KSL INVESTIGATES

Working From Home May Stick Around After Coronavirus Goes Away

Apr 15, 2020, 10:09 PM | Updated: 11:07 pm

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – We are in the midst of a great work-from-home experiment – and it could fundamentally and permanently shift the work culture in the United States.

For well over a month, the KSL newsroom has been largely empty. Anyone who can work from home has been sent home. The pandemic has pushed us and thousands of other businesses, services and agencies to make fundamental changes in how – and where – people work.

Experts have deemed this the “great work-from-home experiment.” Millions who never telecommuted before are learning how to make it work – and many believe that could make this monumental shift permanent for many companies.

Dorie Guerra is one of thousands of Utahns forced into working remotely and so far, so good for the paralegal.

“I hope to stay working from home,” said Guerra. “You can set your music on and open the windows and it’s been a more positive, relaxing environment.”

Plus, she said working at home has put the kibosh on what had become a big issue for her office – setting the temperature.

“I can keep it ice cold the way I like it!” she said.

Most Utahns can probably warm up to the idea of ending lengthy, time-consuming commutes. It is a lot less money spent on gas and parking, and it is a lot less emissions going into the air.

Certain sectors had been dabbing with the idea of telecommuting well before the COVID-19 outbreak.

During the summer of 2019, the state of Utah announced the results of a pilot program, where 136 state employees worked from home three days a week. During that study’s 10 months, those workers saved 273 lbs. of carbon dioxide. The state says when it expands the program to its permanent goal of 2,500 telecommuters, as much as 1,300 lbs. of emissions could be saved every month.

The benefits go past a smaller carbon footprint.

Productivity at a Distance

“There is definitely more productivity across the board,” said Jacob Moon, co-founder and general manager of public relations firm, Method Communications.

“I think that when people can work how and when and where they need to, people are just generally more productive,” he added.

Moon said his company has offered telecommuting for some time, to help employees work around appointments, their kids’ school activities or bad weather days. About a year ago, it doubled down on working-from-home with a policy dubbed, “Method Anywhere.”

Moon said it has become a big factor in recruiting and retaining talent.

“I think as long as we are demonstrating the trust that we know that they’ll get the work done when they need to get the work done, then it kind of builds a great relationship with us as a company and our team members to just make sure they’re taken care of and they appreciate the job,” he explained.

Kate North telecommutes for real estate services firm Colliers. She specializes in workplace innovation and said teleworking studies as far back a decade ago found increases in engagement and productivity.

“People want to pay back the freedom and flexibility that they’ve been given,” she said. “They’re more loyal. The retention is higher.”

North said today’s technology allows employers greater confidence that work is happening off-site.

“Smart leaders know that they can get the best out of their talent. And, now finally, we’ve got all these great tools – we’ve got Zoom, we’ve got (Microsoft) Teams – that keeps work visible,” she said. “It’s like, one little push and you’re connected to each other. Trust is increasing because work becomes more visible.”

North said for many people, telecommuting has moved past being a fringe benefit and has become a necessity. In a recent survey, 34% of workers said they would be willing to take up to a 5% cut in pay, to telecommute. (https://www.owllabs.com/blog/remote-work-statistics)

“It will allow for them to work in locations that are closer to home. It doesn’t require relocation, or it could be more affordable. So, thinking about the cost of living here, the rising costs – specifically of housing – that (working remotely) may be able to take a little bit of a buffer off,” she said.

For employers, telecommuting translates to less office space, less furniture, fewer red staplers, and savings on custodial services and utility bills.

The Drawbacks

Working at home has its double edge, too.

Guerra, for one, has found it hard to turn the work off.

“I think the pressure of being at home and always being on and available for supervisors and other co-workers puts a little more pressure (on me), so I feel like maybe I’m slightly more workaholic,” she said. “I think I put that pressure on myself all the time anyway but now it is double time.”

Guerra said some of her colleagues struggle with balancing work with childcare at home – especially since schools and many daycares remain closed. Others struggle with lagging internet connections, while some just do not want to be at home.

“It’s been harder because people want that interpersonal communication, and maybe it’s because they’re not getting it from their friends and family elsewhere because everybody’s literally just at home,” said Moon about teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’ve seen a lot of comments like, ‘Hey, I miss you, I miss seeing you in the office, I really want to see you.’”

Moon said video call after video call, just doesn’t add up to the personal communication people want.

“It’s still nice to have somebody sitting next to you that you can shout over the cubicle and say, ‘Hey, what about this?’, or get together for lunch, commiserate or strategize or even talk about the latest movies,” he said.

Moon favors a hybrid approach of splitting time between home and the office.

“We need to find a good balance where we can take advantage of both things,” he said.

Whatever approach an employer takes, North believes any work-from-home policy needs to be simple and easily understood. It should spell out who can and cannot work from home and have tight security controls to protect company information.

Managers need to set clear expectations, communicate and check-in often.

“Find out how their people are doing – are they safe, are they productive, are they able to focus?” she said.

After the Pandemic

While telecommuting will not be an option for everyone, University of Chicago researchers just this month compared occupation types and employment numbers and found 37 percent of American jobs can be done at home.

Nearly one out of five corporate chief financial officers told the research firm, Gartner, they plan to keep at least 20 percent of their staff working from home after the pandemic.

So, a permanent shift to working from home for many companies, may be well underway.

“A lot of mid-level managers never thought that their teams could truly work remotely, or there wasn’t really a culture of trust,” said North. “Since the COVID-19 virus came on, we all have been sent home, they found out that it does work, and that people can connect, they can engage and that they are productive. So, I think this has been a big shapeshifter for everybody.”

How is the great work-from-home experiment turning out for you?

North’s company, Colliers International, wants to hear about your positive and negative experiences in a new nationwide survey of telecommuters. To add your voice, visit this link on LinkedIn.

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Working From Home May Stick Around After Coronavirus Goes Away