Office buildings across Maine are likely to remain empty at least through the end of the year, as companies and employees warm to remote work arrangements enacted as an emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Some of the state’s largest employers plan to keep their office employees working remotely until 2021 at the earliest. Flexible schedules and fewer days in the office are expected well into the future. And according to one recent survey, remote workers in Maine are happy to continue working from home at least part of the time.

The forced experiment in remote work has obliterated conventional wisdom about the need to gather up workers into shared spaces under close supervision to keep them working effectively. Now that the misconception has been exposed, many employers say they’re in no hurry to go back to the old ways.

Just a handful of Portland-based Wex Inc.’s nearly 1,300 Maine employees are working in its offices, months after the workforce was sent home in March in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Employees are allowed to work remotely through the end of the year, and the company, which handles payment processing for many large organizations, has yet to decide when and how they may be called back into the office, Wex Chief Human Resources Officer Melanie Tinto said.

“Most of our employees would like some form of flexibility – one or two days in a different location,” she said. “Some folks may want to work remote full time. We’re not making those decisions right now because of COVID.”

Productivity has met or exceeded previous levels, according to Tinto. Rather than having to deal with unproductive workers, the real challenge has been getting people to stop working and enjoy their home life.

“I think this case study has proven that most people can work longer and harder at home,” she said. “We know that you can’t go on a vacation, but you need to take paid time off and structure breaks.”

While remote work has proven successful in terms of productivity, that doesn’t necessarily mean Maine employers are abandoning future plans to open more offices. Still, some may scale back those plans under the assumption that at least some of their employees will work fewer hours in the office over the long term.

Wex has yet to sign a lease for a central campus at the redeveloped Scarborough Downs. The plan is still moving ahead, but Wex and the developer are working out design changes, Tinto said.

“There is no deviation from the plan,” she said. “We believe Scarborough is the right long-term decision.”

Most Maine state employees will stay out of their offices for the time being, too. While in-person services have gradually resumed at some state offices, many workers remain home and have been asked to continue doing so, a state spokeswoman said. In a June survey, just 5 percent of 7,150 state employees said they wanted to return to the office full time. More than 70 percent said they wanted to work from home or combine office and home work.

The administration’s goal is to make state government an appealing and competitive employer, said Kirsten Figueroa, commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.

“We believe this newly harnessed adaptability may play a crucial role in supporting those goals in the long term,” Figueroa said in a statement.

Attorneys, paralegals and support staff at Preti Flaherty law firm in Portland have been out of the office for months. Like other companies, there’s no imminent plan to return.

“There is no real reason to do that because all our people have been productive,” said managing partner David Van Slyke. “What’s the rush? Why come back in if things are going well?”

There is no question there will be more remote work in the future and probably fewer hours in the office, Van Slyke added. It’s uncertain what that means for the firm’s 12th-floor offices in downtown Portland.

“There are going to be so few people working in these offices,” he said. “The remote work paradigm has worked out. You are not going to need that kind of space.”

REMOTE POSSIBILITIES

If the transition to remote work has been successful for businesses, it also has been popular with workers. In a recent survey of remote workers by the privately funded workforce development group Live and Work in Maine, nearly 76 percent of respondents said their quality of life increased after transitioning to remote work.

For Gary Goslin, the sudden switch to working from home meant adding full-time child care and kindergarten instruction to his 40-hour workweek in L.L. Bean’s human resources department.

The outdoor retailer, one of Maine’s largest employers, will keep 1,200 of its employees out of the office until at least the end of the year.

“The people I know who don’t have kids, all of a sudden they have extra time on their hands, they are doing all these projects,” said Goslin, 39. “For me, all of a sudden I have less time on my hands.”

Despite a complicated work environment, Goslin said he’s taken to doing his job remotely. He can work on his screened-in porch or ride his stationary bike when he has to listen in on conference calls.

“It would be great if there is some level of flexibility like that going forward,” he said. “Who knows how long this is going to last? At least initially, my kids will only be going to school two days a week.”

The survey collected responses from nearly 450 workers, about half of whom worked in Maine offices before the pandemic shifted them to remote work.

More than 90 percent of those surveyed said their job performance stayed the same or got better after working remotely. More than three-quarters said they could see themselves working remotely in Maine for years to come.

Nate Wildes, executive director of Live and Work in Maine, talks on the phone while working remotely on the Bath waterfront on Friday. Wildes says he sometimes works from the waterfront instead of home to take advantage of the riverfront view of the Kennebec River. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“What we are hearing and seeing is that employers are not desperate to go back to the office, because employees have never been happier and productivity has not changed,” said Nate Wildes, executive director of Live and Work in Maine.

The survey also helps focus his group’s work to convince professionals to relocate and work in the state. Almost one-third of respondents reported that they had been working remotely in Maine before the pandemic, including some at major U.S. companies such as IBM and Google, Wildes said.

With a growing discomfort for big city life and a desire for space, safety and affordability, Wildes thinks Maine has an opportunity to lure many remote workers here and help jump-start an economic recovery.

“If we can’t do this now – bring hundreds or thousands of people to Maine – shame on us,” he said. “It is not something we have to start, it is something we have to speed up – it is already happening.”

Remote work is nothing new to Brian Karbel. He’s worked remotely for tech startups from his Scarborough home for the past six years and currently works in sales for Seva, a venture-backed startup based in New York that focuses on information-sharing tools for workers.

“I don’t want to ever commute or sit in a cubicle again,” said Karbel, 44. While he’s not convinced remote work is the future for everyone, Karbel thinks it is likely to be more prevalent than it was just a few months ago.

Brian Karbel of Scarborough has been working remotely from his home for years. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Once you get into the mindset, I can see it being very hard to go back into an office,” he said.

Looking ahead, Karbel doubts hybrid models of splitting time between office and home will be successful. To stay productive and focused, it needs to be an all-or-nothing proposition, he said.

“If you are not 100 percent committed to remote working and only do it occasionally, you can find yourself getting distracted and doing things that are not your job,” he said. “I think this is going to open up a lot of possibilities for remote work, but I still think there are companies that are attached to that office culture and think people will be more successful and learn quicker if they are in the office.”

‘THERE’S NO GOING BACK’

Research from Stanford University and elsewhere suggests that some form of remote work is likely for many professional workers even after the pandemic eases and it is safe to return to crowded offices.

A survey conducted in May by Stanford University, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta and Chicago University suggested the percentage of full-time employees that would work from home at least one day a week could triple to 27 percent after the pandemic.

Nate Wildes, executive director of Live and Work in Maine, talks on the phone while working remotely on the Bath waterfront on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“Working from home will be very much a part of our post-COVID economy,” said Nicholas Bloom, a professor at Stanford who wrote the definitive 2014 paper on the benefits of remote work, in a recent policy brief. Bloom was not available for an interview.

Challenges to remote working, including child care, inadequate office space or equipment, poor internet connections, social isolation and loneliness means the full-time work-from-home setup is not likely to survive post-pandemic, Bloom said. Instead, he advised a flexible approach that allows people to mix their time in and out of the office.

“The COVID pandemic has challenged and changed our relationships with work and how many of us do our jobs,” Bloom wrote. “There’s no real going back, and that means policymakers and business leaders need to plan and prepare so workers and firms are not sidelined by otherwise avoidable problems.”

Sun Life, a Canadian financial services firm with offices in South Portland, said employees will work from home through the end of the year. When the company eventually reopens its offices, returning to them will be voluntary, said spokeswoman Devon Portney Fernald.

“Back in March, we transitioned nearly every employee to work from home overnight, with no disruption to our day-to-day work,” Fernald said. “Our employees work very well from home, and morale and productivity levels have never been higher.”

Sun Life will pursue a lease for new offices on Portland’s waterfront, where it was slated to relocate its 500 Portland-area employees by 2022, Fernald said. Given its experience with mass remote work, the office function may be quite different than before the pandemic, she said.

“That may mean that we use our offices differently for in-person collaboration versus a place where you go every day to do individual work,” Fernald said.

Shawn Smith, an assistant vice president of group claims at Sun Life, wasn’t sure how he’d adjust to working from home. Smith liked working in the office and interacting with colleagues in person and never took Sun Life up on its offer to let him work remotely.

“I might be one of the outliers in my struggle of missing the energy of the office,” Smith said.

With tools Sun Life rolled out to lend help to workers and keep them in contact, Smith said he is more comfortable working from home now. But he still looks forward to the day when he can go back to the office, even if he decides to work from home a day or two a week.

“I’m used to the office environment,” he said. “I think there are lots of people who never want to go back to the office, who really thrive in this (remote) environment.”

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