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No more office? COVID may have more Mainers continuing to 'work from home'

Some Maine companies plan to restructure work styles indefinitely. NEWS CENTER Maine's Hannah Dineen reports this Thursday at 6pm.

MAINE, Maine — Since March of 2020, the daily commute for many Mainers has been but a few steps as we shifted to working from home either part or full time because of the COVID pandemic

For some Maine companies, the work-from-home model is here to stay. Others are working to get everyone back in the office.

Camden National Bank President and CEO Gregory Dufour said the company is surveying all of its employees to learn how they hope to work beyond the pandemic. 

"We’ve done a major survey of all of our employees, asking them what they think about the post-pandemic environment and how much they want to work from home versus come into the office," he said.

Dufour said creating a more flexible work structure was something leaders of the company were discussing even before the pandemic.

"From a high level, we’re taking the approach so this is really a way to redefine how we work," he said. "Even before the pandemic, there were requests from people to work remotely for recruiting purposes, or from some people transferring, so this wasn’t a new question."

Dufour said some employees want to continue working remotely indefinitely, while some want to return to the office full-time. He says they'll likely end up somewhere in the middle. 

"We know something is going to change," he said. "It’s not going to be like it was pre-pandemic nor what it’s like today. And we’re trying to really discover the path of finding what’s the right approach to achieve that balance."

Bangor Savings Bank, on the other hand, is taking a more hard-line approach. 

Senior Vice President Ryan Albert said that while there may be some individual exceptions, the vast majority of folks will be returning to the office full time. He said the bank's office culture is part of what makes the company successful.

"Our plan to bring everyone back to the office is in no way a reflection of our employees not being able to work well in that way,"  Albert said. "We just think that it was effective in the short term, but for the long-term success of the company, we know we’re better together when we’re in the office collaborating and communicating and establishing those relationships."

Albert said that while using Zoom and phone calls to communicate has been effective in the short term, he doesn't believe it is a sustainable model for the company. 

"I thoroughly believe that there’s Zoom fatigue and I think just about all of us have seen that and felt that," he said. "Again, this model works for us. It might not work for everyone. We’re probably in the minority as far as bringing everyone back. We know a lot of organizations and businesses are going the other way. But for us, when we talk about employee engagement, that’s what it starts with. You don’t get that by having an army of individual people spread out everywhere."

He said employees also grow from personal connections within the office.

"Instead of feeling like you’re a one-person sort of team ... when you’re in the office you can see and feel the teamwork. You get that collaboration. There’s a lot of learning that happens just by overhearing conversations and these impromptu connections that we have."

Albert believes a full-time return to the office is something all Bangor Savings employees want.

"I can speak for all 1,039 employees when I say we can't wait to all get back together in the office," Albert said. 

However, according to "Live and Work in Maine," a not-for-profit in the Maine employment sphere, most workers are looking to continue working remotely in some capacity. 

In a survey of 300 Mainers from across the state, nearly eight in 10 Maine workers currently working from home said they intend to continue working remotely at least part-time even when pandemic restrictions are fully lifted.

And more workers appear to be searching for full-time remote work. 

Brie Reynolds, the career development manager for FlexJobs, a company that focuses on connecting people to full-time remote work, said the company saw a spike in interest as people were furloughed at the start of the pandemic. Now, she said, it's spiking for a different reason. 

"They're doing so now because their offices are talking about opening back up and bringing people back in and they're not interested in doing that," Reynolds said.

Reynolds said she is also working with people who plan to return to the office with their current employer temporarily while they search for a remote job to transition to. 

"Folks may go back to the office at first while they're conducting that job search on the side that allows them to find something that allows them to permanently stay at home," she said. 

Reynolds said company surveys show people favor working from home for many reasons including increased productivity, efficiency, control over surroundings, and work/life balance.

Some Maine companies have fully embraced remote work and plan to allow employees to continue working that way indefinitely. That includes R.E.D.D., a company that sells plant-based protein bars.

Prior to the pandemic, the company's small group of Maine-based employees was commuting to an office in Brunswick for work. Now, those same workers will be able to continue working from home. 

"We're in the process of reimagining the office space," CEO Emma Fuerst Frelinghuysen said. Initial plans include creating photography space for marketing shoots. 

The news of no return to the office is exciting for R.E.D.D. marketing manager Anna Ridle, who lives in Wiscasset.

"I have chronic back pain from an old motorcycle accident and even though my work set-up at the office was amazing, I've been able to manage it better working from home," Ridle said. 

She said working from home also allows her more time for activities.

"I've also gotten some time back in my day from the commute that I've been using for gardening now that it has warmed up."

Ridle said she has also been able to surf more. 

Frelinghuysen said she's excited to see the model working so well for her team.

"Hopefully it gives flexibility to all the employees," she said.

She also said structuring the company this way allows them to create a talented team of employees that span the country. 

"We're able to recruit the best people who fit our culture without thinking of geography as a restriction," Frelinghuysen said. 

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