Keeping it All in Balance: Working from home has helped many live a more balanced life

Pete DiGeronimo works remotely from his home in Lyndeborough, NH.  DiGeronimo is a strategic partnerships manager for the marketing firm 36Creative, a marketing agency based in Salem, NH, which gave up its lease during the pandemic. The company  is now hiring for jobs that can be based anywhere.

Kymra Kurinskas used to drive 50 minutes from her home in Peterborough to her job in Concord. The pandemic changed that — she had to commute only as far as her dining-room table.

“Productivity has increased exponentially,” says Kurinskas, the events and marketing manager for the N.H. School Administrators Association. “I’m not sitting in my office in Concord at 4 o’clock going ... ‘Oh shoot, I gotta wrap this up ‘cause I gotta get on the road, ‘cause I gotta get home, and I gotta go to the gym, and then I gotta cook dinner, and I gotta spend time with my daughter.’ “

Without the daily drive, she’s been able to get her work done — and even work more — while having more time to do things like exercise and be with her family. She said she’s glad her employer has downsized its office and will let its small staff keep working from home.

There is one downside to not commuting, she notes: “I’m way behind on most of my podcasts.”

After the COVID-19 pandemic spurred what one academic paper called “a mass social experiment in working from home,” employers and workers in the Monadnock Region and elsewhere are figuring out what office work will look like going forward.

Many people have liked working from home and want to keep doing it, citing reduced commutes and better work-life balance, and some companies are building in more flexible ways of working as they return to offices. And employers say offering that kind of flexibility can help them recruit and retain talent. However, some say having the team together at least some of the time is important for company culture, teamwork and mentoring.

“The thing that over time was harder to manage was the team culture, the closeness of the team and the ability to do informal mentoring where your door’s open, somebody has a little question about something, and they just pop in,” says Ben Wyatt, founding partner of Wyatt & Associates, an employment law firm in Keene.

‘A LIFE-CHANGER’

Working from home has proved popular. In a Pew Research Center survey conducted last October, 54% of workers whose jobs could be done from home said they hoped to stay mostly or fully remote after the pandemic.

For the most part, they said it was easy enough to meet deadlines, work uninterrupted and feel motivated — though younger workers were more likely to struggle with motivation. Half of teleworking parents said interruptions were an issue.

And many saw clear benefits to working from home, according to the survey, including more flexibility around when they put in their hours and a better work-life balance.

In a recent working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, three economists identified reduced commute time as the biggest benefit to employees — and a key reason why more remote work will lead to economy-wide productivity gains. They estimate 20% of workdays will be remote post-pandemic, up from 5% before.

Maria Finnegan and her husband moved from Nashua to Dublin last year. Finnegan, who works for the Concord-based Forest Society, says telecommuting has helped her connect with the local community.

“We’ve lived in D.C., New York, Boston, all places that didn’t give us this feeling,” she says. “So what it’s allowed me to do is go to a conservation commission meeting, to pick up my son at the local daycare at a reasonable hour, to have conversations with neighbors that wouldn’t have happened if I was in and out and never being present.”

Many workers, of course, have no choice but to work in person — and there’s a large class divide. Majorities of high earners and college graduates in the Pew survey said they could do their jobs remotely, compared to just 23% of those without a four-year degree.

Several remote workers in the Monadnock Region said telecommuting has helped them live a more balanced life while acknowledging it’s a privilege not everyone has.

Rebecca Munro, a project editor at W.W. Norton & Co., used to commute daily from New Jersey into New York City — two hours in the morning, an hour and a half back. When the pandemic struck, her office went remote. A few months later, she and her husband, whose job had also gone remote, decamped to Bennington, New Hampshire, to be with a relative.

“In addition to saving money on the commute, I’m saving money on not getting takeout as frequently because I’m not getting home at 8 or 10 at night and not wanting to cook,” says Munro. “The errands and the chores around the house are getting done much quicker while still observing my work hours.”

She notes she’s also been more productive, sometimes working an extra hour or two with the time freed up by not having to catch a train.

Remote work wasn’t without its challenges. Munro says she missed her desk at work, having worked at a kitchen table. Munro, who is 30, also pointed out that younger workers don’t always have the money to set up home workspaces and often live in small apartments with several other people. Also, it’s harder to keep a clear separation between work and home.

But overall, it “really was a life-changer,” she says.

TEAM CULTURE

Before the pandemic, W.S. Badger Co. in Gilsum mostly relied on on-site work, according to Emily Hall Warren, the company’s director of administration.

“We have historically been an organization that placed a lot of value on in-person community and building community through being together,” she said.

Going forward, working on location will still be the norm at Badger, which makes balms and other skin-care products, according to Hall Warren, especially for jobs that involve more collaboration.

But the company has decided to allow individual employees to talk to their team leaders if they want to work from home sometimes and come to an agreement. Most, Hall Warren says, seem to want to work part of the week in an office and the other days at home — and not responding to that desire for flexibility could hurt recruitment and retention.

“They recognize the value and the flexibility of being home,” Hall Warren says. “And I’ve heard it over and over again: ‘I’m a lot more effective at home because there’s less people interrupting me.’ But they do really miss the community that we’ve created and being able to have face-to-face conversations.”

Similarly, Wyatt, the Wyatt & Associates partner, says his firm plans to move forward with a hybrid model. Everyone will be required to come into the office on the same two days and have the option to work the rest of the week remotely.

He says that the firm surveyed its staff and found many of them liked working remotely at least some of the time, citing flexibility and reduced commute times. And the pandemic showed people could still be effective from home. At the same time, he says, people missed the camaraderie and learning opportunities from being around colleagues.

Salem-based marketing agency 36creative is taking a different approach, according to Strategic Partnerships Manager Pete DiGeronimo, who relocated to Peterborough for part of last year due to the company’s pandemic-era shift to remote work.

The agency had been preparing to move into a larger office when COVID-19 struck. Instead, DiGeronimo says, 36creative gave up its lease.

Through that experience, the company learned it could onboard new hires and facilitate collaboration without having everyone in one spot, he says. It also realized the team could accomplish more in the same number of hours without water-cooler chitchat and workshops that dragged on too long.

Now, 36creative envisions a much more flexible future. “We’re looking at to say, ‘We’re gonna provide you with a space to work when and where you need it,’” he says.

Speaking in late July, DiGeronimo says that will involve some kind of permanent office space, as some employees want that, though it’ll likely be smaller. Workers will be able to work as they choose from the office or remotely, coming in regularly, only for occasional meetings or not at all.

Some of those workers will be very remote. Unlike before the pandemic, the company is now hiring for jobs that can be based anywhere.

“We’re just getting inundated with an incredible amount of talent, and we’ve been hiring people from all across the country,” he says. “So it’s actually opened up our talent pool.”

As for DiGeronimo himself, he and his wife decided to settle in small-town Lyndeborough. Their time in Peterborough, he says, “kind of opened up our eyes” to the fact that “we actually wouldn’t mind more of a rural kind of life.”

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