For the past five years, Craig Davenport has left his home in Mukilteo by 5:30 a.m. weekdays to beat Interstate 405 traffic on his way to his architecture firm in Bellevue.
These days Davenport sleeps a little later and makes a shorter commute — to his dining-room table. The 24 employees at his firm, MZA Architecture, are working from home under rules that aim to control the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Elected officials and public health experts encouraged companies to make remote work an option weeks before Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday ordered everyone but those in essential businesses to stay home.
The number of people working remotely is a big change in the region: Last year, fewer than 6% of people who worked in Seattle’s central area reported telecommuting at least one day a week, according to the nonprofit group Commute Seattle.
Davenport, 60, president of his firm, said he had been resistant to employees working remotely because he prefers face-to-face conversations, but “now it’s a necessity. It’s forced us to make it work.”
Employees who are working remotely for the first time, or the first extended period of time, say they like the flexibility and convenience of working from home. However, video chatting, email and other online communication tools don’t compare to the relationships built and ideas exchanged through in-person social interaction, many say.
Sarah Gimbel, associate professor in the University of Washington School of Nursing, said she has been more productive because it’s quieter at home, but she misses the synergy of collaborative work and popping in someone’s office to chat.
“What makes a university great is bringing people together,” said Gimbel, 49. “We can do the remote thing, but it’s nothing like real people talking to each other.”
“Working less and less efficiently”
For parents, working from home means dividing time between professional work and caring for children, after Inslee ordered schools to close to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
When Microsoft began encouraging employees to work from home in early March, Twisha Chandra had a frank conversation with her manager about her ability to complete her work as a trade compliance manager while caring for her 5-year-old son and 11-month-old daughter.
“I told him I’ll be working less and less efficiently while I’m home,” she said. “He understands and has been supportive.”
Chandra, 34, returned from maternity leave in September and was easing back into her work routine when the outbreak emerged in Washington state. “This threw me back completely,” she said.
“My kids are making noise in the background. They need to be fed and taken care of. The diaper needs to be changed. My son needs me to sit with him while doing work,” she said.
Chandra had hired a nanny to look after her children while she was at work. But after the caretaker, 59, began coughing a few weeks ago, Chandra gave her paid leave out of precaution so she could recover.
Kelly Carter-Lynn, a biological sciences lab coordinator at the UW campus in Bothell, said she has shifted priorities to focus on long-term department needs now that her day-to-day work is no longer possible.
Her job involves managing and scheduling labs, including making chemical solutions. Now that she’s working remotely, she’s spending time researching and implementing a new safety risk assessment tool.
“We thought it would be a yearlong project assessing procedures and taking a deep dive into safety, but now that I’m at home, that’s become the main project,” she said.
Carter-Lynn, 39, began working remotely the first week of March, when she and her 9-year-old son began experiencing flulike symptoms unrelated to the coronavirus. They’ve recovered, but are staying home.
“For me personally, when this is over, I’ll be looking forward to getting back into the lab,” she said. “I might work on a project from home here and there, but I would not want to do this full time.”
Managers said working remotely is helpful for knocking out assignments but can challenge team morale and typical approaches to problem-solving.
“We’ve all taken a productivity hit. It isn’t our normal way of working,” said Kelly Crimmins, who oversees a team of business analysts at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
She instituted a 9 a.m. check-in call each day since her team began remote work March 6.
“I wanted to center people and have me understand what they did yesterday and what they plan to do today,” she said.
Davenport, at the architectural firm, said his team is navigating some technical issues, such as broken video links and presentations that don’t work and add more time to meetings.
Remote work “is a privilege”
In an economy as diverse as Seattle’s, not all jobs lend themselves to remote work, and some geographic areas can present challenges.
Aiden Trigg-Hauger, 23, was a bartender at Hotel Moxie in South Lake Union until he was laid off March 16.
“Being able to work from home is a privilege,” he said.
A keyboardist with a flair for indie-rock music, Trigg-Hauger said he was looking for a job that would give him spare time to work on song writing with hopes of breaking into the music industry. Plus, “making drinks is fun, and the money is really good,” he said.
But after this experience, Trigg-Hauger, a recent graduate from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, with a degree in sociology, said he may look for a copy writing position or administrative work.
Alex Audretsch, 28, bought a house two years ago in Redmond Ridge, a more rural part of King County, with the understanding that DSL internet service was available.
But once he moved in, he learned the telecommunications company that serves his area couldn’t provide service to his home.
As a temporary fix, he uses three mobile hot spots and a cellphone to access the internet. Usually that works. But since his company shifted to remote work, Audretsch, a senior software engineer for Getty Images, has had to strategize his personal data use.
“I don’t watch TV shows. I don’t watch movies anymore. I download any music I want to listen to because I can’t stream music anymore. I cannot download modern video games,” he said.
Now, he’s hoping the amount of data he can use will be enough to get him through the rest of the month.
“I really hope that nothing comes up with work that would require me to move lots of data over larger periods of time,” he said. “If that were to happen, I would drive outside McDonald’s and borrow their Wi-Fi.”