Michael Erard and Misty McLaughlin suspect that the number of people working remotely for out-of-state employers has been rising rapidly in Maine, but so far it has been nearly impossible to pinpoint who those people are, where they live and what they do.

The South Portland couple, both of whom have spent a portion of their careers working for faraway employers, have made it their mission to identify and provide support and assistance to all so-called remote workers and the companies that hire them.

In June, Erard and McLaughlin announced the formation of Work in Place, a nonprofit initiative dedicated to remote working, teleworking (or telecommuting), flexible work and working in shared workspaces, from home or other off-site locations.

Their first goal is to organize a national summit on remote workers that would be held in southern Maine. The inaugural Work-in-Place Summit would bring together researchers, pioneers and experts in the areas of business, technology and social innovation to share best practices, shape strategies and provide resources to create strong, successful remote-worker programs, they said. The summit would move beyond merely promoting the concept of remote work, which McLaughlin and Erard prefer to call “working in place.” Instead, it would tackle the complex opportunities and challenges associated with such work.

“This is about providing the resources to do it right,” McLaughlin said. The summit is tentatively scheduled for spring 2017.

Erard said the summit idea actually came first, which then led them to found a permanent organization.

“This organization is nationally focused, but we’re based in Maine,” he said.

There are some indications that remote workers contribute to a higher share of the overall state economy in Maine than in other states.

Maine derives a far greater share of its net earnings from out-of-state employers than the national average – 2.6 percent, compared with 0.04 percent for the U.S. as a whole, said Charles Lawton, chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. and a columnist for the Portland Press Herald.

However, that statistic does not differentiate between Mainers who commute to work across state lines and those who work remotely in Maine for an out-of-state company, Lawton said.

Another statistic that points to a relatively high per-capita share of remote workers in Maine comes from Internal Revenue Service records, said Ryan Wallace, project director of the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.

More than one in 20 Mainers with jobs work from home, which is nearly 25 percent higher than the national average. However, about half of those who work from home are self-employed, as opposed to working remotely for someone else.

Actual data on remote workers are hard to come by because the IRS doesn’t track where a company’s workers are based, Wallace said. On the flipside, the U.S. Census Bureau tracks how many people work from home, but not whether they are working for a company based elsewhere.

Wallace has embarked on his own research project to develop a clearer picture of the remote workforce in Maine. He has developed an online survey for remote workers and already has received a couple of hundred responses.

“There’s a whole lot of interest in the phenomenon, for a whole lot of different reasons, and not just in Maine,” he said. “We’re just trying to get an understanding of the phenomenon.”

Wallace said he intends to write a research paper based on the survey results that could be used as a basis for policymakers to implement changes to boost Maine’s remote-worker economy.

Erard and McLaughlin said they hope Wallace’s research will help bolster the argument that economic development efforts in Maine should place more emphasis on marketing the state as a great place for people who have the ability to live and work anywhere they choose.

Their own journey to Maine began that way. The couple moved here from Austin, Texas, in 2007, when McLaughlin was working remotely for a technology firm. They did not initially plan to settle permanently in Maine.

“We found out that we loved it and wanted to stay,” McLaughlin said.

Later, Erard also got a job working at home in Maine, for a think tank based in Washington, D.C. The experience of working remotely got them both thinking about the needs of remote workers and how an organization such as Work in Place might be able to assist them, such as by developing a Yelp-like rating system that would let prospective employees know how well or poorly each company treats its remote workers.

A big part of the challenge for people who want to work remotely is finding an employer with the desire to hire such workers, and the ability to manage them effectively, they said.

Erard said he ultimately left his work-in-place job after “feeling like I was not connected enough to the organization.” Teaching companies how to better manage their remote workers and provide the resources those workers need is another goal of Work in Place, the couple said.

McLaughlin and Erard said they hope that a national organization will make it easier for remote workers to connect with each other in their respective communities to share problems and solutions.

“There may be 15 people working remotely for IBM in Maine who don’t even know about each other,” Erard said.

Work in Place also may prove a valuable resource in states such as Maine, where the benefits of an excellent quality of life often are overshadowed by the relative lack of high-paying jobs.

“Remote work is a way people can stay in Maine or return to Maine,” McLaughlin said.

Jennifer Hutchins, former director of the nonprofit organization Creative Portland, said that when Erard and McLaughlin approached her a few years ago for help, she recognized the economic development potential of their idea.

Although Hutchins has since moved on and is now executive director of the Maine Association of Nonprofits, she said she will continue to help them develop Work in Place because she thinks their focus on remote workers could help bring a needed influx of new talent to Maine.

“It seems like we as a state only have things to gain by learning more about the remote worker population and the things they need to succeed,” she said.

Hutchins and Lawton both noted that emphasizing work-in-place opportunities in Maine could help solve a common challenge faced by highly skilled workers who want to move to the state: the so-called “trailing spouse problem.”

In a household with two highly skilled workers, one might find a good job at a place like The Jackson Laboratory or Idexx Laboratories, but because Maine is relatively small, their spouse might not be able to find an equally good job, they said. Helping the spouse connect with a desirable job as a remote worker would allow them to move to Maine.

“We make it easier to attract them, and then create two jobs instead of one,” Lawton said.