CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With kids now back in school, some employers are expecting to see more of their parents back in the office, but some workers are saying not so fast, having grown very comfortable working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There's no question things are looking up in Uptown, with businesses welcoming employees and customers back indoors. That includes La Belle Helene, the popular French restaurant in the heart of the city. Chef Jamie Lynch recently started an express lunch service catering to Uptown workers.
"We see a lot of people walking around again and spending time in the restaurant, which is awesome," Lynch said. "It's getting better. Where we're located we get a lot of traffic from local businesses and upstairs in offices. It's solid."
The number of people in office buildings has seen a steady increase, according to James Labar, the senior vice president of economic development for Charlotte Center City Partners. Labar says his organization tracks the number of people in Uptown offices based on entry swipe card systems and Google mobility.
"Ever since March 2022, we've been on a steady growth pattern of people working from the office in Uptown," he said. "Our current percentage is 65-70% of pre-pandemic levels."
Where's everyone else, you ask? Taking advantage of a flexible work model, it seems. Two of Uptown's biggest employers, Duke Energy and Wells Fargo, said workers were doing a few days in the office and a few days remotely.
"Beginning March 14, 2022, most U.S. employee groups returned to work in a hybrid flexible model," Josh Dunn with Wells Fargo Corporate Communications said in a statement. "Our hybrid flexible approach is office-based, with flexibility. Staff groups spend a minimum of three days a week in the office with flexibility to have up to two days a week of remote work."
Duke Energy says it decided to give employees more flexibility based on feedback it received after the pandemic sent everyone home in 2020.
"I can tell you that a majority of our employees in Uptown (around 80%) have returned to a hybrid work schedule," Neil Nissan said. "They work a few days in the office and a few days remotely. We developed this policy out of response to our office employees' desire for flexibility."
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Working from home is a big draw for a lot of people. In fact, some experts say we may never again see a traditional work schedule in professional settings.
"Our five-day workweek is probably not something that we're going to see anytime soon, at least not in the office five days," Kelly O'Brien with the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance said.
That's the reason Centene, one of the largest health insurance providers in the U.S., gave when it pulled out of a planned move to Charlotte. The company was set to spend $1 billion to bring its East Coast headquarters here but called it off just weeks ago. The company said there was a "fundamental shift in the way people work" with 90% of their workers fully or partially remote.
"The Centene project was an amazing project for Charlotte and the decision for Centene to pull back was a surprising and disappointing one," Labar said.
Still, he and others believe Uptown is going to continue on its upward trend as more people return to work.
"Working from the office, is there a question about exactly how it pans out?" Labar said. "I think there is, but what's clear is that the office is not going away."
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