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Virus in Vermont: Remote work explodes as many businesses shut down offices

Read more at vtdigger.org

Remote worker Hilary Nardone in South Burlington on Friday, February 19, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Hilary Nardone faced a difficult decision when she came to Vermont to be with her boyfriend in 2019. 

The environmental consultant had been working for a firm in Boston, but it wouldn’t allow her to work from Vermont. She struggled to find a job in her field in the Burlington area, ultimately landing at the University of Vermont. 

“It’s a very hard market. And, you know, I was lucky enough to be able to get [a job] at the University of Vermont, which is a great employer,” she said. “But it took me a long time.”

Virus in Vermont on blue background
As the Covid-19 pandemic entered its second year, VTDigger interviewed dozens of Vermonters about how they’ve coped, how they’ve grieved and how they’ve changed. Look for more stories on our Virus in Vermont page in the days to come.

After several months of working remotely for UVM, Nardone received an offer from her old firm. The company had been remote for six months and had decided it could accommodate her, after all. She accepted the job offer and won’t have to move back to Boston when the pandemic ends. In fact, she’s bought a house in Burlington and set up her guest room with a desk and dual monitors. 

“I try to make it as like a workstation as I can,” she said. “Especially because I’m going to be doing this, you know, long-term, not just … while people are remote for Covid.”

Nardone and her partner also adopted a dog, who has grown accustomed to having both of them in the house. 

“It will be an adjustment for him when my boyfriend does eventually start going back to the office every day,” she said. “But, yeah, he very much likes how many walks a day that he’s able to get.”

A University of Vermont survey of 610 Vermonters conducted last May found that the majority of them would like to continue to work remotely after the pandemic is over, at least part-time. Many said they would like their employers to do more to support permanent remote work.

The employees VTDigger interviewed — at least, those who aren’t responsible for child care — said they love the flexibility and control of their workday, the lack of commuting and the quiet of their own office.

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But many said they don’t know whether or how their employers will support remote work later on, leaving the future of working from home in doubt. Nardone said she hopes companies will understand that remote work helps employees.

“I think people see the benefit of being able to work from home both from a senior management level (and) also at the individual worker level,” she said. “And … just when you think of cost savings for companies, in terms of office space, and all of that overhead.”

A year into the pandemic, some employers have downsized or opted to give up office spaces for savings, while others have kept offices vacant in anticipation of using them again post-pandemic, said James Sullivan, regional planning commissioner for Bennington County.

There’s also a question of who can take advantage of the benefits of remote work. A VTDigger analysis of hundreds of job categories found that lower-paid workers are more likely to have jobs that require public interaction, making it harder to work remotely.

If employers opt to go remote long-term, that shift could have huge implications for the local and state economy. As Vermont officials worry about population losses, particularly in rural areas, and ponder how to attract professionals, the ability to disconnect where people live from where they work could change the landscape.

Nardone is curious to see how remote work could allow others like her to move from concentrated urban areas to rural regions. 

“It’ll be [about] whether or not they were tied to those cities because of their jobs, and they’ve always wanted to live outside of those areas, and now they have the flexibility and ability to do so,” she said. “And so it’ll be interesting to see if that sticks if people do move here.”

Hilary Nardone works remotely from her guest bedroom in South Burlington for her employer in Boston. Seen on Friday, February 19, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A planner reflects

Sullivan is concerned about what remote work could do to Vermont’s downtowns. Many small businesses live and thrive on commuters spending money where they work.

“We’re a small office, but, you know, 10 people visiting the coffee shop next door every day was probably making a big difference to that coffee shop,” he said.

Sullivan likened it to the effect of online shopping on small businesses. “People have talked for years … about the impact of online shopping. And the town says, ‘well, this is interesting because this is kind of like online working,’” he said.

The Putnam Hotel is the center of a large redevelopment project in Bennington. File photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

In recent years, Sullivan and other regional planners have geared their work in downtown areas toward the “smart growth” of high-density, mixed-use development of city centers and villages to draw in workers and commuters. The new remote work threatens that concept, he said.

On the other hand, the isolation of online work and lack of connection with colleagues could lead workers to seek their own ways to socialize. Smaller towns could have more people popping into local businesses for a quick lunch. 

“I think we just need to … double down on our efforts to recognize the advantages of what we’ve been trying to do all along, with improving our downtowns …  and try to make them as attractive and appealing as possible to make sure people move to Vermont, that those are real attractive options for folks,” Sullivan said.

One upside to remote work, from a planning perspective, Sullivan said, is the decrease of wear and tear on the roads by commuters, which may reduce highway maintenance. 

Sullivan isn’t just an idle observer in these conversations: His office has also switched to remote work, although he drops by the recently relocated space a few times a week to check the mail.

An avid traveler, Sullivan uses photos from his previous vacations as Zoom backgrounds. “People find them entertaining,” he said. “I just kind of cycle the scenes around the different places I’ve been, so ‘Where’s Waldo?’”

He said not seeing people for a long time can be tough, but Zoom meetings have been “phenomenal” at giving them opportunities to interact and be productive.

“I think that it’s reality,” he said. “It’s here, and it’s work, and it works well.”

Already remote ready

It’s been a busy year for Jake Mathon. As an analyst for Informa, a pharmaceutical intelligence company, he’s “on the front lines” of monitoring clinical trials for drugs and vaccines for Covid and other diseases.

“I know some people who have made the shift to work from home, and I see people out at 3 o’clock; they’re out walking, or taking the dog for a walk or playing with their kids, and I’m like, ‘How are they doing that? I’m busier than ever.’” he said.

One thing Mathon hasn’t had to adjust to? Remote work. He’s been working from home for 14 years.

To him, the biggest change in his world has been the people who are now around him — his wife, now working from home; his son, who switched schools mid-pandemic; and his clients, who are adjusting to remote work. And everyone is dealing with the stress of the pandemic.

“Thankfully, my company has been very flexible with that, and they’re really pushing like, ‘Hey, take care of yourself, do whatever you need to do,’” he said. “But other people, just starting out? … It’s definitely harder if they haven’t had the time to adjust to (working) from home.”

Mathon has a few tips for people struggling with the adjustment. One is to keep a regular schedule. 

“I like to try to keep normal office hours; I don’t like having to come down at 8, 9 o’clock after dinner.”

Another tip: Don’t work in your main living space if you can. He has a desk in his basement. 

And physical activity is essential, Mathon said. He suggested “snack exercising,” short bursts of exercise throughout the day. His company is currently running a February fitness challenge. 

“It’s really easy to get sucked into sitting in front of a computer for almost eight hours straight,” he said. 

To keep from feeling too isolated, Mathon meets up with a coworker for a quick virtual coffee break in the afternoon. 

“We will hit each other up on the chat service and say, ‘All right, coffee time,’ kind of (forcing) each other to take a break.”

From in-person to remote

State Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, spent several months last year working in-person for a human services agency helping low-income Vermonters.

She said moving to remote legislating again has been an adjustment.

“Being out in the world right now is really overwhelming. There’s so much increased threat response and stress from it. Then when I’m home, there’s not enough stimulation,” Kornheiser said. “Moving back from this place of complete overstimulation … to being here at home, where I am just so thrilled by the bird(s) outside sometimes — which is not (like) me, never been like a bird watcher at all — it’s really interesting to see myself settle into it.”

Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, in a pre-pandemic meeting of the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development in January 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

There are other tradeoffs, too. Kornheiser loves the ability to dress more comfortably — no “fancy pants and fancy skirts and stockings and high heels” that form the unofficial uniform of the Statehouse — but has to be conscious about her room’s appearance and the way she looks, because videos of her will appear on YouTube. 

“Knowing that everything I do is on YouTube and will be preserved forever, and I’m not aware of who’s watching it,” she said. “I’ll often get emails or texts from people right after I say something, even though they weren’t in the room, about what I said. And I’m also looking at myself all day, which has its own very complicated experience attached to it.”

Kornheiser said working in front of a screen can help her detach from “constantly swimming in a pool” of other legislators’ anxieties and frustrations, but she misses the “texture” of being out in the world, seeing people face-to-face. 

“I’m talking to you from inside the computer, and there’s no three-dimensionality, and there’s no movement, and there’s no different sort of triggers for memory in place,” she said. “I have a very hard time remembering who I was talking to about what and when that happened.”

Ultimately, Kornheiser is glad the Legislature decided to go remote for the foreseeable future, calling it “an act of caring” that legislators had for each other. She worries about the people who don’t have that option.

“It’s hard to be staring into a computer for 12 hours a day, but it’s such an incredible privilege to be able to do this. … to be able to do this work at home in warmth and safety,” she said.

Like many Vermonters, Kornheiser has a child at home — a teenage son. Working from home makes it feel as if she can have it all, even if she really can’t, she said. 

“I can work a million hours and still make delicious meals and sleep enough and spend all my time with my family,” she said.

“There is something about working from home that makes the work-life balance feel more possible,” Kornheiser said. “But I do wonder if that’s just even more of an illusion than it was before. And in fact, work has just trickled into so many aspects of my home life that I don’t even know the difference anymore.”

She’s also concerned about protecting the rights of workers to remain remote as much as possible in the future. She plans to introduce legislation that would allow workers more options to negotiate with companies for remote work. 

Kornheiser was on the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee when it proposed giving a grant to remote workers to move to the state, a move she disagreed with. She believes that expanding broadband could have a greater impact on many aspects of life and work. Companies that give out-of-staters the ability to move here and work remotely could help, too, in solving Vermont’s demographic challenges.

“There’s a lot of people who really love the quality of life here and haven’t been able to figure out how to make it work with Vermont wages,” she said. 

But, she said, encouraging remote workers to move into Vermont has potential downsides: It could create different classes of Vermonters, some living on higher salaries, which could drive up housing prices further. And, Kornheiser wondered, how will remote workers interact with their local communities?

“How do people anchor themselves in a community without work (in an office)? Childcare and schools is one way people do it, volunteerism is another way, but work is where a lot of people meet their friends and find meaning,” Kornheiser said. “If more people (don’t) have a workplace (and work remotely), would that mean that more people would be volunteering because they’d be looking for ways to connect with other humans? I don’t know.”

Read more at vtdigger.org

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