Four Durango-based employees and business owners who have spent nearly a year working remotely say the option will fundamentally change the way we do business.
When the United States began to report its first COVID-19 cases, organizations around the country sent workers home to limit spread of the novel coronavirus. Durango real estate professionals have noted the urban flight to rural areas. Divisions appeared between those who were able to work remotely, often in higher-paying jobs, and those who could not.
But the tools and technology of remote work are now widely used, said Miguel Munoz, an e-commerce entrepreneur working remotely in Durango.
“If it hadn’t been because of COVID, it probably would have taken five to 10 years to happen,” Munoz said. “But it happened in just a few months.”
Remote work opened options for people, said Kelly Kniffin, real estate broker associate for Legacy Properties West in Durango.
Several of her clients already had the option to work remotely before moving to the city during the pandemic.
“They were living in more urban locations, cities, that became very undesirable during the pandemic. They couldn’t do the things that attracted them to the city,” Kniffin said. “The clients said, ‘OK, well, we also love the outdoors, so where are we spending our time?’”
They wanted the in-town lifestyle close to the outdoor environment – and most importantly, a good Wi-Fi connection, she said.
In November, FIS Worldpay closed its 81,380-square-foot building in Durango – an office space that was housing about 250 people – to transition employees to remote work.
Members of Durango City Council, like Mayor Dean Brookie, raised questions about how remote work might impact the future acquisition and use of city facilities. Many city employees are working in a hybrid, remote-office model after going all-remote for months last year.
Four remote workers interviewed for this story had varying thoughts about the future of virtual life.
Meredith Madrigal used to travel weekly as a public transit consultant – now she has more time for family and wants remote work to stay.
Chelsea Nettleton, who works for a medical technology company near Washington, D.C., said her company allowed employees to work from home. So she decided to move across the country to be closer to family in Durango.
Amber Blake, assistant city manager for the city of Durango, said a hybrid approach has possibilities, but she looks forward to the “hallway conversation.”
Munoz and his wife, Ina Ropotica, already relied on remote work for the pandemic and moved to Durango from Spain in August for a better work-life balance. They see it as the way of the future.
‘It unites us’Meredith Madrigal was on an airplane after seeing a public transit client March 2 when she received a notification from her company: Travel wasn’t going to be an option unless a client demanded it.
“It’s a big, big shift to say, ‘OK, now you need to do everything remotely,’” Madrigal said.
Madrigal, who specializes in paratransit and community transportation, used to spend up to four days a week on-site with clients all over the U.S. Building those personal connections face-to-face was a big part of the job, she said.
The company, NelsonNygaard, pivoted quickly, turning to tools like Zoom or other video-conferencing systems. They developed virtual webinars and training sessions.
“I remember feeling so overwhelmed in March and April, thinking we’ll get out of this shortly,” Madrigal said. “After the summer, we realized we’re in this for the long haul. This is fundamentally changing the way we do business.”
Clients and coworkers bonded over video chat goofs. Sometimes, her husband, José Madrigal (Durango’s city manager), would appear in the background or her teenage daughters would wave to the people on the video call. Her dog would bark, then other dogs in other people’s homes would hear her dog and start barking, too.
“The dog cacophony would take over the call for a good five minutes,” Madrigal said.
The new aspects of professional relationships were a silver lining during a difficult time.
“It’s automatically anticipated that you’re just going to go back to being this work person that is not a real person,” Madrigal said. “There’s a lot of things going on in people’s backgrounds that you can’t see. … It just unites us as human beings.”
But some people have been left out, she said. When travel resumes later this year, her top priority is holding public meetings with clients – those often reach marginalized groups, such as people with disabilities or low incomes, who might not have access to video chat tools.
For herself, Madrigal enjoyed having the option to work remotely. Her frequent travel wasn’t sustainable. As a mother of five, she was missing a lot of childhood and time with her husband, she said.
“I really, truly want to keep a great deal of the things we’ve learned to do remotely. Not only does it save my sanity, but it saves time and money for my clients,” Madrigal said. “I think for a number of agencies, it’s going to fundamentally change the way we do business.”
A silver liningWhen Chelsea Nettleton’s employer told employees they could work from home because of the pandemic, she jumped at the opportunity.
“We were aware that something odd, very unprecedented was happening,” said Nettleton, a customer care specialist in Manassas, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. “By the first part of April, our CEO was very concerned. … I was super appreciative of the company for jumping ahead of it.”
Nettleton began working remotely immediately. She has an autoimmune disease and wanted to take a cautious approach.
Her home office was a spare room in her friend’s house, where she and her husband were staying after recently moving to the area. Her husband also started working remotely.
Soon, they realized remote work was the plan for the foreseeable future. They did not want to stay in the D.C. area and decided to fulfill a yearslong idea to move to Colorado, where Nettleton grew up.
“The pandemic opened up the opportunity, and made it so I could stay remote, which meant I could work anywhere,” she said. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m going home.’”
Most of her day job did not change: She already spent most of the day on the phone with clients before the pandemic. In Virginia, her company moved into a smaller office space because more employees are working remotely, she said.
At times, she missed interacting with her co-workers, or it felt isolating to receive less feedback, she said. But she also found ways to help herself and the team make improvements.
“As terrible as the pandemic has been … in our particular lives, there was a huge blessing that came out of the bad,” Nettleton said.
A shift for the cityBefore the pandemic, Amber Blake had four to eight hours of face-to-face meetings during the typical workday with the city of Durango.
She kept her door open. People could have one-on-one conversations in person, which helped create a connection. Professional opportunities, such as conferences, were in-person. Blake was interim city manager when Colorado announced its first recorded case of COVID-19. She led the city for months as departments shifted to remote work, facilities closed and a flurry of emergency orders went into effect.
Anyone who had to transition from an in-person work environment to a virtual workplace experienced ups and downs, she said.
“It was challenging to be in a format where you were missing body language and that face-to-face communication,” Blake said. “It was very clear how much communication you gather from others as you’re sitting in a meeting having a conversation.”
A sunroom in Blake’s home turned into her at-home office, while her husband and kids also worked or studied remotely in other rooms of the house. If anyone lost internet connection, the family decided “mom trumps.” They set up hotspots and bumped up their internet service plan.
Staff members drew from their experience holding meetings between different facilities around Durango. They did trainings on Zoom and helped each other learn about new tools. There was stress, but city staff members had a sense of humor and compassion about it, she said.
“I am excited to have the ability to have that hallway conversation … because there’s a different connection that happens,” Blake said.
In the future, Blake said a flexible, hybrid approach between working in-person and remotely has potential, she said.
“It’s a new world for us,” Blake said. “It’s very exciting.”
From Spain to DurangoIna Ropotica and Miguel Munoz were living in Madrid at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
They were stuck in an apartment in the Spanish Pyrenees for four months when Spain locked down. The couple moved to Durango in August, after wanting to live in the city for years. They wanted access to skiing, climbing and the outdoors – a better work-life balance, they said.
Their jobs, both remote, made the move possible.
“The thing that we loved the most years ago were the people. They were extremely nice and helpful,” Ropotica said. “It’s just a place where you want to live.”
When they moved to the U.S., Munoz launched another e-commerce business, Recontour, shifting meetings with investors, lawyers and others to online meetings rather than the traditional in-person meetings.
“All of that, five years ago, would have been completely unthinkable,” Munoz said.
His only concern about working in a fully remote office is that interpersonal connections are harder to build. Sometimes, the team can lose some of the creativity that comes from brainstorming together in-person.
Ropotica said virtual formats change how she interprets: It’s more difficult to translate a person’s body language or tone. The couple said their internet service is fine; cell service, spotty. Sometimes, the time difference between Colorado and Europe complicates their work.
Looking ahead, Munoz said more people will be able to work from wherever they want to live, a good thing for work-life balance.
“This is definitely a trend that is here to stay,” Munoz said. “The biggest change that has happened is a change in mentality. We didn’t think that these types of things were possible, now we’ve seen they are possible.”