The New Office: Remote Workers Taking to Door County

From her home office in Ellison Bay, Amber Beard reaches around the world. She teaches remotely for Harvard and runs her own sustainable-building consultancy called projekt hABitat. When she’s not working remotely in Door County, she’s traveling for work. 

Beard is one of an estimated 4 million Americans who work from home at least half the time: a number that’s steadily climbing, according to Peter Brooks, who facilitated a Nov. 4 panel discussion on remote working at the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College’s Learning and Innovation Center in Sister Bay. 

Working remotely offers a variety of benefits, perhaps most notably the ability to be productive not only in the office but with the rest of your daily tasks. 

Imagine waking up in the morning and sitting down at your desk in your pajamas with a blanket and a freshly brewed cup of coffee in your hand. Perhaps you throw in a load of laundry or go for a quick run before opening those emails. Perhaps you have time to eat lunch with a friend or partner or spend time with your children (if they’re not distracting you). Plus, there’s no daily commute to factor into your workday, saving you time and money. Those are some of the perks of working from home, according to those who took part in Brooks’ panel. 

Working remotely also allows workers to schedule their day without interruptions from colleagues walking into their office for a “quick” conversation.

“I have more control over my space,” Beard said. “When I used to work in office environments, it didn’t matter if I was an executive or a manager, you couldn’t close your door. There’s more time to be productive and be focused when you work virtually.”

Amenities at the Kick Ash co-working space. Photo by Grace Johnson.

She also takes advantage of the co-working space at Kick Ash Products in Ellison Bay, which offers desks, a private phone room and high-speed internet. Fees there range from $14 to $40 for drop-in use, and those fees include coffee. 

“I have a home office, and that’s great, but that’s a lot of hours by yourself, so it’s just nice to be in this really great environment,” Beard said. 

NWTC in Sister Bay also offers a rentable co-working space with similar amenities, plus access to white boards, office supplies, a microwave and a fridge. A day pass is $19; a monthly pass is $49; and a monthly pass with 24/7 access to the center is $119.

Beard was also able to meet other entrepreneurs who used the space to work for a few hours while on vacation during the summer, engaging with people from different disciplines who support creativity.

Just outside Sister Bay, Andrew Goldsworthy spends about 80 percent of his day on the phone or video conferences in his home office as the chief impact officer and co-founder of Rootid, a communications agency that helps social businesses and nonprofits scale their impact through communication strategies and digital technologies. 

He co-founded the company with two business partners in the San Francisco Bay area, where he met his wife, Kendall Johnson, a Sister Bay native. Eventually Johnson wanted to return home to help manage the family business at Waterfront Restaurant, and Goldsworthy jumped at the chance to live in a small town and work remotely. It helped that Rootid is an entirely remote company.

Like other panelists, Goldworthy said high-quality phone and internet services are essential for virtual meetings and video conferences. He said the county could attract many more workers like him if it can resolve its connectivity issues.  

“I have a lot of friends that grew up here that have since left to go to Chicago or various areas and have sort of established careers there, and probably could work remotely if they had a reliable way to connect,” Goldsworthy said. “And I think a lot of them can’t just because of the internet situation. I think a lot of them would love to come back here.”

Jim Schuessler, executive director of the Door County Economic Development Corporation, agreed. He said Door County wants to promote the opportunity to work remotely for vacationers and those looking to make a permanent move.

“It’s a real opportunity for Door County because we have a lot of people that may have a second home here that’d prefer to spend more time here because of the great quality of life,” Schuessler said. “Telecommuting allows them to do that. We do have the challenge of broadband, so that’s one of our biggest limiting factors.”

The county’s position on the Niagara Escarpment means that it’s difficult and expensive to install cable for television or internet in the rocky soil, said David Studebaker, who chairs Liberty Grove’s technology committee. The next best option is to put up towers for wireless broadband internet, but that requires line of sight, which is problematic, given the county’s topography. Current county regulations also make it an uneconomic proposition to put up towers, Studebaker said.

“The county holds internet towers to the same standards that they hold a cell tower, and they are a night-and-day comparison,” Schuessler said. “It’s really hurting the expansion of internet in Door County.”

Cell-phone towers are of a much heavier gauge with more equipment, while broadband towers are smaller, Schuessler said. 

“It’s going to take people that are not satisfied with their internet at home right now calling their county supervisor and asking them why Door County is penalizing internet towers when our neighboring counties aren’t,” Schuessler said.

But for those who are lucky enough to live along cable lines or within sight of Door County Broadband towers, working from home can provide a good work/life balance, said Louise Howson, coordinator of the Sister Bay Advancement Association. She said little interruptions such as switching your laundry or making a snack can allow you to return to your work task with a fresh outlook. Before arriving in Sister Bay, she was a vice president at Liz Claiborne from 1997 until 2008 and said that during her career, she never worked in a traditional office.

Working remotely isn’t for everyone. It takes discipline, determination, concentration and comfort with shutting yourself in a room with few or no other people around. For many, though, the benefits of choosing where you live and work outweigh the drawbacks of leaving a traditional office. And if internet access improves, Door County could be ready to welcome many more remote workers.

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