This Utah town is one of the nation’s top spots for remote workers

The city was growing fast even before the pandemic, and was already seeing the rise of remote work.

In this Utah mountain town, a higher percentage of residents work remotely than in most cities across the country, a new analysis shows.

And Heidi Franco, the mayor of Heber City, said she doesn’t find that much of a surprise — she’s worked remotely for 13 years herself, in her full-time role as a professor at Western Governors University.

With 14.5% of its working residents doing their jobs online, Heber ranked seventh-highest in the country, according to new research by the software company SysAid, which looked at census data.

It was the only Utah city to land in the top 10; Provo-Orem, St. George and Salt Lake City were in the top 100, out of 938 micropolitan and metropolitan areas in the U.S.

Heber City Council member Scott Phillips has worked remotely at times for years, too — while also working in his offices in Salt Lake City and Park City. He had been aware of the high rates of residents working from home for the past several years, he said, but now the secret is out, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s such a desirable place to live but I don’t want everybody to know that,” he said with a laugh, citing recreation opportunities as the major draw.

Heber, with a population of 17,290 in 2021, is a popular vacation area and the seat of Wasatch County. Given the city’s size now, remote jobs are essential, Phillips said, because “we definitely don’t have the industry or jobs in Heber to support our population.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The town has been recognized as “the fifth-fastest growing community in the nation,” Franco said, referring to recent analysis of Postal Service data. She noted that all utility services have had to adapt to the rising population.

‘I don’t want to ever go back’

SysAid, which provides IT support software, analyzed data in 5-year spans, from 2013 to 2020, from the American Community Survey, which is conducted by the federal Census Bureau.

Vineyard Haven, Mass., led the latest list of cities and towns, with 17.7% of employees there working remotely. Washington D.C was the region with the highest proportion of remote workers overall, followed by the states of Colorado and Oregon.

More recent data shows Utah experienced a surge of incoming working-age people from 2020 to 2021, the Washington Post reported in August. Most counties in the state saw a significant increase that year, as people moved to more rural parts of the country during the pandemic, according to an analysis of census data by the Economic Innovation Group published in July.

Most of those workers were white; Davis, Salt Lake and Emery were the only counties to see a significant increase in Hispanic working-age people, according to the analysis.

Daly Elias is the type of virtual employee who helped Salt Lake City land in the top 100 cities in the SysAid study. A few months ago, she started going to WeWork in Salt Lake City to maintain more work-life separation.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Private phone booths at the WeWork co-working space at 460 W 50 N are pictured on Friday, Sept. 2, 2022.

She had been completely remote even prior to the pandemic; she works in sales at 42Chat, a Draper company that makes text chatbots for events and communities.

“We have always been a virtual company,” Elias said, adding, “I find that I don’t want to ever go back to an office again.”

For her, the ability to move wherever she wants is a major selling point of remote work. She is thinking about moving somewhere new, and can live in any U.S. time zone.

Virtual or hybrid staying popular in Utah

WeWork, which leases work space to remote workers, has two locations in Salt Lake City and two in Lehi.

“We’ve seen a national push for returning to work, and Salt Lake is no exception,” said Robin Cardoso, the company’s vice president for the region, in a statement. “We’re seeing increased adoption of hybrid workspace in Salt Lake.”

Demand in Salt Lake City for WeWork’s ‘All Access’ — a monthly flat-rate membership — increased 31% from January to July this year, Cardoso said. The number of members using its ‘On Demand,’ pay-as-you-go option grew 47% in the same time period, she said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The WeWork co-working office at 460 W 50 N in Salt Lake City is pictured on Friday, Sept. 2, 2022. While few people were there ahead of Labor Day weekend, WeWork says it has seen an increase in memberships in Salt Lake City this year.

Though people have returned to offices in greater numbers, “at the same time, individuals are demanding flexibility and for many, hybrid work is the new normal,” Cardoso said.

Some Utah companies remain primarily remote, including the web survey company Qualtrics, based in Provo.

“Pre-pandemic, Qualtrics was about 95% working in the office, then went to 100% [work from home] overnight,” said Lauren Braun, a spokesperson for the company.

Now most employees are in the office one or two days a week. “We’re being intentional about the time we spend in the office, focusing on collaborating and doing the things that we can only do in the office,” Braun said.

Anne E. Palmer, who works for Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, said she has seen benefits and drawbacks as she has worked remotely.

She moved to Salt Lake City in September 2020, she said, to help care for her mother. At the time, workers in Palmer’s office building in California were being reassigned to different places due to a renovation, and her position already did not require much face-to-face contact with colleagues prior to the pandemic.

She does need to be on site at Stanford in March and July, she said, so she travels when it’s necessary.

One thing that might improve remote work would be a better way of networking with other remote workers in the same field or same organization, Palmer said.

“I’m really interested to find out how many Stanford peers there are, who are doing research and administrative work in the state,” she said, “but I don’t know how to find them.”

-- Correction: 12:27 p.m., Sept. 13, 2022 >> An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the 42Chat employee. The correct spelling is Daly Elias.

Leto Sapunar is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.