This article was written for our sponsor, Crystal Coast Economic Development Foundation.
With miles of beautiful shoreline, the lowest property tax rate in the state, and resources like the recently opened TIDAL Coworking space, remote workers in the Crystal Coast enjoy the benefit of a unique work-life balance that is hard to come by.
While many people often save their paid time off to use for a summer or holiday vacation, remote workers in Carteret County get to live where people vacation, all while having fulfilling careers. Michelle Nolin, CEO of Learn Ethos, an adult learning and development company dedicated to creating engaging learning experiences, is one of those people.
"We primarily focus on adult learners, continuing education, and workforce education," said Nolin, who runs her company from her Down East Carteret County home in Marshallberg.
Learn Ethos is a completely remote company, with many of her staff working in locations all across the northeast region of the country.
"I used to rent office space in Beaufort, but I gave that up because it was a couple of us or just me rattling around in the office. If we need to come together, I rent space for the day,” said Nolin. “And if I have clients, they usually come to me. People are like, 'Oh, wait a minute, you're on the southern Outer Banks? Oh, heck yeah. I'll come to you.' Sometimes we have people who come here because it's a beautiful setting, and why not?"
With the world's increased reliance on technology and digital connectivity since the onset of COVID-19, Nolin said that her phone hasn't stopped ringing since March.
"Everything has gone virtual, and my company has expertise in that exact thing. I'm an instructional designer by trade and specialize in adult learning — in e-learning and digital learning in particular," said Nolin. "In today's world just about every type of learning is digital in some way, shape or form. We develop e-learning, virtual classroom, and face-to-face learning content, manuals, audio, and videos. We develop and design this kind of content, do the programming, and work with subject matter experts to develop the actual content itself."
Learn Ethos has clients across several industry verticals including health care, financial services and government.
A Carteret County native, Nolin grew up in Morehead City, but she left to pursue her education and career. She returned to the area eight years ago to take care of her aging parents after spending much of her career in Boston and New York.
"My family is still here and my dad was not doing well, and I came down here to help care for my dad and be with him. I was working full-time for a company out of Boston, and my career never skipped a beat. I just basically have a laptop, an internet connection and a phone. I kept right on doing what I was doing and the company said, 'Well, we don't care where you sit,'" said Nolin. "So I started working for them from here as a remote worker."
Nolin eventually left that company to "branch out and try some new things" and started seeking out her own projects. She formed an LLC, put together a team, and Learn Ethos was born. Nolin's company is proof that you can start and grow a business right from the comforts of home, and in her case, with a beach just minutes away.
"Home is always home," said Nolin. "If I wasn't at the beach it might've been a different decision. I had lived in New York and I had a good thing going there — but three months into living here, I was going down to the waterfront every night and watching the sunset on Taylor's Creek in Beaufort. And it started to get warm and I learned how to kayak. I also reconnected with some friends who were still in the area or had moved back."
Nolin said she realized how much she'd missed the water, and her family still being in the area was the cherry on top. With a home near Marshallberg Harbor on the water, a boat and a kayak, she's able to dip out of work on a nice day for some time outside and create her own flexible work hours. Additionally, she said that being in a smaller community like Carteret County has allowed her to get more involved.
"I do a lot of volunteer work for the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and the Bridge Downeast, which is an afterschool program for at-risk youth. I'm on the Down East Council, which is a network of people from the unincorporated communities in eastern Carteret County. I got involved in the community here in a big way," she said. "I never found that kind of community engagement when I was living in big cities. So I feel like I've got the best of both worlds. I have this career that I love, but I also get to enjoy the water. I'm also a runner, so I do all the races here. I get to see my family for Sunday supper every weekend. And I have friends that are still in the area — we've all reconnected and we get together regularly. I just feel like my life is richer."
Many remote workers in Carteret County, like Nolin, work from their home offices, but thanks to the recent launch of TIDAL Coworking in downtown Morehead City, employees now have another remote working option in the Crystal Coast. TIDAL is the county's first coworking facility, and it's an exciting new work venue for residents and visitors alike.
TIDAL features enclosed office space, dedicated desks, floating desks, bookable meeting spaces, copying and printing services, phone booths for private conversations, and of course coffee and high speed internet.
Trace Cooper, owner of TIDAL Coworking and mayor of Atlantic Beach, said the space, which opened in January 2020, is already at capacity with enclosed office space and dedicated desks, and he is deferring floating desk memberships and day passes for now to encourage social distancing efforts amid COVID-19.
"We're not as open as we had planned to be, but that's natural, given what's going on," he said. "The response has been great despite us trying to keep a low profile during the pandemic since we don't want huge crowds in here. Everything has been done through word of mouth."
Cooper is a Carteret County native, a business owner and restaurateur, and a lawyer who spent much of his early legal career in Silicon Valley. He returned home for a "reprieve" over 15 years ago and never went back.
"I grew up in Atlantic Beach. It was a beautiful place to live, but when I got back I was surprised to see the quality of life, great restaurants, interesting people; the things that I loved about living in big cities existed here. Plus, I could go out on the boat or get in the ocean every day," he said.
After Cooper returned to the Crystal Coast he got involved in the community and into redeveloping it.
"There is not a lot of great, modern, creative office space in our area, but I just knew a lot of people that were doing remote work were here," he said of his inspiration behind TIDAL. "The point, to me, of making great places is to create community so people can come together. Even if you're working by yourself for a company somewhere else, it's nice to have a place where you can run into somebody at the coffee machine and feel like you're part of something, even though your company headquarters may be in a different state."
As the pandemic has forced many companies around the world to shift their operations to a remote work style, many are finding that digital works just fine. Companies like Google and Facebook have chosen not to embrace full openings and won't start reopening corporate offices until 2021. Many other companies have permanently committed to a remotely-based workplace model.
"I think the pandemic has really shown everyone that remote working can be done effectively," said Cooper. "If you're just as productive as you would be in an office and you could work from anywhere, why not work from the coast? Technology has allowed people to work remotely more efficiently, and there are numerous studies showing that remote work can enhance employee productivity.”
Cooper said that many people who live in the Triangle and work for companies based in Raleigh or Durham, but have second homes in Carteret County, are currently working out of TIDAL.
"I've had several TIDAL members say, 'Well, I realize I can live here now.' I think before, there was always just this notion of, ‘Hey, this is the beach, and it's a great place to be here, but you can't really live here. It's the beach.’ Now they're saying, 'Well, I don't have to go back — I can work from anywhere,'" he said.
When it's safe to do so, TIDAL will begin hosting special events and networking opportunities in addition to providing its workspace and office solutions. This will give remote workers and burgeoning entrepreneurs in the Crystal Coast even more opportunities to make professional connections.
For Nolin, working remotely and building her business in the Crystal Coast has helped her create a better work-life balance as she spends no time commuting, has access to the great outdoors, and time to be civically involved in the community.
"When I left New York I thought, oh, I'm giving up the big theater and this and that. But what I've gained is a lifestyle shift, but in a very good way," she said. "And I feel more well-rounded now. I feel more connected to my community, and I feel like I'm giving back to the place where I grew up and that I love."
This article was written for our sponsor, Crystal Coast Economic Development Foundation.