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Telework may outlast pandemic for metro Atlanta commuters

Traffic on metro Georgia highways remains lighter than it was before the coronavirus pandemic.  Part of the reason: Many residents are working at home. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Traffic on metro Georgia highways remains lighter than it was before the coronavirus pandemic. Part of the reason: Many residents are working at home. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Stuck working at home for months, many metro Atlanta residents are eager to get back to the office. They just don’t want to spend as much time there as they did before the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s one takeaway from a series of surveys and interviews conducted by the Atlanta Regional Commission during the first peak of the pandemic and released this week. The surveys of workers and their employers show “telework” has become a way of life for many residents. And it may remain that way long after the pandemic is just a bad memory.

Many employees say they’re saving money and time by not commuting, and they’re experiencing less stress because they’re not stuck in traffic. Some employers say telework has made their employees more — not less — productive. And executives of some of the region’s largest companies say more of their employees will work at home in the future.

That would be just fine with Teri Noble. The Lithonia resident, who works at a metro Atlanta school district’s central office, has worked at home two to three days a week since schools switched to digital learning in March. Though she misses her colleagues, Noble said she’s still productive at work and has more time to take care of her own needs because she’s not rushing off to the office.

“I think the new normal is going to be a combination of going in (to the office) and working from home,” she said. “I think we’ve all gotten used to it. We can make this work.”

The regional commission’s survey results are the latest evidence that telework is becoming more popular with companies and their employees. In February, a commission survey found that 41% of metro Atlanta commuters telework at least occasionally — nearly double the share who said they did in 2007.

That was before the pandemic. Roz Tucker, the managing director of the ARC’s Georgia Commute Options program, said telework at many companies has been an informal arrangement and often depended on managers’ attitudes.

She said employers weren’t certain their employees would actually work at home. And even if they were open to the idea, many companies lacked formal policies that would have made expectations for telework clear.

Those concerns were pushed aside in March when COVID-19 cases began roiling metro Atlanta workplaces. Many schools and businesses shuttered even before Gov. Brian Kemp formally ordered Georgians to shelter in place in April.

Tucker said many companies found telework to be the only way to keep their businesses viable.

Georgia Commute Options helps metro Atlanta residents find alternatives to driving solo to work — from transit and carpooling to working at home. And it helps companies establish policies and programs to encourage such alternatives. The pandemic proved to be a natural telework experiment.

To gauge its success, in April the ARC surveyed nearly 3,000 metro Atlanta residents about their work arrangements. They included employees, managers and executives of more than 100 local employers.

The ARC also interviewed executives at a dozen of the region’s largest companies, including Coca-Cola, Cox Enterprises (the owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution), Georgia Power, Primerica and State Farm. And it surveyed an additional 4,000 people who participated in the Georgia Commute Options programs.

Among its findings:

  • Commuters reported working from home an average of 4.6 days a week in April, up from 0.8 days a week before the pandemic.
  • The majority of those surveyed wanted to return to the office part time but work from home more than they did before the pandemic. On average, they wanted to work at home 2.5 days a week.
  • Nearly 70% of employers surveyed said more of their employees will work from home in the future, and 23% said more will work from home on a full-time basis. One in 5 said they may reduce the physical size of their workplaces as a result.

Respondents also reported the personal benefits and challenges of working at home. Among the benefits cited: saving money and reduced stress from not commuting, having more time to spend with family and sleeping more. Among the challenges: struggling to unplug from work, anxiety about the health of their company and distractions from kids and pets.

Yulanda Rawls of Roswell used to commute to a telecommunications job in Alpharetta. She wanted to work from home at times, but her employer wouldn’t allow it. Then the pandemic struck, and many employees had to work from home.

Rawls said she’s more relaxed because she’s “not just rushing from one day to another,” and her 12-year-old twin daughters “get to see what Mom does every day.” She said her job in tech support was not affected — “all you need is power and an internet connection.”

“If being in your house makes you less productive, it’s because you really don’t like your job,” she said. “I like my job.”

Not everyone enjoys working at home. Suzanne Minarcine of Macon has been teaching her business courses online at Wesleyan College in recent months. She misses her colleagues, and she said the line between her work and personal life has blurred.

“I want to walk away from my office at 4 o’clock or 5 o’clock,” Minarcine said. “I want to walk away and come home and be a human, instead of, ‘Oh, I can grade one more paper.’ ”

The survey results suggest more employees may experience the blurring of work and home life in the future. Far more respondents said they were more productive than less productive working at home. And employers have noticed.

“How do you know when they’re working at the office? It’s because of the work they produce,” said Tucker, the head of Georgia Commute Options. “You can be in the office and not working, too. It’s based on the output and the outcomes.”

The ARC plans to follow up with more surveys in August. Tucker said the results should shed more light on how teleworking has unfolded in recent months and how companies plan to integrate it into their plans for 2021 and beyond.