BR Skyline

Light reflections from downtown Baton Rouge reach across the Mississippi River on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2023, toward the banks of Port Allen, La.

Baton Rouge’s downtown office buildings are emptier, its traffic lighter, its mom-and-pop restaurants struggling and the job market has seemingly never been more competitive.

These are some of the consequences brought on by the white-collar workforce switching and adhering to remote work almost overnight during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Managing attorney Michael Ferachi said were it not for the pandemic, the remote work transition would’ve taken years to complete.

“We had to do it in March 2020—we didn’t have a choice. But if we’d been left to our own devices, we, law firms and other companies, would still be requiring people to come into the office,” Ferachi said.

Ferachi works for a nationwide law firm whose Baton Rouge satellite occupies floors of One American Place, Baton Rouge’s second largest skyscraper. Three years since the onset of the pandemic, Ferachi said the office has only spatially downsized when its lease was up for renewal.

An article by Baton Rouge Business Report said an official, city-wide study on office occupancy hadn’t been completed for Baton Rouge’s market, but had been for One American Place. According to the article, an average of 375 people were in the building every day before the pandemic. Since then, the average has dropped to 220 — a 44% decline in attendance.

Ferachi has observed fewer people downtown since the move to remote work. Fewer office workers in the sector has caused issues for downtown mom-and-pop restaurants that count on the lunch rush. Some can only stay open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., if they can remain open or staffed at all.

Statistics gathered by Axios said American office occupancy rose to a post-pandemic high of 50.4% compared to pre-pandemic. The study also noted stagnation in office occupancy since September 2022.

Ferachi said the firm’s decision to cut back on office space was foremost financial. Fewer employees going into work meant less capital devoted to workspace.

Based on data that human resources specialist Karen Breaux reviewed from the Bureau of Labor Statistics paired with her 40 years of HR insight, she believes 20-25% of companies are now moving toward a remote working environment or a hybrid system.

She said businesses during the pandemic tried to cut costs while still providing familiar services. Working remotely was a clear answer because it not only allowed companies flexibility, but could also save them money. These factors have contributed to creating a “very competitive” job market seen today, Breaux said.

The flexibility offered by remote work means local jobs don’t need to be filled by local workers, allowing employers to be choosier among applicants and further increasing job market competition.

Breaux said post-pandemic jobseekers usually consider workplace flexibility to a higher degree than other benefits associated with the job.

The increased flexibility remote work offers naturally raises concerns if it’s as productive as working in the business’ office. Breaux said productivity was a case-by-case, job-by-job issue.

“A lot of people who can work uninterrupted have an opportunity to be more focused and probably work harder when they don’t have interruptions,” Breaux said. “That’s one side of the coin. I’m more productive in the office.”

She said if employers were intentional to accommodate additional employee engagement, working remotely offered a minimum of similar productivity levels as in-office.

Process engineering manager David Guffey made similar points to Breaux about remote working productivity. He said his personal productivity soared when he was able to work from home.

“There’s always going to be a bit of lost effectiveness and efficiency when you put a group of people together; you can’t help it,” Guffey said. “There’s always distraction, people who need something, who need it from you.”

He found, for the work he and his associates did, productivity increased because most of the distractions had been removed. Communicating with other group members wasn’t learned overnight, he said, so the productivity of the group did take an initial hit.

Guffey said he balanced his workload differently knowing he had the option to stay home.

Working remotely allows him to work on projects with engineers abroad. Because of time zone differences, he found himself on the phone at irregular hours to accommodate. Guffey said he’d completed some projects he’d never physically been present for and the irregular hours didn’t bother him much.

“Work-life balance is a misnomer. I think people are happiest when they can integrate work and life,” Guffey said. “I’ve never gone to work and said, ‘I’m not going to talk about my family with anyone here.’ When you get back from a vacation, the first thing coworkers ask you is, ‘How was vacation?’”

Kimberly Hays, an oncology consultant, said she found the work-life separation made her job holistically more challenging once her employer fully implemented working remotely.

She understands remote work has limited her risk of infection, but it's also made her job more difficult.

“There’s a lack of interpersonal communication. Especially in sales, you look into someone’s eyes, and you can get a feel if they’re listening and engaging,” Hays said. “That’s been one of the biggest challenges from pre-COVID to now—the lack of face-to-face interaction.”

In addition to remote work posing more challenges, she said it wasn’t as clear when her work for the day was over compared to when she could leave a physical office.

Hays said working remotely did make traveling for her job easier and that some clients were relaxing their policies toward in-person visits.

Anna Reed, the director of a small manufacturing company, said the work it does requires employees physically there to run mills, lathes and assemble parts.

The company’s office workers still go in everyday, she said, similarly to how everyone did pre-pandemic, aside from taking necessary precautions.

Reed said she understood the draw of working from home, but the company wouldn’t be able to operate correctly, nor would it be as productive, if work from home measures were implemented.

“I think there’s a lot to be said for being seen in the office,” Reed said. “It’s easy to say, ‘I don’t see them here so they’re not working,’ and I can see how people would feel that way during the pandemic.”

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