coined the term back in 1973; and in 2000, he estimated their numbers at 16.5 million nationwide. But that’s only the beginning: By 2010, Nilles predicts, there will be some 42 million telecommuters in the United States, ranging from simple data-entry workers to highly skilled professionals such as architects, engineers, scientists and software designers.
That’s good news for Asheville, which has tended to be long on charm but short on well-paying jobs. Freed by technology to work where they please, many such people are succumbing to the lure of Western North Carolina’s amenities and quality of life, says Tom Tveidt, who is research director at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. Once here, they can take advantage of a wide choice of broadband options (including high-bandwidth satellite, cable and DSL Internet) to communicate and collaborate with employers or clients both locally and around the globe. And thanks to the rapid spread of wireless technology, these folks can set up shop wherever there’s a reliable wi-fi connection—which now includes a substantial portion of Asheville’s bustling downtown as well as growing numbers of other places throughout the city and region.
Trevor Lohrbeer, CEO of the Asheville-based firm Lab Escape, started out as a telecommuter himself. Now he runs his enterprise-software company from an office in town, but he employs five telecommuters, three of whom live in Asheville.
Given the paucity of tech jobs here, highly skilled IT workers who relocate from bigger cities “pretty much have to telecommute,” says Lohrbeer, calling it “the only way to maintain the same standard of living.” Meanwhile, telecommuting is gaining increased acceptance in the business world, he notes, “and you’re seeing more and more virtual companies pop up. It’s just going to continue to grow.”
One such virtual office is Baseline Technologies in Hendersonville. Owner John Monroe moved the networking firm here from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Besides the appeal of running his business from home, Monroe says he was drawn to the area by the Asheville-based ERC Broadband, a nonprofit fiber-optic network that enables him to store and remotely operate his company’s servers in a highly secure environment.
“It was a no-brainer to set up my office in my house and [avoid] the burden of office costs,” says Monroe.
Home, sweet home office
Some telecommuters rely on special setups, such as Web cams for videoconferencing, or software such as WebEx that facilitates live, online presentations. But for most workers, a phone, a computer, a reliable Internet connection and standard office software are sufficient to get the job done. And in some cases, the benefits of the high-tech home office extend beyond the obvious.
“I telecommute from my home in Arden, working for an accounting firm in Florida,” wrote “Frogette” in response to an online Xpress query about local telecommuters. “The technology I use is an Internet connection, a desktop and a scanner. It is that easy! … It has been wonderful; it gives me the flexibility I need. I was diagnosed with cancer in December, and telecommuting allowed me to work throughout my treatments. Had I worked in a traditional environment, I wouldn’t have been able to work as much.”
Another respondent, “Fortunesmiled,” wrote: “My family and I moved here about three years ago from the [Washington] D.C. area. I was able to keep my job with a small consulting firm in D.C. and work from home. The quality of life is why we moved; it was the best decision our family could have made. The downside is that I do travel at least half the month for at least half the year. I wish Asheville had videoconferencing facilities, so I could go there and ‘see’ my clients, rather than having to travel to them. I’m ‘at work’ as soon as I sign onto [instant messaging], and my co-workers generally reach me through IM. I haven’t yet tried to take my laptop downtown—mainly because I’m also usually on conference calls all day. … I do think it’s a trend for this area. I have many friends who telecommute and moved here from big cities.”
For some people, however, working from home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “The cons are a little more difficult to find until you’ve been doing it for a while,” notes “fmerenda,” who writes that both he and his wife are telecommuters.
“Sure, I can get my laundry done during the day, and my commute is a step over the dog,” says another online respondent, ‘WorkingFromHomeIsDepressing.’ “But I can’t leave my workplace to go home and relax, and I miss working with other people. The longer I work from home, the more I want to quit working from home. If taking a local job didn’t mean a huge pay cut, I would have quit long ago.”
Despite those downsides, however, Eric Jackson believes telecommuting will become “an increasingly common phenomenon down here.” Jackson, who’s been a telecommuter, works with them in his current position as president of DeepWeave, a local technology consulting firm. And his brother-in-law, who also lives in Asheville, telecommutes for a Boston firm. For mobile professionals who appreciate what this area has to offer, says Jackson, telecommuting is just too good a fit. As he puts it, “We don’t have many [high-tech] jobs here, but we have beautiful mountains.”