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Economic Development Strategy: Support Telework

Mike Knutson at Reimagine Rural gets me thinking again (that's his job!). Knutson suggests that rural communities should take deliberate steps to support telework. He points to an MPR report that describes how rural Minnesotans are using the Internet to work closer to home:

Rose Buer commutes to her job as a software engineer in Bloomington every morning.

But she doesn't drive from Minneapolis or St. Paul or another suburb. She makes the short trek from her 10-acre farm to a small office in Dawson, next to a hair salon and the Dawson Sentinel, the newspaper that serves the town of 1,300 people in western Minnesota.

From there, thanks to a DSL Internet connection, she telecommutes to her job at PPT Vision, a company that designs electronic monitoring systems for assembly lines [Jennifer Vogel, "Telecommuting Levels the Field for Some Rural Minnesotans," MPR News, 2011.03.24].

Now notice: Buer isn't working from home. She rents an office in town for $100 a month, in part because she can get faster Internet service there than she can out at the farm...

...which got me thinking, as I clicked through pages on my mostly reliable but sub-megabit-per-second rural wireless connection. Might there be some local teleworkers who could benefit from a shared office space with a blazing fast broadband that they might not care to buy independently at home?

Boom! Out comes another idea for local economic development: a community telework center! Here's how it works:

  • Some community entity (here, the LAIC is a logical candidate) acquires office space downtown (like, oh, say, the Dakota Drug building, or the Masonic temple!).
  • We install the business-class broadband and some basic workspaces and office amenities (maybe a metered copy machine?). Maybe we even move the LAIC and Chamber to this space, so they can piggyback their daily online operations on the awesome signal and keep their finger on the pulse of the teleworking trends in the community.
  • We rent cubicles on a monthly basis to local folks who work by computer. Keep it non-profit: the rent should be enough to cover the broadband and other upkeep.
  • We include a physical conference room where teleworkers could hold business meetings with clients and fellow employees without having to clear space on the dining room table at home.
  • We include a couple of small Skype conference rooms where teleworkers could communicate with their remote clients privately. Include some ferns and nice oak paneling behind them so the teleworkers look more upscale on camera than they might if they Skyped clients from home and had their fridge and cereal cupboard in the background.

I've been mostly teleworking for the last four years. I enjoy working at home in view of the lake. But even I enjoy a change of scenery. Sometimes I enjoy coffee and signal at Mochavino. Sometimes that "third place" setting is just too social, and I need a focused setting like the Mundt Library on campus. A community teleworking center could provide a similar get-down-to-work venue other teleworkers. If there were two or three workers from the same company telecommuting from Madison, they could use such a center as a formal group work site. Teleworkers from different firms would have a chance to interact and share ideas. And it wouldn't hurt if the center were in eyeshot and walking distance of a nice coffeehouse and other downtown businesses where teleworkers could easily dash on errands.

Of course, the utility of a community teleworking center would likely rest on two main economic factors: can the center provide better broadband than folks can afford individually at home, and are there enough teleworkers to support it? I wonder: just how many people in Madison do work by wire (or wireless)? If those numbers pan out, a community teleworking center could be a useful amenity to boost Madison's profile among the growing technorati who are no longer tied by work to where they live.

Read more:

  • Fergus Falls has made telework a key part of its economic development strategy. They just held a "Telework Summit" on March 16 that drew 80 people to discuss telework data, trends, and legal issues.
  • The Telework Exchange has all sorts of info on teleworking.


  1. Ashley Kenneth Allen 2011.03.28

    I thought I would provide some details on how I telecommute.

    I work in Healthcare IT as a Senior Systems Analyst for one of the leading Children's Hospitals in the world. Previous to that, I worked for a regional healthcare provider here in the Dakotas. Over the last six years, I have done a lot of telecommuting/telework for my employers. I currently work at home 80% of the time and very much enjoy being able to have a big city job but live in small town america. I have had opportunities to move to more Urban areas, but we have found a way to stay here in Madison because we love our school system, church, and neighbors. Madison could use some more entertainment and shopping options, but it is what it is.

    In order to work from home, I do use multiple technologies. I have several large widescreen monitors, laptop docks, desktop computers, dualband wireless N router and gigabit ethernet, a DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem with a faster than normal cable internet package, a backup Verizon Aircard for when the internet is down, a plantronics Callisto 830-M to manage my landline, work Blackberry, personal Droid X, and my microsoft communicator program all through once teleconferencing device, and of course, software from my company that allows me to remote in through secure VPNs to do all of my work. I probably have invested 10K over the last five years in technology in my home to be an efficient and successful telecommuter.

    I love the peace of being at home and being able to focus on coding, troubleshooting, and all of the other analysis that I am responsible for on a daily basis. But I will agree with Cory, sometimes getting out and being social within the community is a good way to go. I will sometimes use the libraries and also like sitting and having breakfast at the Second Street Diner while checking and responding to emails.

    The key to my success of working at home has been multiple redundant technologies for when there is a problem, such as a power outage, or internet outage. I still have to be able to do my work 24-7. Thanks to multiple phone and internet aircards, I have never not been able to do my work at home.

    A Telework center may be a great way to promote Madison's growth. I know many people who drive to Sioux Falls everyday and spend money there after or during work. Lunches, picking up groceries before coming home, etc. If you could keep those people in town, more of that money will be spent here. Instead of being an ever increasing bedroom community, let's bring those jobs home to Madison. Heck, I went all the way to the east coast to bring my job back to South Dakota. :)

    Great article Cory!

    Ashley Kenneth Allen

  2. Ashley Kenneth Allen 2011.03.28

    I also wanted to give a plug to Dakota State University for teaching me many of these great distance/telework technologies while I was a student there. My DSU education has helped me succeed in my profession. I am a proud graduate of DSU and think very highly of what the University has done for the students and our community. DSU could very easily lead a Telework initiative or setup a center for Telework/Telecommuting at one of the many technology buildings. :)

  3. David Bice 2011.03.28

    As an Emergency Management professional, I would also like to add that many businesses and government entities are starting to incorporate forms of redundant operations, such as telework, into their Continuity of Operations/Continuity of Government (COOP/COG) plans. Being able to operate from home would be essential in the event of an outbreak of swine/avian/human, or any other type of flu pandemic, where isolation is the best measure of protection, both for not contracting the flu and/or not passing it along to someone else. People could be isolated for up to a week in the event of a major flu pandemic. Less work would be loss and operations could still function, even if on a limited basis, if they are able to operate from home. This also works well in the event of a natural disaster such as a tornado, flood, hurricane, earthquake, etc, where the employee may not be able to get to the office because of road closures or if their office has been damaged/destroyed. Operations could still function from a remote site, such as the employee’s home or a secondary worksite.

  4. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.03.28

    Ashley, David, great comments! Some of the smartest observations I've heard here!

    Ashley, it's remarkable that you can do the work you do and still live here... and I'm darn glad you can!

    David, you make me think about how the Internet really makes possible one of the original ideas of the whole distributed network, to maintain communications even in the face of a big military attack. We can now use the Web to "harden" commerce, education, and public services against all sorts of threats -- epidemics, terrorist attacks, blizzards, anything that might keep huge workforces from gathering safely in one place.

    Now I'm wondering: if we promote telework and distributed workforces, could we put a dent in the population trend that's draining rural counties? Or will people still gravitate toward the cultural amenities of bigger towns, even if they can take their work anywhere with broadband?

  5. Nonnie 2011.03.28

    The only downside I see to telecommuting if something that would prevent communication via the internet, some attack on the power grid. How much of a danger is this?

    Actually I have been working from home for years and love it. One of my coworkers has moved several times around the country and kept her same job; a great benefit. I'm nowhere as computer literate as Ashley, but it works for those of us more IT challenged too!

  6. Michael Black 2011.03.29

    From a strict economic standpoint, why would a company hire someone in Madison SD when they could hire someone in India for a fraction of the cost?

    Internet wages are low. Read the article below and you'll find out what you can make freelancing on one site.

    Help wanted: 63 cents an hour

    I spent a day working for Amazon's Mechanical Turk, and all I have to show for 7 hours in the online marketplace is a measly $4.38.

  7. Mike 2011.03.31

    Cory, Thanks for extending the conversation on this subject. Although not every telework job is a great job, there are companies out there who recognize the value of workers in rural places and pay good wages. I think the presentations given at the Fergus Falls conference are a testament to this. It's great to see communities like Fergus Falls trying innovative ideas.

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