Beth Lemmel’s clients are mostly folks who are new to the job market or reentering it after a hiatus. Before 2020, the people she counseled rarely expressed interest in getting a job that allowed them to work from home.
“But now, all of a sudden, everybody wants one,” says Lemmel, who owns the Asheville-based Lemmel Employment Coaching. “Work-from-home is such a buzz phrase right now.”
When the pandemic shut down offices in March 2020, remote work became the new reality for many people. For some, the change proved temporary, and those folks have mostly reaccustomed themselves to the daily grind of showering, donning work clothes and battling traffic. Others are still waiting for their offices to reopen after multiple delays.
And then there were those who never had the luxury of staying home in the first place.
But for a select few, including those who’ve moved to this area because they have the flexibility to live anywhere, telecommuting has become the new normal.
“Our region has always been a hot spot for remote work, but the pandemic has increased the availability of remote work as employers are being more flexible,” says Nathan Ramsey, director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board. “Remote work has opened up Western North Carolina to individuals and families who previously could not have lived here because their jobs were in a distant place.”
The numbers bear out the idea that the Asheville area is a particularly desirable destination for those who long for a chance to escape commuter traffic, overly controlling bosses and intrusive office environments.
For the year ending last August, 38.7% of all applications for paid Asheville job postings on LinkedIn were for remote work. That’s second among U.S. cities with fewer than 100,000 residents and almost twice the national average of 21.3%.
Both Lemmel and Ramsey also caution, though, that work-at-home options aren’t available or practical for everyone. “I’m seeing a lot of people get frustrated and come to me and say, ‘I gotta find something where I can work from home, and I can’t find anything,’” Lemmel reports.
Telework is generally more available for people in higher-paying occupations and those with higher levels of education, Ramsey explains. And some jobs, such as those in the service sector, simply can’t be done from home, though many of these have become more difficult for employers to fill during the pandemic.
Xpress spoke with several WNC residents who work from home full time. And while their specific circumstances vary widely, all of them cited advantages such as not having to commute and having more flexibility to deal with things like child care and other personal matters.
But they also described challenges ranging from maintaining work/life balance to obtaining a reliable internet connection.
Freedom and flexibility
Brandon Baird and his wife, Becca Rohrer, had good jobs in Denver and no plans to leave the Mile High City — until the pandemic hit and both found themselves working from home.
“It was brand-new for me,” remembers Baird. “I’d always worked in office and group work settings.”
After several months, Rohrer’s employer decided to go fully remote. Around the same time, Baird took a new job that was also fully remote. Suddenly, the couple found themselves able, for the first time, to live wherever they wanted.
For the WNC natives, who met as students at UNC Chapel Hill, the call of the Blue Ridge Mountains proved irresistible. They sold their house in Denver and moved to Hendersonville just after Thanksgiving.
Like others interviewed by Xpress, Baird cited the lack of a commute as one of the new arrangement’s prime advantages. “I feel like it’s better for the environment, better for me,” he says.
More than that, though, working remotely enables him to set his own schedule and generally be more independent than he was in conventional office environments.
In his company, notes Baird, “Everyone has to get certain things accomplished, certain goals achieved. But it’s kind of up to you how you do that. It’s not somebody watching you in an office or making sure you’re in a seat for a certain amount of time.”
For people with children, working from home can be a godsend.
That’s certainly true for Bobby Miller and Kelly Rackleff; the Asheville couple have a 6-year-old daughter, and both parents work from home.
“My job is somewhat flexible in that there are periods of time in between issues or addressing client needs that allow me to make my kid a sandwich,” says Miller, who’s served as office manager for a local landscaping company for more than two years.
“The guy who owns my company is an extremely kind, cool person, and so he understands when I have to go pick up my child and he calls with an emergency and I’m like, ‘I’ll be back in 15 minutes,’” Miller explains.
He and Rackleff work staggered schedules so that one of them is always available for parenting duties.
“We still have to get our work in, but we can kind of trade off a bit,” says Rackleff, who does bookkeeping and remote office management for a Florida company. “As long as there’s somebody with [their daughter], we can adjust the time needed to do it. If we were going into an office, we wouldn’t have that flexibility.”
Being in a separate, designated home workspace rather than a busy office can also make it easier to concentrate.
“I tend to have to take calls at all times of the day, given the international nature of our company and my role,” explains Ray Kirby, who moved from the Charlotte area to Laurel Park near Hendersonville in March 2020 after Citibank gave him the option of working remotely. “Working from home allows me to work around the meetings. I have a job that requires a lot of reading and reviewing, and having a quiet office at home is nice to be able to focus.”
For some folks, though, the arrangement may offer simpler, more tangible advantages.
Phyllis Kapsalis of Canton, who left a teaching job in Charlotte in November 2020 for a fully remote job with UnitedHealth Group, cites an occupational hazard of her former line of work.
“Something my former teacher colleagues are very envious of: I can go to the bathroom anytime I want or need to,” she says. “As a teacher, bathroom breaks are few and far between.”
For all its advantages, working from home also comes with downsides, which sometimes come down to different aspects of what is essentially the same thing. A big one is the lack of separation between home and work life.
“We’re kind of always at risk of being on: at night, on a weekend,” notes Rackleff. “Normally you’re not going to call an employee into the office over the weekend, but my office is downstairs, so it happens.”
Baird agrees. “It’s great to be able to just kind of step right from the kitchen into the office and begin your workday, but it’s equally difficult, if you have something important you’re working on, to leave your work thoughts at work. For me, that is the eternal challenge.”
For Kapsalis, a more basic issue — getting reliable cable internet service — has proved to be a bigger obstacle than she anticipated when she moved to Canton. Satellite options in the Haywood County town of about 4,400 people are costly and not reliable enough or secure enough for her line of work.
“It has been an ordeal to get internet to my house even though it’s only 20 minutes from downtown Asheville,” she reports. “The rural parts of North Carolina are still getting overlooked.”
Working from home can also make it difficult to build relationships with co-workers whom you know only through Zoom, Slack or email. That’s particularly true when your home office is in a different city.
“The lack of contact with my team members does isolate me at times,” says Kirby. “It can be more challenging to build relationships and contacts outside of my direct team, and even as tenured as I am, it is hard to develop new lines of growth, as my network is limited to my direct co-workers.”
For her part, Rackleff puts it more simply: “I kind of miss people.”
Stephanie El-Hajj, who moved to Asheville’s River Arts District in December 2020 when her Texas-based company gave employees the option of working remotely, agrees that telecommuting can be isolating.
“When it was just me in my apartment in Austin, I started to go bonkers,” she recalls. “I lived alone and didn’t have pets, so it was just me, my empty apartment and the standard gray walls that come with industrial apartments. It was terrible.”
And meanwhile, finding ties outside of work also speaks to the deep human need for a sense of belonging.
To that end, El-Hajj began hosting through Airbnb after moving to Asheville. That’s created almost daily opportunities for personal interactions, she says.
Working from home has also given El-Hajj increased incentive to look beyond the workplace rather than relying on co-workers for her social life.
“This December, I helped build bikes for kids,” she says, adding, “I probably wouldn’t have had time to do that since the time was at 6 p.m. and I’d normally be in a car commuting.”
Others agree that working from home hasn’t prevented them from forging connections to the greater Asheville community, though the pandemic has made this more difficult.
Some, such as Baird, Rohrer and Kapsalis, are WNC natives with family and friends here. Miller, a veteran bluegrass musician, and Rackleff both have deep ties to the area’s vibrant music community.
“The corporate jobs I had, to be honest with you, the only reason I was around the people that I was around is because I had to be,” Miller reveals. As a musician, he continues, “I’m around the people I’m around because they want to be with me — and I want to be with them.”
Despite the substantial pandemic-induced shifts, a recent Gallup poll found that just 25% of full-time U.S. employees worked from home all the time. In other words, truly remote work is still not a realistic goal for most.
Baird, for one, recognizes that he and his wife are in a privileged position.
“There’s a lot of folks, including my own family, that don’t have that option,” he concedes. “Their only option is going to a physical workspace.”
Yet while Baird and others say they don’t envision ever going back to working full time in an office, they would perhaps be interested in a hybrid arrangement. The Gallup poll found that about 20% of employees worked from home part of the time.
“Working remotely requires a different type of discipline, as it is easy to drift to the extremes of not getting enough work done due to the distractions, or working all the time and getting burned out,” Kirby observes. “If I had my preference, I would go into an office one to two days a week for meetings and just breaking up the routine.”
Meanwhile, Lemmel, the employment coach, draws a distinction between fully remote positions, which enable one to work from anywhere, and a work-from-home job that’s within driving distance of an office where the employee may have to spend some time. The former, she says, are much rarer.
At the same time, even employers who aren’t specifically advertising work-from-home positions may be more flexible due to the pandemic, she points out.
“If you are going out there and you want a work-from-home job, you’re probably going to have to advocate for that,” she advises. “I wouldn’t go and Google ‘work from home’ or ‘remote work.’ I would go for whatever the job is that you feel is the best fit for you right now and then advocate for what you need.”