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Study: Vermonters want to continue telecommuting

After COVID-19 forced many workplaces across the state to go remote, some Vermonters may try to continue telecommuting even after their offices open up again, according to a new survey.
A University of Vermont researcher found that 55% of 610 Vermonters surveyed said they would telecommute to work more when things returned to normal. But workers said their employers could do more to help — 68% said their workplace should do more to support telecommuting.
People cited several reasons why they liked telecommuting, including the convenience of working from home, said Richard Watts, the creator of the survey.
“A number of people in the survey said they feel more productive,” he said. “They feel like they’re having more time with their family. People talked about how it’s less expensive, and avoiding that commute.”
Watts is the director of the Center for Research on Vermont, a research center within the College of Arts and Sciences at UVM. He became interested in the topic when thinking of the environmental effects of fewer people driving to work.
“We have always thought of telecommuting as one way to reduce the impact of driving on the environment in Vermont, and suddenly we, in this moment, have this enormous controlled experiment in how it works for people to telecommute,” he said.
He said the responses people included in the survey — which his team is still going through — busted some common myths employers cite for not wanting workers to telecommute, including that employees are less productive out of the office.
“There’s been two kinds of objections out there. One is that employers can’t count on their employees to work at home, and that the employees would be overwhelmed by distractions at home. And both of those are not proving to be true,” he said.
Some survey respondents said they preferred working from home because they felt they were saving time and money by not commuting. Some felt it was better for their mental health, and some even mentioned more time to walk their dog.
People who preferred not to work from home said they liked having a work-home separation, or that they felt they could do their job better with face-to-face interaction or with the tools available in their office.
Data shows that not everyone can do their job at home, but many more can do so than had been working remotely before the pandemic started, said Jonathon Slason, a planning director at Resource Systems Group in Burlington.
He estimated 7% of the state was working remotely before the COVID-19 crisis. Any change could mean thousands more people changing their habits “even if it’s just a couple percentage points,” he said.
Slason said commuting makes up only 30% of the trips people make on a regular basis, but they tend to be to different locations than people driving to shops, school or other trips. A switch to remote commuting could have huge planning implications.
“It will change the time of day that people will be traveling,” he said. “You’ll be traveling more locally. It will support diversity of land use, [there will] be a greater mixing of commercial and residential. And you then may be able to walk or bike to go get your sandwich for lunch every day, rather than be in an office building.”
There is a potential divide in who would be able to telecommute as the state reopens. One study from the University of Chicago estimated that 39% of people in the Burlington region could work remotely. But the likelihood of a job going remote varied widely by sector — from 80% of people in professional services to 4% of food service workers.
Many respondents to the UVM survey said their employer could do more to encourage remote work, including changing their policy to allow it, Watts said.
“There’s a dislike of the culture of this idea of working from home,” he said.
Other respondents said they needed more technical support to get their work set up remotely or reimbursement for the equipment they need, he said.
There are some benefits to employers, too, he said. They can save on reimbursements for travel and parking.
Slason said an increasing number of employers are realizing they can pay less for office space if they allow remote work. They also have the advantage of offering the option to tempt new workers.
“Particularly from the millennial and Gen Z population, more flexibility is an expectation, and certain industries are responding to that sooner than others,” he said. “And I believe there will be a larger shift toward workplaces that do allow that flexibility now that the technology is pretty seamless.”

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