Montana Business Trends for 2015 – #3. Remote Work Options Attract High-Tech Talent

By Christina Henderson

My first post in this series highlighted the importance of clusters like software to Montana’s tech economy. The second post featured five Montana startups to watch in 2015 that reflect the growing sophistication of Montana’s entrepreneurial community.

These two trends are closely tied to a third – Montana’s improved ability to attract high-tech talent. In 2015, remote work options will allow more Montana workers to find high-paying jobs where they want to live and Montana companies to hire the specialized skill sets they need.

Remote Workers Drive Economic Growth

Montana is home to a significant number of professionals who work remotely. These independent workers bring their own jobs with them, working as consultants or team members for out-of-state companies. They are well-compensated  and enjoy a minimal (or no) commute, proximity to family, and easy access to Montana’s great outdoors.

Managers who work remotely are increasingly pressing their home offices to expand their companies’ presence in Montana into a branch sales, consulting, or development office, tapping a pool of local talent that is eager to combine the Montana lifestyle with a satisfying career. I’ve written before about MHTBA member companies that launched offices here because of local leadership – Travis Cottom at Helix Business Solutions in Dillon, Jeff Trom of Workiva in Bozeman and Missoula, and Tom Stergios at ATG in Missoula. A number of other lone wolves in Montana are quietly exploring the opportunity to build teams here in 2015.

Grassroots efforts by industry groups like Montana Programmers are bringing remote workers together for networking, sharing best practices, and building out a support system.

Doug Odegaard, founder of IntraLogix in Missoula, has worked remotely for more than a decade and teaches workshops on the subject.  He defines a remote worker as “a team member who spends part time or all time working away from a physical office,” including employees w”ho spend part of their day in a coffee shop just to get stuff done.”

Odegaard would like to build a community of people in Montana who are enthusiastic about remote work. “I feel like it’s an economic development driver here in the state that people aren’t talking about,” he said. “There are opportunities out there, but people don’t know about it.”

Employers More Accepting of Remote Work

According to Odegaard, employers who face difficulties recruiting benefit from hiring remote workers. “I find more companies being influenced into accepting remote into their culture if they have a challenging time finding talent to employ in their corporate location,” he said. “I personally work with management teams to adapt to a remote culture and frankly it enhances their internal teams by helping them focus on how they communicate.”

Odegaard cautioned that “not every corporate culture may find this adaptable, nor will every person excel under these conditions. Those managing projects with Agile methodologies have an especially fluid transition to remote work teams.”

According to Odegaard, some Montana businesses use a blended approach, trying remote work with their staff by allowing them to work remotely for one or two days per week. “This is a workplace benefit for mature employees who show the ability, but it also gives the company an opportunity to try it on for size,” he said.

Kathy Boelter, CEO of Arrow Solutions Group (ASG) in Billings, has noted similar trends toward remote and flexible work in Montana and agrees that the set up doesn’t work for everyone. ASG is a staffing and recruiting firm for companies hiring IT professionals and engineers, including contract workers in Montana.

“Montana companies are slowly coming around to remote workers,” Boelter said. “Not everybody can handle it – it takes a certain personality. Working remotely takes discipline. Rarely do we see it with junior people. The employee has to be mature enough in the workforce to understand what the deliverables are and produce.”

Boelter says a few years ago she didn’t see remote and flexible work options offered to new hires at all. Now Montana employers – including traditional industries like healthcare and banking – are starting to incorporate such benefits into their hiring plans. While negotiations used to focus primarily on salary, more job candidates are asking for perks like working remotely on Fridays before they accept an offer.

“Now that the job market is really tightening in technology, employers are looking at all options,” Boelter said. “Particularly if it’s a skill set that is hard to get in Montana.”

Good Communication is Key to Success

Both Boelter and Odegaard emphasize the importance of good communication for making remote and flexible work arrangements successful for both workers and employers.

Odegaard advised, “When you’re a remote worker of any kind, it’s incredibly important to over-communicate. If the decision-maker starts doubting that they’re getting their money’s worth it’s a problem.”

“We see [remote work] fail,” Boelter said. “[Employers] can’t put people out on an island. You have to keep engaged with them.  ASG has remote workers and we talk to our people every single day. For many tech companies, particularly those using Agile methodologies, this is the way they communicate. They do stand-ups everyday. All day long we are IMing (instant messaging). Even with somebody in the office next to me I’m still IMing.”

Odegaard has seen changes in the last five years in remote work, particularly the collective capabilities of broadband and communication tools such as Microsoft Lync to keep workers connected.

“I work on one team across Montana, Switzerland, Brazil, Germany and the Netherlands,” Odegaard said. “Between GoToMeeting, HipChat and Skype we do a great job staying connected and then meet twice per year in a location to connect physically.”

Odegaard believes remote workers will have a huge impact on Montana’s economy in years to come, particularly in rural areas, though access to broadband could be a constraint.

“[Montana] is a great place to live and work,” he said. “Remote workers contribute to the tax base by owning property and earning wages here. I see the presence of internet broadband greater than 10MB in the rural areas as a boon to economic development to support such remote workers.”

Given these three positive trends – industry clusters, serious startups, and remote workforce – watch for 2015 to be a great year of progress for Montana high tech and manufacturing companies.

As Jeff Trom, CTO of Workiva, said recently, Montana is not the state it was five years ago. It will be a different state five years into the future.

(Image by Lance Fisher “Working in the Yard” July 20, 2005 on Flickr)

This post is part three in a three-part series about Montana business trends in 2015. Read part one here: Growing Industry Clusters Attract Attention or part two here: Serious Startups Take Center Stage.

About the Author: Christina Quick Henderson is executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, a statewide membership organization made up of more than 130 high tech and manufacturing firms and affiliates. More information on the Alliance can be found at: www.MTHighTech.org.



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