Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Opinion: The work-at-home revolution has staying power

The Pandemic presents a trial run of the work-from-home culture.

A column by veteran N.C. journalist Dan Barkin.

On Sunday, March 15, with reports of coronavirus spreading nationally, Fielding Miller, CEO of Raleigh asset management firm Captrust, met with senior executives. “We need to get out right now,” he told them. All 652 employees in more than 40 locations around the U.S. would work from home. Everyone had to be out by 5:30 p.m. Monday.

Captrust had a rehearsal two years earlier, when water knocked out the electrical systems at its Raleigh offices. Captrust had to run the business from home, and, as Miller tells it, “it didn’t go so well last time.”
Captrust bought everyone laptops, with directions to take them home every night, just in case. This time, Miller says, business went on “without a blip.”

The pandemic has shown that many of us can work at home. And many of us can’t. More than 20 million people lost jobs in April alone as hair salons, restaurants, hotels and eye doctors went dark. But the economy didn’t completely collapse, which it might have before the emergence of cloud computing and powerful networks. The technology that let us stream Tiger King also enabled Captrust to manage $390 billion in client assets from rooms over the garage.

How many will work this way a year from now by choice is unclear. Working from home has been on the rise. In 2001, only 15% of employees worked at home at least once a week, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last fall, the BLS put it at 25%.

One barrier is the lack of a good internet connection. More than a half million rural North Carolinians do not have broadband running by their homes, according to the state’s Office of Science, Technology & Innovation. And about 22% of households statewide don’t buy it, according to census data, many because they can’t afford it. The office’s executive director, John Hardin, noted that when he and his staff started working from home, they initially experienced a common experience of many rural areas: “congested bandwidth, disruptions in tele- and videoconferences, and unexpected drops in service.”

If a company sends folks home to work, it won’t be easy in the dozen rural North Carolina counties where as many as half of the homes don’t have access to high-speed internet. Most are in the Coastal Plain region east of Interstate 95. In affluent Wake and Mecklenburg counties, only 10% and 13% of households don’t have broadband capability, respectively.

Beyond technical issues, there are cultural ones. Many business leaders are ambivalent. There is the notion that working remotely ices collaboration and innovation. Three years ago, that concern brought thousands of IBM workers back to the office.

Some bosses like to see their people beavering away in cubicles, gaining a sense of control that is lost when people are scattered hither and yon. One tradeoff may be more meetings in the remote-work world than the old days. Most team leaders at Bandwidth, the telecom based at N.C. State’s Centennial Campus, are holding daily and weekly video meetings, says Rebecca Bottorff, chief people officer. Bandwidth has always offered “intermittent telecommuting to help [staff] ease the friction between work and life,” she says. And the company will probably add more options. “But our primary approach will remain in-office work, as we believe this generates high energy and verve for collaboration, connection and creativity.”

Quarantine life is not a perfect substitute for the way we worked before mid-March. Much communication is nonverbal. Continuously watching faces and body language tell us more than words about how people feel. Some, but not all, is apparent over Zoom. Email, texts and Slack are worse. The nonverbal cues are completely absent.

The law offices of James Scott Farrin also have run daily and weekly video calls — perceived by some as micromanaging, according to David Chamberlin, marketing vice president. “The firm quickly realized enhanced communication and tighter command-and-control allowed us to spot themes in issues and address them globally,” he says.

The law firm’s American Tobacco Campus headquarters overlooks the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in offices that are part of more than 60 million square feet of such space in the Raleigh-Durham area. Even as developers pumped a couple million more square feet into Wake, Durham and Orange counties over the last five years, the vacancy rate declined as the economy boomed. Then came the middle of March, a blizzard of layoff and closing notices, and a mass migration to kitchens and spare rooms for the fortunate enterprises that could still operate.

What happens now to that vacancy rate depends on 2,400 businesses in the Triangle that have 50 or more employees. This crowd has lived with $30 per-square-foot leases as an iron cost of doing business. Now they have spent months experiencing the remote world at near 100% scale — something they never would have attempted without a crisis. They are considering the possibilities. Like what they could do with the money they send to pension fund landlords.

In May, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that in as soon as five years, half of his employees could be working remotely. In addition to saving rent, it also enables the social media giant to recruit from literally anywhere.

When John Boyd, a Princeton, N.J., corporate relocation specialist, launched his company in 1975, companies had as much as 325 square feet per worker. Remember when everyone had an office? Now 150 square feet is more typical, says John Boyd Jr., the founder’s son.

It will likely get smaller. How fast depends in part upon how long the current crisis lasts and how anxious executives are to be the first to bring folks back in. Captrust’s Miller’s philosophy is “early out, late going back, take the most conservative route.”

Despite the crisis, during the first two months of the work-from-home regime, Captrust hired 12 employees. “We never saw them in person. We found them, interviewed them and onboarded them,” Miller says. “That, to me, is astonishing.”
But perhaps not as much a revelation as this: His mom, who lives in Caldwell County, is on a committee that awards academic scholarships, and the group got together remotely on video interviews with students. When Miller organized a Mother’s Day remote family meetup, his 93-year-old mother already had Zoom running on her computer.

Maybe this working-at-home stuff is not such a big deal. ■

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