VERNAL — The coronavirus pandemic introduced thousands of Utahns to remote work in 2020.
Companies in Utah and throughout the nation were suddenly able to reevaluate work decisions to weigh whether an in-person environment or a remote-work setup was the best option now and in the future. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox jumped on the opportunity shortly after his inauguration and ordered state agencies to review jobs that could be done remotely in a January executive order.
Cox said increasing remote work by state employees could save taxpayer dollars, increase employee satisfaction and alleviate air pollution on the Wasatch Front.
While urban Utah may have only recently discovered the benefits of remote work, rural Utah has been considering the option for years. The pandemic only accelerated efforts to create remote jobs in rural counties.
Rural Utah battles a talent drain that comes when its brightest students move away for school and take big-city jobs afterward. These areas also battle the decline of fossil fuels and the fickle tourism dollars that dried up suddenly and unexpectedly a year ago.
Working remotely was a temporary solution for some employees when the pandemic struck, but it might also be part of the solution to ensure the future of rural communities as the state invests money and resources to make sure it becomes a viable option for anyone, anywhere, who wants the option.
Rural Online Initiative
The Rural Online Initiative was born in 2018 with a bill from the Utah Legislature and was the brainchild of Piute County Commissioner Darin Bushman, who was looking for ways to support then-Gov. Gary Herbert's rural job creation goals; but there were only so many options in his tiny community.
"Wouldn't it be cool if we could come up with a place where people could go and learn about all of the online opportunities that exist out there?" Bushman said at the time on the USU Extension podcast Remote Work Radio in 2019.
Bushman said Utah State's Paul Hill "instantly got the vision" for the idea. Hill now serves as the program director for the Rural Online Initiative. The program offers certificate programs and other courses for rural Utahns who want to develop skills and find opportunities; the certificates take about a month to obtain, Hill told KSL.com.
The program has placed 173 participants into remote jobs since it began, he said. It is done entirely online "and the barriers to participation are very low."
"Someone who's interested just needs to have reliable internet access, a computer ... and some experience as a knowledgeable worker and some skills, or a strong desire to learn," Hill said. "We take them from there and help them with finding the job, and teaching them the skills they need to really excel in a remote environment."
Hill said the program's participation "skyrocketed" when the coronavirus pandemic began. It went from 50 to 80 students a month to more than 350. "And it stayed that way all summer," he said. "There was just so much interest."
Not every participant needed a new job, he said, some just wanted to learn best practices for their newly remote position to increase productivity and lessen their chances of being furloughed or fired.
Even though many employees enjoy working from home, Hill said the remote work "honeymoon" is coming to an end. Employees working remotely feel an "obligation" to work longer hours, he said, creating "Zoom fatigue," burnout and turnover. And the isolation of telework should be balanced with opportunities to see coworkers in person, too.
When my job becomes portable, I could own a home. I could move to a community in Sevier County or Emery County, beautiful, wonderful areas, where they could own a home and even have some large property, and still work remote.
–Paul Hill, program director of the Rural Online Initiative
But Hill believes remote work can be a tremendous opportunity for rural Utah moving forward.
"Our rural communities, they've traditionally over-relied on the extraction industries and natural resources," he said. "It's a good base, but you can't just rely on that forever. You need economic diversification. You saw what happened in Grand County, when you rely on tourism and busloads of tourists coming overseas to see the national parks. That's great, but what happens when they can't come here?"
Working remotely means rural Utahns don't have to be limited by the wages or economic climate in their immediate surroundings. "We have people in rural Utah that work for NASA, that work for Microsoft and Google and other big companies on the Wasatch Front," Hill said. "The opportunities are endless."
More information about the Rural Online Initiative is available at remoteworkcertificate.com.
One crucial component of rural job growth, and a priority of state government, is expanding access to high-speed fiber internet. There are parts of rural Utah that have faster internet than on the Wasatch Front, Hill said.
"Kane County fiber is amazing," he said. "I was on a call recently, and there were people from Salt Lake, Provo and Kanab, and the people who kept dropping out were from Salt Lake and Provo."
Stephen Lisonbee is Cox's senior adviser of rural affairs and works from the governor's rural Utah office on the Cedar City campus of Southern Utah University. He recently met a Kanab resident who works for Pluralsight, the Utah County tech giant, thanks to the city's excellent fiber internet.
Lisobnee said the Cox administration is committed to expanding broadband access throughout rural Utah, a key point in the governor's One Utah Roadmap. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are currently debating a bill that would create the Utah Broadband Center and the Broadband Access Grant Program within the Governor's Office of Economic Development.
HB348, sponsored by House Rules Chairman Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville, passed the Utah House on Feb. 19 on a 60-4 vote.
A third major component of the state's rural innovation strategy is to invest in co-working spaces like the Vernal Innovation Hub, which, as KSL.com reported last month, recently celebrated its grand opening. The 7,000-square-foot Innovation Hub was partially financed through a state grant and is housed in a former police building on Vernal's Main Street.
"Everybody wants to go back to their hometown," Lisonbee said. "They want to work there, right? ... So we create these co-working locations where they know they can work there if they move back there."
Not everyone's home would be conducive to remote work, he said. For some Utahns, slow internet speed is the only thing between them and a high-tech job. Rural co-working spaces aim to solve that problem, and to foster an entrepreneurial community in struggling cities.
Wayne Vance is one such Utahn who has plenty of experience working from home, but now chooses to work at the Vernal Innovation Hub since it opened. There probably isn't a lot of Silicon Valley experience in the Uintah Basin, but Vance has it — he started with Deloitte & Touche before moving back to Utah and working at companies like Omniture and Adobe. He now works with Preferred CFO, a team of outsourced chief financial officers.
Vance has been working remotely for more than seven years, he said.
"There are quite a few people out here in the Basin who do work remotely," Vance said, even before the coronavirus pandemic. "Their family's here, they want to be located here, so they'll work for different companies around the country and the Wasatch Front." He credits fast local internet for making that possible in the region historically dominated by the oil and gas industry.
"We have fiber here, so from the Innovation Hub perspective, that opens up the possibilities of what we can do to provide services to the world," Vance said. "It's exciting to have the Innovation Hub here, where we can bring like-minded entrepreneurs together to create, to come up with their big ideas, to vet those big ideas and to help empower them in their efforts to create businesses and augment the economy here in the Basin."
He recommends that rural remote workers take advantage of co-working spaces, if possible, to battle isolation and foster creativity.
Lisonbee acknowledges that remote work is only a partial solution for rural Utah and that the transition will take time.
"There are still positions, offices and departments that, for security purposes, for the nature of their business — it will take time to learn how to make those become full teleworking jobs," Lisonbee said, referring to the governor's order about state employees. "And some of those might be, you have a shared desk space, but you're still in the office two days a week. And there will always be a need for customer-facing interactions, like driver's license (applications). So how do you work through those?"
But he believes telework opportunities have the potential to raise the quality of life, lift the economy, and retain more young people in rural Utah towns. And the state government has a part to play, he said.
"We can get you connected with education providers to get you the skills you need. We can prepare you to compete for those jobs in the ROI program. And then we have a database of jobs available to you through (the Department of Workforce Services). And if you need support for a co-working location, maybe there's a spot."
"This is the future," Hill added. "It's here, it's arrived, and we need to embrace it."
He said rural teleworking could even alleviate Utah's affordable housing crisis.
"When my job becomes portable, I could own a home. I could move to a community in Sevier County or Emery County, beautiful, wonderful areas, where they could own a home and even have some large property, and still work remote."