If corporate Charlotte can be productive working from home, will office life ever be the same?

If corporate Charlotte can be productive working from home, will office life ever be the same?
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The coronavirus outbreak and the social distancing it demands could forever change the way corporate America views remote work.

It’s been almost a month since thousands of office workers in Charlotte started working from home. And we’ve had to adjust quickly to a new work rhythm.

Kitchen tables have transformed into work stations. Zoom calls have replaced in-person meetings. Barking dogs and bickering kids are the new workplace distractions. Traditional, butts-in-seats workplaces that equate productivity with being present at the office have had to rapidly shift gears.

And this new work norm is working well for many who normally go into an office.

In a recent Agenda survey of more than 4,000 subscribers about life during the coronavirus outbreak, more than 60 percent reported that their productivity has stayed the same or increased while working from home.

There are a number of factors playing into this. For one, many note that they don’t have as many interruptions from coworkers, like they normally do at the office.

There’s also the fact that there’s no need to commute now, and that frees up a big chunk of the day. Many reported actually working longer days from home as a result.

Chris Coggins, a technology business consultant at Wells Fargo, is one of those people working more hours these days. Normally, he and his wife are up around 6 a.m. to get their three kids ready for school. After that, he drives from his house in Matthews to his office in Uptown, arriving at work around 8.

Now, without the commute, he starts his day around 6:15. He says he’s been more productive at home, and has been trying to get things done faster so that he can help his wife with the kids’ homeschooling.

Getting used to a new form of communication — all online or over the phone — has been an adjustment. At the office, Coggins’s boss sat across the aisle from him, making it easy to talk. “The hardest part for me is the interactions,” Coggins says.

Working remotely had been on the rise in recent years in Charlotte. According to the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, close to 9 percent of Mecklenburg County workers regularly worked from home prior to the pandemic.

The Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently hosted a webinar exploring the future of remote offices and virtual work after COVID-19.

One major takeaway: Office life may never be the same once normal life resumes.

Arvind Malhotra, a professor of entrepreneurship at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, says office workers unaccustomed to working remotely have had to quickly develop new capabilities. Parents have had to learn to balance new workplace distractions — kids. Workers have had to learn to communicate differently, and adapt to new technology like video calls.

“I see this capability serving us to shift over to a lot more remote work,” Malhotra says.

Working remotely does, however, come with costs that Malhotra describes in two categories: technological (not everyone is up to speed on new technology) and psychological.

In describing the latter, Malhotra notes that managers have to make sure they make work-life boundaries clear when everyone is working from home. “Just because you, as a team leader, are online hanging out until 9 p.m., doesn’t mean the rest of the team needs to.”

DeLisa Alexander is the chief people officer at Red Hat, the Raleigh software company. Before COVID-19, roughly a quarter of her company worked remotely anyway. For Alexander, it’s been a fast but productive adjustment.

Alexander says it has also helped build trust among her team. She doesn’t need her employees sitting at a desk where she can see them to know that they’re being productive.

“I can trust that my people are able to self-select when they need to do their work, and to be able to keep up with deadlines,” Alexander says.

Of course, not everyone can work remotely.

A recent report from the National Bureau of Economic Research about work during COVID-19 found that only about 37 percent of U.S. jobs can “plausibly be performed at home.”

Jobs that can be done from home typically are higher paying and include functions like finance and corporate management, the NBER report notes.

In areas like retail, hospitality, and agriculture, very few jobs can be done at home.

People in Charlotte working from home are doing so if their job was not deemed “essential” work, such as that of grocery store clerks, sanitation workers, nurses and doctors, and police officers. Mecklenburg County’s stay at home order, which took effect March 26, requires everyone else to stay home.

For those in the Agenda survey who said they can work from home but are are less productive when they do so, kids were the No. 1 reason why.

Matt, who works at a Charlotte bank, said that he’s less productive at home. The reason?

“4 YEAR OLD AND 2 YEAR OLD,” he responded in the survey.

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