Thursday, May 30, 2024

A post-pandemic North Carolina

The pandemic is altering the world of work at a dizzying pace, creating a mix of optimism and fear.

In a pandemic world, this is the future of work. On the airy campus of Cone Health Cancer Center at Wesley Long Hospital in central Greensboro, a technician in blue scrubs places a vial in a stainless-steel cabinet and slides its glass-paneled door shut with a soft clang. Delicate robotic fingers connected to Popeye-like mechanical forearms of a $500,000 robot pick it up with surgical finesse, injecting its chemicals into an IV bag.

A patient’s life depends on this chemotherapy mix, but merely inhaling the vapors of some of these powerful drugs can endanger the technicians compounding them. “You can’t get it wrong in cancer care,” says Adam Peele, the former oncology pharmacy director, a Generation X pharmacist with close-cropped hair and chin scruff.

Variations of this scenario unfold daily in Durham and Chapel Hill, at Duke University Medical Center and UNC Medical Center, Charlotte’s Atrium Health, and a dozen other Tar Heel hospitals.
The future of work is here too, in Asheville, where a writer uses artificial intelligence to create magazine articles — not Shakespeare, he concedes, but readable.

On a late-summer day, the founder of a young company with clients such as Bayer Crop Science is using similar technology to calculate optimal conditions for crops in nearby Orange County or around the world in economically developing nations. Today, he’s working remotely, looking out the window across the pasturelands of his modest farm. Tomorrow, he’ll return to his office and a half-dozen colleagues in a former drugstore in a small town on the Virginia border. It’s in coworking spaces, part of a trend away from expensive office ownership that discourages promising young startups.

The future of work is here too, in downtown Charlotte, where Truist Financial is creating an Innovation and Technology Center incorporating intelligent automation and behavioral science. A few floors above in the 47-story Truist Center, more change is unfolding at the offices of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the global professional-services firm. But the outlook for office towers like this is hazy, and a recent PwC survey learned why. A third of the executives in 120 companies such as Truist and nearby Bank of America expect to need less office space as employees increasingly work from remote locations and press for flexible work schedules. No, skyscrapers won’t become obsolete, assures a Charlotte developer who’s built millions of feet of office space, but there’ll be less need for them to cluster in downtowns.

Nine months ago, North Carolina recorded its first case of COVID-19 in Raleigh. Since then, more than 317,495 have been diagnosed and more than 4,852 have died. In that time, the pandemic has dramatically changed how we work, the tools we use, and even where and why we work. In many cases, such as with automation and artificial intelligence, the changes have been brewing for years, but the virus has accelerated them at a breathtaking pace.

Mark Wilson, an associate professor of industrial and organizational psychology at N.C. State University, considers the momentous events that have altered work and culture in the last 200 years, including the Industrial Revolution, Machine Age, Space Age and 9/11 and its accompanying Age of Terrorism.

“On an order of magnitude, this is bigger than all those things,” he says. “We are still in the early days of COVID-19, when people don’t even completely understand the implications.”

Another N.C. State expert, Michael Walden, the William Neal Reynolds Distinguished professor and extension economist, says we’re in a different world. “The big question is how far will we be pushed? Some estimate that 45% of the workforce will be working remotely in 10 years. We won’t ever go back to the pre-COVID world.”

Work that undergoes revolutionary change is not unprecedented. Some past patterns, however, took eons or at least decades to establish. Cheap hydroelectricity christened Tar Heel textiles beginning in the late 1800s, luring farmers off the land and into plants and factories. Farm employment dropped from 81% in 1880 to about 2% today.

Now, pandemic-propelled technology is reimagining work in less than a year. Though long under development, artificial intelligence and machine learning in which computers “learn” from repetition are being hustled into applications such as Cone’s robotic pharmacist. Employers are balancing mission and worker and client safety through distancing or remote work.

More than two dozen Raleigh, Charlotte and Wilmington health care groups and other organizations were recently advertising for machine-learning specialists, typically salaried at $100,000 and more annually.

The pandemic is accelerating changes in future work in several fields once thought immune to automation, from police and health care to logistics. One fast-food chain is even experimenting with artificial intelligence with robotic burger flippers.

In a large distribution center in west Greensboro, computers using advanced barcode technology know the weight to within a gram of thousands of different products, boxing, labeling and sending them along conveyor lines to trucks untouched by workers, who are on hand to intervene in rare cases when automated-weighing devices detect a fraction of an ounce discrepancy. Before long, the trucks will also drive themselves.

Industrial experts say such systems, often boasting good wages, are part of the future work matrix but carry a large caveat — human jobs will increasingly be replaced by robots and computers. Amazon, which is filling the world with distribution centers, recently acknowledged its automation will force dramatic change and is allocating more than a half-billion dollars to retrain employees for more skilled roles.

In eastern North Carolina in towns such as Clinton, Tar Heel and St. Pauls, turkey, chicken and pork plants that employ 33,000 workers are increasingly relying on artificial intelligence, laser scanning, computers, and robots to slaughter and cut apart the animals we eat.

Smithfield Foods, a giant pork producer, will be doing the bulk of its plant work with advanced robotics, automation and artificial intelligence by 2050, says a spokeswoman. But the importance of such technology has already been driven home after food-processing plants nationwide faced brief shutdowns because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Another technological advance has arrived, experts say, just in time to accelerate pandemic-induced changes in future work. The fifth generation of mobile technology, 5G, is erasing the distance between traditional and remote offices.

“Even if we have only a 10% to 20% less demand for office space, that will have a huge knockoff effect,” Wilson says.

Nature has timed COVID-19’s arrival perfectly, say experts, to spotlight not only technology but changing concepts of what we want in work and what we expect from it. Older workers place a higher value on stability and benefits while younger ones, particularly Generations Y and Z, born in the 1980s and 1990s, are more open to so-called gig or freelance employment. For the younger cohorts, a sense of purpose often matters more often than personal profit.

Indeed, the technology that the pandemic has hastened will make it easier to choose a location and lifestyle rather than chasing jobs in large cities.

“Work will become blurred with the other activities we engage in,” says Walden, the economist. “Particularly family activities.”

Obstacles exist, of course. Many fear that automation, machine learning and other technology shifts will spark unparalleled joblessness and reinforce income inequality.

Tech giant IBM, which has long been among the Raleigh-Durham area’s largest employers, says remote work has cut its real estate costs $50 million and boosted productivity by 10% or more.

If employers share those savings and gains with employees remains to be seen.

“Over time, a lot of technical changes have redistributed resources and wealth to smaller groups of people,” says Wilson, the psychologist.

Traditional industry thinking has held that jobs eliminated by automation will be replaced by jobs that involve programming and maintaining the automation. If so, some scholars say North Carolina will be well positioned with a robust community college system for retraining.

“The real money is in analysis, writing, documenting and data,” Wilson says.

Has the pandemic sealed the death of the water cooler, break rooms and stairwells as venues for creative workers to exchange ideas? PwC doesn’t think so, though three-quarters of workers surveyed would like to work remotely at least one or two days a week.

“The office isn’t obsolete yet, but it’s changing,” a PwC researcher says. “COVID-19 has shown that staff can interact well with colleagues in person. It’s why 50% go into the office.”

Wilson isn’t so sure. “People who benefit from social interaction are really struggling,” he says. “I like to say that the age of the introvert has finally dawned.”

Home sweet home

With so many workers eager to avoid the commute, commercial real estate faces big changes.

One company has developed more than 2 million square feet of offices, sometimes paired with apartments for workers and bicycle and walking trails to get back and forth. The other pioneered coworking offices where entrepreneurs can launch without sweating a mortgage. Both agree the pandemic shows remote work and home offices are here to stay, but the water cooler isn’t going the way of green eyeshades.

“There’s a tremendous desire for human interaction, whether you work at Starbucks or [coworking company] WeWork,” says Charlotte developer Clay Grubb. “Locking yourself in a room, being by yourself and not seeing anybody all day is really not a healthy or desirable option.”

Christopher Gergen is CEO and co-founder of Forward Cities, which is helping about two dozen cities advance their entrepreneurial economies. He’s a founding partner of Raleigh Founded, formerly HQ Raleigh, the state’s largest space-sharing network.

“The future of work is going to depend on innovative solutions driven by teams that can effectively communicate, advance ideas and drive those ideas forward,” he says. “You can’t do that in isolation.”

Charlotte has about 850,000 square feet of shared office space, and the Research Triangle, more than 1 million square feet, much of it targeted to startups, freelancers and other creatives. Costs range from about $150 a month for a solitary worker to more than $500 for private offices.

Far more space is devoted to home offices, where the bulk of remote work is done. N.C. State University economist Mike Walden says the figure is swelling with residential architects increasingly designing dedicated offices and learning spaces for children. “You’ll see this blurring of lines, particularly with home management,” he says.

Pandemic isolation regulations, laid-off workers starting their own businesses and major employers responding to temporary workforce swings are sparking the growth in remote work. Some Tar Heel commercial real estate firms estimate a third of the demand for office space will be met by shared space in 10 years. It’s not solely an urban phenomenon.

“Some estimates are [that] within 10 years, 50% of the workforce will be working remotely or from home,”says Cori Lindsay, Caswell County economic development director. She is based in Yanceyville, which has a county-sponsored, 9,000-square-foot coworking space. “We don’t have a time frame like incubators where they have to leave after two or three years, but our hope is when these companies do grow up and leave, they’ll just move out somewhere in our community.”

Human-resource and corporate-efficiency experts say companies and their employees are learning that at-home work can be as productive as in collaborative settings.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of 120 major companies in June concluded 69% of employers found at-home workers were at least as productive as those entirely in conventional offices. More than 70% of employees said they would like to work at home at least two days a week on a permanent basis.

A blended office model is likely to become the norm, say Gergen and Grubb. It will include less space in conventional settings, more concessions to communicating with homebound workers, and offices shared by workers on the days they are on site. The shifts reflect the preference of most millennial workers, today roughly 24 to 40 years old.

“About 50% of the workforce is millennial, and in another five years, that will be about 75%,” Grubb says. “Truth is, the millennials already hated the concept of 9-to-5 and have been pushing back against it for the last five or 10 years.”

Once a vaccine for COVID-19 is widely available, “we will become much more comfortable working virtually,” Gergen adds. “I think what we’re going to find are hybrid solutions. The large corporate footprints where you have companies demanding all employees show up 9-to-5 in an office environment with a punch-the-clock mentality is going to be on the decline, but I doubt that the world of entirely virtual work is here to stay.”

Gergen says office space is also affected by a shift to knowledge work that emphasizes being “an effective problem solver and able to work efficiently with others in a digital environment. These employers are going to need fewer workers, and you can see what the implications of that are going to be.”

He notes that mature companies, typically more than 15 years old, tend to shed jobs more than create them and focus on improved productivity. Charlotte-based Bank of America employs 70,000 fewer workers than a decade ago, though its assets have increased more than 20% to $2.7 trillion.

Grubb owns and is developing offices in the Carolinas, Georgia, Ohio, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

“We’re still investing in offices. We bought two more office buildings this year and are building one right now in Chapel Hill.” That’s a $50 million project. “We’re not bullish on offices in the short term, but we don’t believe there’ll be a dramatic, fundamental shift away from them.” Offices are more than just where people work.

“Folks ask me if people are going to live in cities again,” he says. “Well, there’s something about going to a show or music concert, a play, the opera. These are authentic experiences that are in tremendous demand.”

Meaty change

Automated equipment may help N.C. food plants cure historic labor shortages and improve productivity.

Near where the Cape Fear River winds through Bladen County farmland is a place of startling contrast. Beneath its maze of rooftop ductwork, steaming in the eerie glow of lights on misty nights, Smithfield Foods’ plant in tiny Tar Heel has an aura that belies what goes on inside its white, nearly windowless walls.

In a state where more than 30,000 workers slaughter and process pork, chicken and turkeys that feed millions, this is the flagship, the biggest pork-processing plant in the world. Here, and at dozens of other plants in North Carolina, some of the most difficult jobs in the global workplace face a revolution, prodded by a global pandemic.

Robotics, artificial intelligence and other space-age technology are coming to animal processing, an industry long considered practically immune to change.

“By 2050, Smithfield expects that advanced robotics, connectivity on the floor, banks of data, artificial intelligence and strong data analytics will be in the forefront of modern manufacturing,” says Lisa Martin, corporate communications director at the company’s Smithfield, Va., headquarters. Smithfield has about 10,000 North Carolina employees, more than 4,000 at the Tar Heel plant. “We envision a future where automation will impact the majority of tasks,” though handwork won’t be eliminated.

Clinton-based Prestage Farms last year opened a $320 million plant in Eagle Grove, Iowa, that is considered the pork industry’s most advanced. At the Midwest plant, handwork is succumbing to machines that don’t suffer carpal tunnel syndrome, an occupational hazard for workers repeating the same motions thousands of times per shift. Machines also don’t test positive for COVID-19, which temporarily shut down portions of the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel and Tyson Foods’ 2,000-employee chicken plant in Wilkesboro in May.

At Sanderson Farms’ $155 million, 1,100-employee plant in St. Pauls in Robeson County that opened in 2017, robotic technology is used to debone chickens, one of the most repetitious jobs.

“The good thing about automation is these machines and robots are always at work,” says Ron Prestage, the eldest son at family-owned Prestage Farms, which employs 2,800 workers in seven states. “The bad thing is, when something doesn’t work right, computers go down or whatever, you’d better have some very smart technical and maintenance people to get them back up quickly.”

That’s where the promising jobs of the future lie in North Carolina’s food industry: in specially trained technicians who keep advanced technology equipment running. Smithfield plants increasingly use X-rays to guide robotics in processing hogs, gaining optimum use of meat. Similarly, most companies turn to robots to clean plants and package, pack and ship processed products.

Prestage says turkey and chicken processing operations are easier to automate than hogs because of greater uniformity of the birds. Enter what Ron Prestage calls vision systems.

“You have a camera that looks at a carcass and says, ‘How can I do this step for this pig and then for another pig that is 20 pounds lighter that’s following it?’ You have to have the computer power to do this in a split second.”

Prestage, a veterinarian and past president of the National Pork Producers Council and National Turkey Federation, says many of those technologies will be incorporated in a new turkey plant his company is building in South Carolina. “We intend to use the vision and laser technology to robotically completely eviscerate a turkey, versus doing it with human hands and sharp knives. On this particular line, with existing technology, we’d probably be looking at 120 people or so. On the new one, [we] will do it with 40 [workers], who will primarily be monitoring the robots.”

Those systems will be called on to do complicated tasks. “At Thanksgiving, you’re primarily putting a whole turkey in a bag, but the rest of the time, you’re taking the breast meat off, drums, wings, everything else. In a traditional plant, you’re probably looking at around 300 people with sharp knives. In our new plant, we’ll do this with about 65.”

While in some industries — Tar Heel textiles, for instance — automation has brought wholesale job losses, there’s less concern in food processing. The difficult, dangerous jobs have for decades been hard to fill, and technology should increase productivity with fewer workers. Inability to fill those jobs costs processors money when, for instance, they are unable to produce more profitable but labor-intensive boneless hams because of worker shortages.

Prestage has more than 200 openings at its highly automated Iowa plant, which employs about 700 workers. “A lot of Americans today don’t want old-line labor, standing on a line with a sharp knife in their hands,” Prestage says.

Artificial intelligence and automation are making their marks in other parts of the agricultural supply chain. In Carteret County north of Beaufort, for example, computers and satellites guide giant, driverless tractors across the sweeping fields of Open Grounds Farm. With 57,000 acres, it’s the biggest farm east of the Mississippi. The machines’ paths vary by less than the width of a dollar bill over a mile.

They’re raising the corn, soybeans and other grain that will feed the animals destined for the automated plants of the future.

Health care’s virtual shift

Remote medicine has accelerated as providers preach caution, prompting unprecedented change.

She’d come from Tennessee, drawn by Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem and Julie Freischlag, whose international surgical reputation attracts patients from afar. Suffering thoracic outlet syndrome, which squeezes nerves and blood vessels in the neck and upper chest causing loss of sensation in the arms, a day after the surgery, the patient prepares for the trip home. Freischlag examines her prior to release.

“When I said goodbye, I said, ‘I’ll see you again in two weeks.’” She adds, after a pause, “Online.”

Freischlag is not only a surgeon but CEO of the medical center, dean of the Wake Forest School of Medicine and chief academic officer for Atrium Health. She’s an advocate of telemedicine.

“As a caregiver, I have no idea why we would make people drive two hours to see me again in two weeks if they are doing well, just to hear me say, ‘You’re looking well,’” she says.

As a medical educator, she’s also a portent of health care occupations in a post-pandemic environment. Physicians, hospital administrators and health care analysts describe a world in which workers will rely on remarkable new technology to meet the crush of an aging population that needs more care. North Carolina’s over-65 population will be 2.6 million by 2036, up 67%.

For Tar Heels, that will mean growing demand for non-physician clinicians such as physician assistants, nurse practitioners and pharmacists, and more foreign-trained doctors. Regardless, the challenge remains to balance human contact with societal and economic demands for productivity.

“It’s going to change how I teach and train new doctors, nurses and physician assistants,” Freischlag says. Idealistic young medical students sometimes initially balk, for instance, at practicing medicine over the phone and computers. Once exposed to the benefits, she says, they quickly rethink.

At Winston-Salem-based Novant Health, Chief Operating Officer Jeff Lindsay was floored at the response after the system’s 15 hospitals clamped down on in-person visits starting in April.

“In the whole of 2019, we had around 250 virtual visits with clinicians or providers interacting with patients,” he says. “After COVID-19, recently, we were having 15,000 a day.” Terry Akin, CEO of Cone Health in Greensboro, says that shift offers hope for doctors, nurses and others facing an onslaught of patients in the nonpandemic future. Cone’s virtual visits increased at least tenfold.

“Care can be equivalent or better quality, allowing physicians and others to practice at the top of their licenses,” Akin says. “What we’re learning about virtual health care is going to be invaluable in the future.”

Elsewhere at Cone, pharmacy technicians guide a robot as it formulates chemotherapy drugs and administrators use artificial intelligence to schedule and automate operating rooms and infusions of drugs and chemicals necessary for complex surgeries. Such technology will improve productivity and enable doctors and nurses to avoid burnout.

“With that in mind,” says Ben Patel, Cone’s executive vice president and chief information officer, “one of our goals is to have a virtual primary care physician — a machine or robot — that can take care of initial consultations, triage and so forth. A virtual PCP is on our roadmap to automate areas where we have scarcity or shortages and help make our providers’ lives easier so they can focus more on patients and diagnoses.”

The degree to which providers will need to master new technology, as well as old-fashioned listening, is clear at systems such as Greenville’s Vidant Health which pioneered robotic heart surgery and Gamma Knife radiosurgery. In the latter, no incision is necessary. At Duke, biomedical engineers are using machine learning to determine if a virus will resist antibiotics.

Machine learning is the use of computers so sophisticated they develop an “experience” or memory from repeating tasks. At Morrisville-based Metabolon, which does research in a field called precision medicine, scientists are using machine learning to develop ways doctors can better understand how their patients’ treatments are working.

In North Carolina, future doctors and paraprofessionals will continue training at the East Carolina University, Duke University, UNC Chapel Hill, Wake Forest University and Campbell University medical schools. A new entrant is emerging: a campus of the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Charlotte, expected to open by 2022. The joint project of Wake Forest and Atrium expects to have about 1,600 students when it is at full capacity.

Novant’s Lindsay praises technological advances but says practitioners in the postpandemic era will face a challenge as old as Hippocrates — “hearing the voice of the patient.”

Extra hurt

The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on Black, Latino and female North Carolinians. Will lessons be learned?

COVID-19 was not invited, but the pandemic may impact minorities and women for decades to disproportionate degrees that far outstrip their numbers. The outcome could be particularly grim for the first- or second-generation immigrants, mostly Hispanic, who make up nearly half of the population of Siler City, a Chatham County town with a large poultry production industry and median household income of $34,000. Many residents have loosened ties with their native countries but still lack competitive language and vocational skills in their new home.

“The perception back in the 1990s was they are here today and gone tomorrow,” says Ilana Dubester, head of the Hispanic Liaison, a Siler City-based nonprofit aiding Hispanics in Lee, Randolph, Chatham and Alamance counties. “Now, this is not a migrant farmworker community. Our people are not moving state to state looking for work. This is home.”

State health officials say there’s no question COVID-19 has affected minorities and women more than others. Inequities are “shining a bright light” on disparities in health care, says Gov. Roy Cooper. Through late September, Black and Latino deaths at 40.7 and 27.7 per 100,000 citizens in North Carolina were substantially higher than the 24.9 for whites, according to St. Paul, Minn.-based American Public Media Group.

When it comes to the job and business futures of those groups, more subtle statistics paint a bleak picture, too. A Federal Reserve study found 41% of Black-owned small businesses had closed since March, along with more than 25% of women-owned businesses. Other research found four in 10 parents have cut back or quit their jobs and that tellingly, 60% of working mothers said they, not fathers, were responsible for stay-at-home care and online learning for children.

“The new normal is women seem to be disproportionately struggling for a number of reasons,” says Olalah Njenga, whose Raleigh-based YellowWood Group provides consulting services for small businesses, many women- and minority-owned. She founded the business in 2003 and consults with owners in more than a dozen industries. “Primarily they are the ones who have to pick up additional responsibilities when it comes to things like elder care, child care and household management. And there are only 24 hours in a day, not 25.”

“It also appears that minority women businesses are really struggling due to being blocked out from opportunities such as EIDL — Economic Injury Disaster Loans — so they are running out of money faster than their white counterparts,” adds Njenga, also a member of the NCWorks Commission.

In Concord, at ball-bearing manufacturer Ketchie, owner Courtney Silver says she’s using the year to rebuild and prep for a rebounding economy. The 30-employee company has been hit by cutbacks suffered by its customers. “A lot of minority- and women-owned companies have trouble getting financing and having access to capital because they are minorities,” she says.

Adds Njenga, “I don’t have a crystal ball, but when I look at the long view, a year from now, two years, 10 years, the thing that gives me hope is that Black and brown women in business are extremely resilient. It will take them a little longer than their white counterparts, but most will stay alive.”

Silver, Njenga and others agree that the future is grim for unskilled minority and immigrant workers who are facing a perfect storm of pandemic, automation and discrimination.

Unskilled workers typically lack health care opportunities, often working or living in crowded conditions that make social distancing difficult. Examples included a Christmas tree farm near Sparta in northwest North Carolina, which reported more than 100 workers diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus, and in Wilkesboro, where nearly 700 workers at the Tyson Foods plant tested positive. Workers at both locations are mainly Hispanic, local officials say.

Shutdowns and lost profits are sending employers such as Tyson scrambling to automate plants to lessen future dependence on laborers. The shift could leave thousands of workers without permanent employment and in critical need of retraining. In eastern North Carolina, a turkey-processing plant that now employs 300 people will require about 60 when a new operation is completed because of advanced manufacturing, according to Ron Prestage of Prestage Farms.

Njenga remains hopeful. Black women are making rapid gains, “outpacing men in terms of economic resources and education,” she says. “So, for every Black man with a college degree, we’ve got two Black women with degrees. And women in single-parent families have figured it out.”

She praises state programs that offer “reskilling,” or teaching new jobs such as programming or maintenance of sophisticated factory equipment that are taking on an increased workload.

Rural revolution

Improved broadband infrastructure makes work from remote areas viable across North Carolina.

Yanceyville, a Caswell County town 45 miles northwest of Durham, has no rivers, railroads or interstate highways for commerce. It has fine antebellum homes and thrived after a local slave discovered how to cure tobacco in the 1830s, but its future faded when health concerns sapped smoking.

Agriculture is back in Yanceyville now, though Mike Prorock’s crop is data, and he and his young tech company embody what will be the workplace for millions in a world in which technology puts purpose above place.

“My career had been largely on the cutting edge of the data world,” says Prorock, 39, a Cabarrus County native who previously served as engineering and emerging technology director at Raleigh’s Bardess Group, Compellon and other tech companies. “What I’d been doing in my day job was mainly financial, predictive analytics, machine learning and things like that, and what interested me was what could we do from an agricultural standpoint with good information.”

In 2016, Prorock, chief technical officer, and partner Thomas Rump, CEO, founded, a cloud-hosted company that provides detailed agricultural data worldwide. Four years later, counts among its clients small farmers and multinational agribusinesses BASF North America and Bayer Crop Science. complies data such as soil types and properties, weather trends, timing of insect emergence, “things you need to get ahead of.” The private company doesn’t release financial results, but Prorock says, “Revenue-wise, we were up 10 times from last year and really on track to do well this year until COVID-19 hit. We’ll wind up between two times and three times this year. COVID accelerated a lot of things, but it also exposed every crack in the system.”

Prorock and didn’t set out to do it, but they spotlight trends futurists say will be more common in the future. moved to downtown Yanceyville in late 2018, to a former drugstore with a green, metal mansard roof and street-front windows. This is coworking space, to become increasingly necessary as a new generation of entrepreneurs with big ideas but small bank accounts start small businesses. It’s often the first jump from home offices to larger accommodations. has about a half-dozen employees, plus independent contractors, and expects to grow to about two dozen in two years.

The space was close to’s Chapel Hill roots, where it was originally headquartered, and just up the road from the Orange County farm owned by Prorock’s in-laws. It avoided the cost of buying space and was close enough — 40 miles to Chapel Hill, 70 to Raleigh — to major tech centers for Prorock and his staff to easily meet with clients or vendors.

“North Carolina is well-positioned because of its proximity to internet infrastructure, and these rural areas just outside of the metros are pretty thriving ecosystems,” he says.

For Caswell County, says Cori Lindsay, the county’s economic development director, the coworking space is a step toward bringing business back. Part of the state’s Hometown Strong initiative, CoSquare has about 9,000 square feet of sharable space and is one of the few spots in the county with high-speed internet access.

“We toured other coworking spaces and found out one of the things we would need is high-speed broadband,” she says. “It gives a young company access you wouldn’t have working at home.”

CoSquare is affiliated with Raleigh Founded, which was formerly called HQ Raleigh. It has aided more than 400 startups. can use Raleigh Founded meeting space when clients want to meet in the capital.

In Yanceyville,’s work culture is a break from the past.

“Our expectation is not 9-to-5 behind the desk,” Prorock says. “We don’t have a vacation policy as such — if you need time, you take time. People work at home. Everybody is on flex time. We’ve come out of that crazy first year or two when it was heads down, work all the time, and now we’re building a healthier culture.”

On a recent summer day, Prorock is working from home, a farm in Orange County a short drive from Yanceyville. Despite the pandemic, he says,’s cash flow is strong, and its business model works.

“We take time for our families, our people and the communities around us,” he says. “We should enjoy as much of life as we can but we should do as much for the communities around as we can. Work is part of that.” ■

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