Hilary Matney works for an insurance company, and has been working from her home office in midtown Kansas City throughout the pandemic. She's come to embrace the flexibility that teleworking allows. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

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As an insurance company employee, Hilary Matney, 40, of Kansas City, Missouri, would spend four days a week before the pandemic working in the company’s office in Overland Park, Kansas. She’d spend the other day working remotely, usually out of a coffee shop or from home. 

The pandemic turned what used to be a once-a-week break from the office into her permanent work situation. Now, Matney doesn’t want to go back. 

“My job does not need to be done in an office,” she said. “And that’s kind of a wasted space and trip in a car. So I think my employer and I both agree on that.”

After a year where many companies had no choice but to shift entirely to remote work, the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine is raising questions about what the future of work looks like. As schools and businesses consider reopening — at the same time local and state officials slowly lift restrictions on businesses — employers are navigating how to best support a workforce that has embraced working outside of cubicles. 

According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans working remotely doubled from 31% to 62% between mid-March and early April 2020. The latest Gallup data from February shows that percentage has decreased just slightly to 58% working remotely, either part-time or full-time.

Local surveys conducted by Kansas City, Missouri, government of city employees between March 20 and May 1 last year found that 98% of respondents wanted to continue some form of telecommuting, with more than 50% wanting to split time between working remotely and coming into the office when it’s safe. 

National research shows some employees actually prefer teleworking. According to Gallup, the percentage of U.S. employees who want to work remotely either some or all of the time — even when businesses and schools can safely reopen — increased from 18% last May to 26% in February.

Kansas City companies consider the future of remote work

In the Kansas City region, 46% of companies surveyed by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce changed their policies to allow for permanent remote work. 

Cerner, the third largest employer in Kansas City with over 6,000 employees, provides employees with online fitness and mental wellness resources. The company also states that employees have access to telehealth visits and counseling services. 

Advertising company VMLY&R employs about 575 people in Kansas City and has been operating under a remote work setting throughout the pandemic. Jacquie van der Veur, communications manager at VMLY&R, said the company will continue with remote work until it’s safe for larger numbers of employees to be in the office. 

VMLY&R has implemented several initiatives during the pandemic to support its staff. Van der Veur said this includes programming to help employees take time away from their screens, promoting mental wellness initiatives and holding group sessions for working parents in the company.   

Construction company McCownGordon employs 350 people in Kansas City and has had office employees working from home throughout the pandemic. Sheri Johnson, vice president of marketing for McCownGordon, said the company is taking a phased approach to reopening the office to employees. She said office space is currently open to one-third of its capacity to employees who wish to go into the office, and it will expand to 50% capacity depending on local case numbers and the state of the vaccine rollout in the region. 

Johnson said the company is still figuring out what its policies on remote work will look like, even when it’s safe for businesses to reopen. As the 100% employee-owned company discusses its policies, Johnson said it will conduct a survey of employees to gauge how they feel about returning to the office. 

When McCownGordon shifted to fully remote work for office associates, Johnson said it was a smooth transition. The company provided headsets and extra monitors to employees, and expanded its well-being program to include resources around mindfulness and mental wellness. It also expanded its sick leave policy to accommodate those who either contracted or had to care for someone with COVID-19.

Pam Whiting, vice president of communications of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, says many Kansas City employers have provided support for their remote employees, from offering emotional wellness resources to emphasizing exercises workers can do from home.

“A lot of companies have really put an emphasis on communication with their employees, with serving them about how they’re doing, what they need, what they hope for the future,” she said.

46% of companies in Kansas City changed their policies to allow for permanent remote work.

Survey by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce

Katie Raymon, 36, works for the Kansas City-based marketing and advertising company Amply Media. When her office was sent home, the company offered devices like keyboards and extra monitors to help employees like Raymon build their home office. 

The catered lunches their company would provide pre-pandemic turned into giving UberEats credits to employees so they can order takeout whenever they wish. 

What Raymon appreciates the most about working from home is the ability to work flexible hours. 

“The biggest thing for me is my boss has been understanding that things come up,” she said. “Just understanding that people aren’t sitting at their desks all the time from 8 to 5. That’s been the biggest thing for me that has helped me through it, and I’d hope that other companies do that.”  

Remote work challenges

As the pandemic forced millions of employees to work from home, there were many who had to quickly adapt to a new lifestyle, including balancing work duties with child care and challenges with inadequate home internet. 

For Matney, the insurance employee, the transition to becoming a full-time remote worker along with being a full-time, single mother and caregiver was stressful.

“Managing the household, and two people in it, and phone calls, and somebody else working from home, was really stressful,” she said. “Our internet wasn’t the most capable.”

Matney has now figured out a system and a schedule that allows her to watch her daughter and get her work done. But her challenges have become common for working parents. A January study from the Pew Research Center found that 43% of parents who are working remotely and have children at home think it has become more difficult to balance work and personal responsibilities. 

Laurie Treder is an analyst with the Social Security Administration and works remotely from her home in North Kansas City. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Meeting the technical demands of remote work has also posed an obstacle. When the pandemic forced Laurie Treder, 65, to work from home, it was the first time she had done so in her 41 years working at the Social Security Administration. In Kansas City, the federal government is the single largest employer, with over 20,000 employees. 

But before she could start working from home, she first had to set up internet service at her North Kansas City home.

“In order to make this work, you needed to have an internet connection in your house,” she said. “People who don’t have reliable internet, they were not able to transition to working from home until the office could come up with another way.”

Making a temporary solution permanent

Prior to the pandemic, Kansas City, Missouri, did not have any teleworking policies in place for its 4,500-person workforce. The shutdowns caused by the pandemic suddenly forced hundreds of city employees — about 20% of the workforce, according to DataKC — into remote work. 

At the onset of the pandemic, the City Council passed a resolution directing the city manager to implement a telecommuting policy for city employees throughout the duration of the city’s emergency order. 

But shifting to remote work was a challenge, said Assistant City Manager Rick Usher. The city surveys gauging employee attitudes toward remote work helped supervisors and department managers better respond to and understand the needs of remote workers. 

The first challenge? Employees needed the right devices to telework. So the city provided laptops, microphones and headsets.

The other challenge? Adequate internet connection. Remote employees took an internet speed test, and those with slow internet speeds received mobile Wi-Fi hotspots from the city. 

The pandemic has shown people like Usher the successes that can come from remote work — less commuting time, increased productivity, better work/life balance for employees. 

Now, following a year of working from home, Usher said the city is developing an official, standard telecommuting policy for all employees. Part of that new telecommuting policy will include ensuring remote workers have the technology and the internet needed to work outside the office. 

“There’s nothing like a crisis to push innovation,” Usher said. “… I felt like the productivity is there. The access to employees is almost the same if not better.”

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Celisa Calacal covers economics and civic engagement issues for The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter @celisa_mia or email her at celisa@thebeacon.media.