Traction on Demand is moving big business to small towns

As automation strips rural areas of jobs, the tech company will launch new offices in a number of B.C. communities

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      While LinkedIn and Glassdoor might be packed with jobs extolling the virtues of working from home, Burnaby powerhouse Traction on Demand is deliberately bucking the trend.

      The company’s founder and CEO, Greg Malpass, knows how important it is to feel attached to a place and community.  Growing up in rural Nelson, he left the town to pursue his education, and worked a string of successful jobs in marketing and enterprise sales. Founding Traction on Demand—a business that helps its customers optimize Salesforce, one of the most widely used pieces of sales software in North America—as a solo venture in 2006, the company now boasts additional offices in Toronto, Montreal, and Houston.

      For the company’s latest expansion, however, Malpass decided not to look to big cities, nor to hire remote workers—two strategies that often lead to employees feeling isolated or insecure. Recognizing the difficulties of finding community in the workplace and the issues young people face getting ahead in urban centres, he started thinking local.

      “We launched our first office as part of our new Small Town Initiative about two months ago,” he tells the Georgia Straight by phone. “There’s an increasing pressure on young people in metropolitan areas with the cost of housing and the cost of living. The average age of Traction [employees] is 32 years old, which is a time when people take a step back and say, ‘Hey—am I building my life where I want my life to be?’

      “We started to see some of our team members already moving to small towns, so we knew there was some interest,” he continues. “And we anchored on a location that I felt was not only a great town, but one that would carry out the [Small Town Initiative] experiment perfectly.”

      That location was Nelson. Chosen by Malpass in part because of his personal connection, it was important to him to find a town where he could create an office large enough to house 15 to 25 people—a number that creates a buzz, he says, without employees feeling like part of a machine—and offer workers a higher quality of life, including the chance to slash commute times, live in a single family home, and walk to schools and grocery stores.

      “We are doing things that our parents would never expect to do at work,” says Malpass. “So these lines have started blurring, and I think it’s really constructive. Working alone, staring at a screen, is very isolating. While it might be novel for a year, maybe two, what you’re missing out on is regular social connection. And that social connection is also great for business. That’s where random conversations come up around pursuing different opportunities. I think bringing people together is where real innovation happens. I think great productive work can happen remotely, but I also think that you’ll lose that personal connection.”

      Malpass has already found evidence to confirm his hunch. As well as long-standing employees choosing to make the move to Nelson, he’s also experienced a number of people indicating that they are interested in joining the organization, but would only consider working at the new office.

      Traction on Demand's office in Nelson opened two months ago.

      As well as benefitting workers, Malpass believes the new initiative will be great for the towns. As urban centres become hubs for high-paying technology jobs, rural communities are being increasingly left behind, deepening the digital divide. By hosting offices outside of bustling metropolises, Malpass hopes to open his doors to those who are not necessarily trained in technology but are highly capable and easily taught, and offer a collection of new jobs in each location.

      “Places like Nelson, or Trail, or any of these towns, […are] seeing traditional labour—forestry, LNG, oil and gas, and more industrial jobs—shrinking because of automation,” he says. “This is the chance for people to have great jobs. And it will attract more families to these communities who will pay taxes, and will contribute to the communities with their money and with their time. These towns are shrinking, and it’s crazy, because they’re beautiful.”

      On top of the new Nelson office, Malpass is already putting out feelers for additional B.C. locations. He’s highlighted the Vernon area as a potential new spot, as well as a town towards Nanaimo or Duncan on Vancouver Island. In addition, he’s looking into securing a commercial lease in the Yukon.

      “My curiosity around all of this is just about how we make work more human,” he says. “It’s something we spend more time doing. We live longer years, and we’re going to need more money to live longer years. So let’s make it enjoyable, and take advantage of technology, but not let it replace human connection.”

      Kate Wilson is the Technology Editor at the Georgia Straight. Follow her on Twitter @KateWilsonSays