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The Virtual Office: Inside Oregon's ever-growing telecommuting culture 

Troy McMullin lives in Bend and is a pharmacist by trade. But you won’t find him in a white coat behind a counter anywhere in town.

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Troy McMullin lives in Bend and is a pharmacist by trade. But you won't find him in a white coat behind a counter anywhere in town. Rather, most days McMullin is at his computer in Tech Space Bend in the Old Cigar Building, likely on the phone with his boss in St. Louis. Outside his door, sitting in cubicles and other offices are other Bendites with their heads down, working away for Apple, financial traders, software outfits and other companies across the country and the world.

This is a sampling of Bend's sizeable - and increasingly growing - telecommuter population that has been shedding its "workers in pajamas" image as more and more companies recognize the economic, environmental and practicality impact of allowing employees to work from home, or in many cases, a completely different city. Bend, with its well-known reputation for outdoor recreation and vibrant culture, has attracted telecommuters who can enjoy the fruits of our region without trading in their jobs.

For most of the past decade, McMullin has worked for a health plan that's based a couple thousand miles from his home, gathering and analyzing pharmaceutical data for his company's patients. He makes it back to his native St. Louis a few times a year, putting in valuable face time around his company's headquarters, but by and large he's been doing most of his work either from home or from rented office space for the last 10 years. McMullin says the popular perception of teleworkers as a lazy bunch of good time Charlies is hardly accurate. In fact, during his time working remotely, he says there are plenty of downsides.

"You really begin to hate your house. You're trapped in your house all the time," he says, adding that this was part of the reason he sought office space at Tech Space Bend with his fellow telecommuters.

"But this is where I want to live," says McMullin.

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An estimated 27.5 percent of Americans were involved in some form of telework during 2009, according to the technology marketing firm Gartner Dataquest. The number of full-time teleworkers in the country is far less significant, with the Telework Research Network's survey results showing that less than three percent of Americans are working remotely. That number, however, is growing (by nearly a percentage point between 2008 and 2009), and one of the reasons behind the boom is the ongoing recession.

Some companies are allowing workers flexible work schedules and teleworking options in lieu of pay raises - the idea being that while they can't bump up a long-time employee's wages, the company can, however, help with his or her quality of life by eliminating the drive to work and/or lessening child care costs, says Kathy King, a former Oregon Department of Energy employee who was instrumental in creating and implementing teleworking strategies throughout the early 1990s. King, who now consults for Commute Options on telecommuting, also says there's an incentive for employers because businesses can save money on office space and utilities by allowing employees to work from home.

When King began giving presentations on telecommuting in 1993 throughout the Northwest, the idea was relatively new. But as technology, especially the presence of the Internet, exploded, so did interest in telecommuting, King says. She soon found herself giving as many as 150 presentations a year and working with Oregon's larger companies, like Intel and Nike - both of which have since gone on to be known for employing vast numbers of telecommuters.

"In the beginning we didn't encourage full time teleworkers, the reason being that if you're a cohesive organization, you need people to be around to learn the culture and be in touch with their coworkers," says King, "One of the biggest obstacles was managers who didn't want people out of their sight. But now managers have learned to manage by result rather than walking around and looking at people."

King says that even with more and more companies allowing employees to work from home, the office as we know it (and the culture it has instilled into the fabric of our society) will be around for years to come. The most important factor to be taken into consideration when allowing an employee to begin telecommuting is whether or not it's the right sort of job where someone can be out of the office. And while our techno-savvy society may lead us to believe that most jobs can be done merely with a telephone and an Internet connection, King says that's not the case.

"For some people, it just makes sense for them to work from home, but if you're a receptionist, that's probably not going to work," says King.

She says that one of the most popular telecommuting jobs for locally based businesses is medical transcription - a job she says is perfect for working at home - for both Bend Memorial Clinic and St. Charles Medical Center. Through Commute Options, King tracks data on telecommuting in the area and says that several other companies, including up and comers like G5 Search Marketing, have people working from home. Deschutes County has also utilized telecommuting and remote work stations for assessors and other departments.

While companies benefit from sending people home to work, many telecommuters, like McMullin, are working from home as a means of altering their lifestyle. Telecommuting can afford an individual the chance to seize opportunities, both work-related and personal, that would be impossible without both technology and a flexible schedule.

This is the case with Mike Chastain, who along with Spencer Skeen, has been creating video animation through Umami Media, the company the two founded here in Bend. This summer, Chastain moved to Portland to explore creative opportunities, including the relocation of his band, indie rock outfit The Dirty Words.

A few years ago, the idea of moving three hours away from your high-tech company's headquarters would mean being back on the job market, but thanks to specialty software and other technology, Chastain and Skeen can continue to create the sort of high-end animation that have made their company known in the industry. The two keep the same work schedule they had when they were together in an office and now use Skype to keep in constant touch throughout the day. Chastain feels that telecommuting isn't just an employment phenomenon, but also one with cultural impacts.

"One of the big things is the ability for people to have more dynamic existences, so their lives aren't centered around work," says Chastain, "A garbage man has to pick up the garbage, but in the digital field, somebody can actually be a professional and have children and a life."

There's also an enviromental push behind the telecommuting movement. Commute Options advocates for telecommuting as a way to mitigate car usage.

"That's one of our tools. We promote teleworking because it's taking a car off the road. It's really the best option, in a way, but you don't get any health benefits," says Commute Options executive director Jeff Monson. A 2007 study by the Consumer Electronics Association showed that telecommuting in the U.S. limited carbon emissions by 14 million metric tons that year. To compare, the U.S. as a whole generates more than 320 million metric tons of carbon from cars and trucks each year.

Still, the most visible effect of teleworking is the benefits for workers. And that can be seen in Tech Space Bend, where McMullin and other workers are all grinding away on a rainy Wednesday afternoon - working hard, but finding some comfort in the fact that they're living where they want to be living while holding onto the jobs they love.

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