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Sonoma County workers, employers see pros, cons working from home during coronavirus pandemic

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For Erin Newton, the best thing about working from home during the coronavirus pandemic is getting to spend more time with her 1-year-old daughter, Brooklyn.

Since Newton no longer goes into the office, the 31-year-old sales representative for a computer parts distributor in Petaluma is free during her lunch break to take Brooklyn for walks around their Penngrove neighborhood.

Now that her workstation alternates between her kitchen counter, living room couch and back patio, the lines between work and personal life have become blurred.

“Work is something that’s always on my mind, instead of leaving the office at 5 o’clock and just forgetting about it,” she said.

For better or worse, workers like Newton and their employers are in the midst of an unprecedented work-from-home experiment underway at Sonoma County companies and across the country. It could permanently upend the nature of work for most white-collar professionals.

“It’s going to change how we look at work and how we work forever,” said Dion Hinchcliffe, a digital workplace analyst at Constellation Research in Cupertino. “We’re just not going back to the way we were before this.”

Many employees are embracing this new reality. On top of enjoying their newfound work flexibility, they report being more productive doing their jobs at home. Others say that while they appreciate not commuting or having more time to exercise, they find the workday never truly ends and it’s nearly impossible to fully disconnect.

Businesses, meanwhile, say they’ve been surprised by the smooth transition to remote work. Many are considering giving their staff the option to continue working from home even after it’s safe to return to the office.

“We are looking at this time as an opportunity to explore if we really need a traditional workplace model,” said Joe Madigan, chief executive of Nelson Staffing in Sonoma. “And the answer we’ve come to is no.”

Before the pandemic, the staffing and recruiting agency, which employs 250 people in the Bay Area, generally didn’t allow employees to work remotely. Madigan was unsure how the company would adjust to the circumstances foisted on employees in mid-March when public health emergency restrictions effectively shut down the local economy save for businesses deemed essential like grocers, banks and hospitals. But thanks to digital tools such as the workplace messaging app Slack and the now ubiquitous video-conferencing software Zoom, employees have had little trouble staying connected and getting work done, he said.

Now, Nelson Staffing is even considering hiring workers who could work entirely from home.

“We’ll leave that as an option: to hire the best qualified employee regardless of where they reside,” Madigan said.

As a whole, workers appear to prefer working from home. According to an April Gallup poll, almost 60% of employees working from home due to the pandemic would like to continue doing so as much as possible once restrictions are lifted.

Brooke Crane, 30, a graphic designer in Petaluma who works for a marketing agency in Vallejo, would like to see her company expand its work-from-home policy.

Since she’s been working remotely, Crane enjoys having more time to exercise and taking walks with her lab heeler mix, Lou. She said she’s also had an easier time focusing on her work assignments.

“I work well by myself when I don’t get distracted,” Crane said. “Sometimes you need to get in the zone, so if people in the office are talking or interrupting, it’s hard to get that creative flow.”

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

Some managers, who tend to spend much of their time in meetings, haven’t felt as productive working from home. Jason Gregori, 40, a vice president of technology at Lagunitas Brewing Co., said his day is now filled with nonstop video conference calls. He misses the informal breaks that occurred naturally between meetings at the company’s campus in Petaluma.

“Clicking from one meeting to the next — I feel silly saying this, but it really is tiring,” he said.

Managers, like Gregori, have had more trouble adjusting to telecommuting than the workers they supervise, according to several recent surveys, Hinchcliffe said.

“Managers are taking a productivity hit,” he said. “While workers themselves on the ground are actually doing better so far.”

But for some employees, finding a healthy work-life balance while doing their job from home has been a challenge. Carly Lourlenzo, 32, a design and event manager for a winery supplies distributor in Petaluma, said it can be difficult to log off at the end of the day.

“I actually feel like I’ve been working more now because there’s no boundary on when work ends,” she said.

Working from home, Lourlenzo can’t shake the feeling that there’s always something to catch up on. And now that she and her coworkers at Scott Laboratories are on more flexible schedules, she finds the need to respond immediately to the work messages constantly lighting up her phone — including the ones she receives over the weekend.

“Normally when I’d leave the office at five, I wouldn’t feel like that,” she said. “For whatever reason, I feel like it’s just another a weekday, even if it’s a Saturday.”

In a survey by Eagle Hill Consulting, a management consulting firm in Virginia, roughly 45% of U.S. employees polled said they were experiencing burnout working during the pandemic. Over a third of them said their employer wasn’t doing anything to help manage the fatigue.

Jim Lewis, chief executive of Brightmetrics, a consumer data analytics company in Petaluma, said he’s concerned about burnout among his staff. He said the company aims to keep up office morale by holding weekly trivia sessions on Zoom during lunch.

“We let people know that we want them 100% during the time they’re working, and we don’t have any expectations outside of that,” he said.

Holly Michalek-Byck, chief executive of OptiRev, a hospitality marketing agency in Santa Rosa, already was allowing many of her employees to do most of their work from home. Since the coronavirus has pummeled the tourism industry, in turn shrinking the company’s revenue, she’s begun reconsidering whether it makes sense to keep paying for a dedicated office space even after more businesses continue reopening and the COVID-19 threat eases.

“It never was used enough anyway because people found it much more convenient to work from home,” she said.

Still, Michalek-Byck thinks it’s important to find ways for her employees and clients to meet in person. She’s already thinking about venues where the company could eventually hold team strategy sessions. If anything, she thinks the pandemic has revealed how important in-person communication can be.

“It’s teaching everyone that we’re more human than we think, and our needs are stronger than we thought they were,” she said.

Newton, the mother from Penngrove, also misses that human connection. While she’d like to retain the option to work from home, she’s looking forward to eventually returning to the office at GC Micro Corp.

“As nice as it is to wake up and work in pajamas, after a few weeks I’ve found I miss getting up, making my coffee, driving to work and seeing my coworkers,” she said. “So it will be nice to get back to that at some point.”

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian.

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