Austin and Jaci Larrowe sit on their living room couch, each with a laptop, their two miniature golden doodles nestled between them. A candle burns and HGTV is on, muted, in the background.
The environment inside their Old Southwest home is relaxed, cozy. But this isn’t a lazy weekend morning — it’s a work day.
Last year the young couple traded commutes of 45 minutes or more to their jobs in Northern Virginia for the flexibility and comfort of working from home. And since it was no longer important that they be physically present in their offices, they moved to Roanoke.
The Larrowes are among the growing number of Virginians who telecommute, a trend recently analyzed by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
“If Virginians who primarily worked at home were grouped together as an industry, it would easily be Virginia’s fastest growing industry, increasing by 43% since 2010,” according to the analysis.
As of 2018, more than 10,500 people in the Roanoke metro area primarily worked from home, said Hamilton Lombard, a demographer with Weldon Cooper. That number is conservative, as it may not capture telecommuters who use co-working spaces or coffee shops.
For comparison, 11,668 people in the metro area work in educational services and 15,644 in manufacturing.
The Roanoke metro area has the second highest telecommuting rate — 7.3% — in the state, he said. Charlottesville comes in first. In 2018, the Roanoke metro area was in the top 10% of U.S. metro area telecommuting rates.
The growth in Roanoke is significant, Lombard noted, with the number of people who work from home doubling since 2010.
“If you look at the job growth, there’s no other industry in the Roanoke metro area that’s had that kind of job growth, adding on over 5,000 workers this decade,” Lombard said.
Metro areas with “large outdoor recreation industries that capitalize on local geographic features” often experience higher rates of telecommuting, the analysis says. It specifically mentions Asheville, North Carolina, to which Roanoke is often compared.
Lombard described the rise of telecommuting as a “fundamental change in the way we do work and really how we live.” And it’s one that could benefit Roanoke. Attracting remote workers provides a “huge bonus” to a community, he said, particularly one looking to diversify its economy.
Historically, the Roanoke metro area has struggled with losing young adults, Lombard said, though the city began reversing this trend in the last decade. He said a lack of employment opportunities in the region might be a factor.
Telecommuting could provide an avenue back to Roanoke for young professionals raised in the area who start their careers elsewhere. It could also allow someone who lives in Roanoke to stay put but still take advantage of better job opportunities in other cities.
Providing more options
Roanoke is well-positioned to capitalize on the changing nature of work.
Beth Doughty, executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership, said Roanoke has become a place people want to live. That’s good at a time when increased flexibility in the workplace is allowing more people to choose where they live.
She suspects that the messaging the partnership has done over the last decade — “changing the community narrative from one of an old railroad town to an active outdoor community” — is partly responsible for the uptick in remote workers in the region.
The rise in telecommuting helps attract talent, Doughty explained, particularly among families with two wage-earners. If only one spouse is offered a job in the region, relocating might still be possible thanks to remote work.
“It’s not traditional economic development, but we as a region have to be concerned about our rate of population growth,” Doughty said. “This is a way to address population growth.”
The Roanoke Valley is growing, but less dramatically than other metropolitan areas in the state. The latest population estimates from Weldon Cooper indicate the Roanoke metro area has grown by 1.4% since the 2010 Census.
Austin and Jaci Larrowe wanted to get out of Northern Virginia, where they both worked as federal consultants. They wanted a better quality of life in a place where they could enjoy the outdoors, have a fenced-in backyard for their dogs, get to know their neighbors and escape gridlock.
Roanoke offered those things, plus Austin Larrowe has family in the area; his father is the Botetourt County administrator. And it’s not too far from Northern Virginia if they need to get back to the office.
So the couple got their employers to agree to telecommuting. The Larrowes closed on their Old Southwest home April 1 and got married on the front steps that same day. By June they were both living in Roanoke full time.
They were happy to leave behind the hustle and bustle of Northern Virginia.
“We got to the point where on the weekends we absolutely didn’t want to do anything,” Jaci Larrowe said. “When we got home every day from work, we didn’t want to go to the gym, I didn’t want to cook.”
Now, she logs on at 8 a.m. and off at 4 p.m. They have time to go out in the evenings, to exercise, to cook.
Austin Larrowe said he feels working remotely has actually made him more efficient — there’s no “water cooler talk” and other distractions.
Since they both work from home, meeting people requires more effort. Jaci Larrowe said she’s learned to step outside her comfort zone to seek new connections, whether that’s neighbors walking down the street or another young couple at a restaurant. That people are so friendly makes it easier.
“It’s just a really different atmosphere that we’ve grown to love more and more with each new day that we get out there and try something different,” she said.
The couple love showing off their new city to friends. Austin Larrowe estimated the guest room of their century-old home is filled 75% of weekends.
“We’re waiting to get sponsored from Roanoke tourism,” he joked.
Access to the outdoors
Ken McLeod and his girlfriend, both professionals in their 30s working in Washington, didn’t see a future for themselves in the nation’s capital. Buying a house seemed an insurmountable challenge, and they worried that the high cost of living would affect their quality of life.
So McLeod spoke to his employer, the League of American Bicyclists, about working remotely, and the couple began searching for a city that could offer the life they wanted, which included easy access to the outdoors.
They considered Colorado and the Pacific Northwest, where McLeod grew up. But ultimately, they landed on Roanoke.
“At the end of the day when we thought about what really delivers on the outdoor opportunities and the lower cost of living, Roanoke really had a strong case for itself,” McLeod said.
That Amtrak would allow McLeod to easily reach the D.C. office when necessary was another bonus.
The couple relocated to Roanoke in November 2018. The city has delivered on access to the outdoors. In a quick 10 or 20 minutes, McLeod can jump on a hiking or biking trail, while it would have taken him more than an hour — without traffic — to reach something comparable in Washington.
When Dr. Carla Williams was offered a job by Carilion Clinic, husband Jeffrey Brown didn’t have to worry about whether he’d be able to find work in Roanoke. As a software engineer who works remotely, he could live anywhere.
Brown said the couple was sold on Roanoke when Williams came for an interview and a Carilion official took them for a bike ride in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A whole crew — Brown estimated it was around a dozen people — showed up. They were excited by the evidence of a biking community.
Brown and Williams moved to Roanoke in July 2017. They came from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where Williams completed her residency.
“It’s amazing to be in something that feels like a small town that’s grounded, and in 20 minutes, I can be in very remote mountains with no one around, enjoying amazing biking,” Brown said.
He likes the flexibility that telecommuting provides. But Brown acknowledged that communicating primarily over messaging platforms can be challenging, and working from home can get lonely. He tries to combat that by taking his work to a coffee shop — Sweet Donkey is his favorite — or making the occasional trip up to his company’s office in Baltimore to reconnect with the team.
Working from home isn’t for everyone. For the people who find looming household chores distracting or worry that they’ll live in their pajamas, co-working spaces provide an alternative.
The CoLab in Grandin Village is a local option for workers looking for “a professional space that isn’t a coffee shop or their dining room table,” said Brent Cochran, one of the CoLab’s principals.
Though the CoLab is perhaps better known for offering spaces to startup businesses, Cochran said some members are remote workers employed by companies outside the region.
He said the CoLab creates community for telecommuters who don’t have colleagues they can grab lunch or an after-work drink with, particularly useful for people new to the area. It keeps remote work from being too isolating.
Cochran expects to see more remote workers moving to Roanoke. Millennials are said to value quality of life. If you could make Washington wages and have the Roanoke quality of life, Cochran mused, “Why wouldn’t you do that?”
Dave Epperly didn’t have to convince his employer, a Denver cybersecurity firm, to let him work remotely.
“One of the main foundational principles of this company was that cybersecurity talent is hard to come by and it’s spread across the continental United States, and it’s much easier to employ people when you let them choose where they want to be,” Epperly said.
With the freedom to choose where to live, Epperly moved to Roanoke in 2014 from Charlottesville. As Epperly and his wife prepared to become parents, they liked the idea of being closer to family. He grew up in Christiansburg, and she in Cave Spring.
Epperly liked the size of Roanoke — enrolling his kids in activities wouldn’t be too challenging and he could go to brunch on a Saturday morning without waiting 45 minutes for a table. The opportunities for outdoor recreation were abundant. And he was excited by the revitalization he saw in downtown Roanoke.
“It still feels like there are a lot of possibilities here,” he said.
He believes it’s important to have a separation between work life and home life, which is one reason he prefers to work at the CoLab. Though it’s just a short walk from his home, Epperly finds that physically moving to the work space helps him maintain that balance.
He said studies show remote workers tend to be more productive, in part because they always consider themselves to be on the clock. But that can also lead to burnout. Epperly said commuting to the CoLab is a strategy to ward off that lifestyle.
Though the advantages of telecommuting are great — Epperly can attend his kids’ events or be around if one of them is sick — there are drawbacks, too. He’s not always privy to what’s going on at the office, and there’s no such thing as a snow day. But ultimately, he is happy with his decision to telecommute.
Epperly said he used to joke that if Roanoke really wanted to increase its brain power, all it has to do is put a billboard on busy Interstate 95 or 66 advertising a little city just a few hours away where you’ll enjoy a lower cost of living and won’t sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
‘An employee’s game’
Local companies also offer remote work, which they described as a tool to attract talent.
Remote work is popular among the employees of D3O, a company that develops impact protection products for the sports and electronics industries, among others. It’s headquartered in London but also has a presence in Blacksburg, at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center.
Mostyn Thomas, the company’s general manager, said that about 40% of D3O’s 75 employees work remotely on either a permanent or occasional basis. In some positions, it’s just not feasible. Test engineers and material scientists, for example, need access to the company’s laboratories and equipment to do their jobs.
But other roles are most effectively carried out remotely, Thomas said. He gave the business development team as an example. Having them working from different locations provides D3O “more convenient and frequent access” to its various commercial partners.
FoxGuard Solutions, a Christiansburg cybersecurity and industrial computing company, has employees in North Carolina, Maryland, Colorado and other parts of Virginia who work entirely remotely. It also has local employees — many in Roanoke looking to avoid Interstate 81 traffic — who split their time between home and the office, said Amanda Stuart, the company’s director of human resources.
Over the last few years, it’s become apparent that remote work is the “sexy new thing” employees want, she said. Job applicants increasingly ask whether it’s an option.
“It’s an employee’s game, it’s an employee’s world,” Stuart said, noting that companies have to create a desirable culture to attract and retain workers.
Stuart said offering remote work as an option keeps FoxGuard competitive, promotes work-life balance and allows the company to attract diverse employees.
And as long as the employee performs at the desired level, she said, there’s no reason not to.