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Remote work is having a moment amid COVID-19 fears

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With the rapid spread of COVID-19, companies are scrambling to figure out how to keep business up and running during a local outbreak should employees need to stay away from the office. Remote work has been increasing in the United States, and the outbreak could be a turning point in making such arrangements permanent.

Remote work allows companies to pull from a broader talent pool, lower real estate costs and boost employee productivity, but does require additional training to make sure employees effectively communicate.

As cases of COVID-19 illness began to mount in the U.S. last week, New York commercial real estate brokerage SquareFoot started making emergency plans.

“We just wanted to be prepared should the alarm bell really go off,” said Eugenie Fanning, vice president of people. The company has asked employees to hold off booking business trips, stay home for two weeks if they’ve traveled through affected areas and take home their laptops at the end of each day.

“A lot of what we do can be done online using Slack and video conferencing,” she said.

JPMorgan Chase announced similar plans, while Nike temporarily shut its Oregon headquarters for cleaning over the weekend and asked employees with links to a COVID-19 case at a nearby school to stay home. 

Remote work has increased dramatically over the decade, said Sara Sutton, the founder of job listing site FlexJobs, but fully remote work still makes up less than 5% of full time jobs in the U.S.

“A lot of organizations are doing remote work right now in a very ad hoc manner,” Sutton said. “They don’t have a formal plan in place.” That leaves many remote workers feeling isolated and unsupported. 

Cali Williams Yost, CEO of Flex Strategy Group, which helps companies implement flexible work arrangements, said COVID-19 could be a turning point.

“I think this is an opportunity to become more intentional and strategic about making flexibility in the way work is done part of the cultural DNA,” she said.

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