The rise of remote work across America has only just begun, and Charlotte is no exception.
While remote jobs — those that can be done outside of a traditional office setting with primarily a computer and cell phone — still account for a small share of jobs in both North Carolina and the U.S., workers are increasingly opting for the flexible lifestyle.
In the Charlotte area, 7% of workers work from home, up from 5% since 2013, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. By comparison, 5% of national workers work from home, up from 4% in 2013.
“Charlotte is definitely a hub for remote workers and has grown significantly in this regard,” said Chuck McShane, vice president of business analytics and data at Charlotte Regional Business Alliance. “With a tighter labor market and improving technology, workers in high-demand fields have a lot more negotiating power and choice in where they want to live.”
THE BENEFITS AND DOWNSIDES OF REMOTE WORK
Remote work is more than browsing on a computer at a coffee shop or on a beach, despite the stereotypes. Local remote workers say it requires immense self-discipline, self-determination, time management and focus. It’s not easy, and it’s not for everyone.
“I think it’s all about the person,” said Felicia Walsh, who has worked remotely for about eight years. “Working from home is all about the honor system. You have to be accountable. If you’re not productive in the office, working remotely is not for you.”
Walsh, who works in project management, enjoys working remotely for its focused nature.
“I’m very structured, so when I’m sitting at my laptop, I’m working,” Walsh said. “I know a lot of people say they get distracted at home. Of course, I’ll get up and get a cup of coffee. But it doesn’t take 15 minutes to walk somewhere and back to where I’m working. … I actually feel like I’m more productive at home because I think there are few distractions to me.”
The Charlotte area has seen remote workers rise from 5% to 7% since 2013, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. GarlandBurks Marketing CHARLOTTEFIVE
Most local workers mentioned flexibility as a major payoff of the demanding remote work life. This is particularly true for Katie Shoun, who is both a new mother and remote worker in the insurance industry.
“With being a first-time mom, it was a huge enough adjustment on its own,” Shoun said. “Being able to have that flexibility to tell my boss, ‘Hey, I need to work different hours today. I need to take the day to take care of my son,’ is relieving. … To not have to worry about possibly losing my job because I have to prioritize my child is something special — that peace of mind is invaluable.”
But with virtual work’s benefits comes one big downside: Loneliness. Local remote workers come up with ways to combat the inevitable feeling of loneliness, including taking a daily walk or staying connected to coworkers online.
“There are things that I miss,” said Mike Utsey, who recently shifted into remote work. “Just seeing people every day. Especially when you get in the grind, your work becomes your only focus. At the office, you can take short breaks, talk to people. It’s harder with remote work.”
Not everyone feels this sense of loneliness. Meghan Tocci, who has been working remotely in marketing for a year and a half, said she feels just as socially stimulated as she did in an office.
“I think that’s a misconception about remote work,” Tocci said. “I’m talking to people constantly. I still have that social fatigue by the end of the day.”
David “Dae-Lee” Arrington, a founding member of the Hue House creative agency, likes to get face-to-face with clients and be “present.” Anna Naphtali CHARLOTTEFIVE
In fact, people are front and center in David ‘Dae Lee’ Arrington’s work. Arrington, founding member of creative agency Hue House, is often office hopping with his agency’s various clients.
“If I have a mentality behind it, I like to be where the people are,” Arrington said. “And not just people doing my type of work but people who I look up to. ... I think it’s all about being present. I mean, technology’s nice, but when you can see a face, that’s even better.”
Walter Burks, who co-own GarlandBurks Marketing. with his wife, Heather, said work-life balance is tough when you’re working from home. GarlandBurks Marketing CHARLOTTEFIVE
Heather and Walter Burks benefit from the company of each other as co-owners of GarlandBurks Marketing, which they operate out of their home. The former wedding photographers understand the remote work life, but they say maintaining a work-life balance is still difficult.
“With our old work, we would work in our home office and then travel for the events,” Heather said. We photographed in about 20 states and 8 countries. … I think the work-life balance is the hardest transition. At least we could get out of the house and away with our other job.”
Beyond the loneliness that can come from remote work, traditional workers’ inability to understand the telework life is further alienating.
“It’s hard because other people don’t understand,” Heather said. “People are calling us all the time. People are asking, ‘Can you do this? Can you do that?’ People don’t understand that even though we don’t go to an office, we still have to work.”
COWORKING SPACES RISE WITH VIRTUAL WORK
Locals said they’ve noticed the increase in virtual working in Charlotte and more broadly — and coworking spaces have noticed and grown in step. There are about 19 coworking spaces in Charlotte alone, from Hygge’s several locations across town to The Mill in South End.
Bridget Sullivan, founder and managing director of Creative Canvas Productions, operates out of Advent Coworking. She once worked from home and now has an office in the coworking space. Courtesy of Bridget Sullivan CHARLOTTEFIVE
“Virtual working is definitely the route that many are taking now,” said Bridget Sullivan, founder and managing director of Creative Canvas Productions. “You weren’t ever going to have that opportunity. But I started to realize that when I launched my own business that it was easier for me to work from home.”
Sullivan started working from home but realized it wasn’t right for her: She needed a designated space to conduct her demanding work as an event producer. She decided to join a coworking space – and loved it. She now has her own office in Advent Coworking in Belmont, where she is a community ambassador.
“I’ve noticed in the past six to 10 years that more people are moving in coworking spaces,” Sullivan said. “It may be that, before, they go into a coffee shop and deal with all the noise, but when they’re starting to create a business with multiple clients and employees, they seek out coworking spaces.”
Tocci also has positive experiences with coworking spaces, which helped her ease into virtual work.
“When I first started remote, to ease the transition, I went to a coworking space,” Tocci said. “It was affordable, and I was learning how to budget. … I was surprised to see how many people started doing the same thing. All those places are opening here for a reason.”
WHY IS CHARLOTTE GOOD FOR REMOTE WORK?
Both Tocci and Utsey moved to Charlotte to take jobs that allowed them to work remotely. Utsey works as a project manager for CBRE, a commercial real estate firm, while Tocci works in marketing.
“I moved to Charlotte for this job specifically,” Tocci said. “When that started coming to an end, I wanted to make sure I stayed in Charlotte. I didn’t want to go through the trouble of bouncing from job to job.”
McShane said a variety of factors make Charlotte an appealing option for remote workers.
“With a lower cost of living, better weather and good connectivity to larger markets, Charlotte makes good sense for a lot of remote workers,” McShane said. “This is a good thing for the Charlotte economy because it means we can retain talent who in the past might have needed to move with their companies or to advance their career. Today, a lot of this talent can stay.
“Employers are also able to test out markets without as much up-front investment, using coworking spaces and other temporary options,” McShane said.
PRESERVE YOUR SPACE: TIPS FOR NEW REMOTE WORKERS
Heather and Walter Burks operate GarlandBurks Marketing from home, which can complicate things sometimes. “You have to make sure you’re organized and that you’re dedicated because it’s harder than working in an office,” Heather Burks said. GarlandBurks Marketing CHARLOTTEFIVE
For those curious about working remotely, locals offered a variety of tips to make the work style feel like less of a black box, from setting boundaries to being present.
“You really have to make your presence known with remote work,” Walsh said. “Maybe that’s calling your boss in the morning and having a 5-minute catch up. Or pinging your colleague and saying, good morning. It’s something that I do. I make sure my coworker and I know where we are in the morning. It’s making your presence known.
“Just be in an environment where you want to be, where you aspire to be,” Arrington said. “Just being present — opportunities will present themselves.”
The work environment — and boundary setting within it — is also important to Tocci.
“Set boundaries and don’t underestimate the importance of a work space,” Tocci said. “Working remotely, you have to be honest with yourself and your ability to cut off from the work. You can look at your phone and you can have Netflix in the background. But if that’s not how you work, you’re not going to get anything done. … Know the space you need. Preserve your space.”
Taking time off from work is just as important, Utsey said.
“Make a point to leave your house,” Utsey said. “One thing I do is go sit in public, whether it be a coffee shop or somewhere else. It might be a little more distracting, but it’s less shut-in. I try to do that two times a week so I don’t go stir-crazy.”
Perhaps the most important lesson to learn in remote work is that of discipline. Locals said setting a schedule and keeping yourself to it is key to success with remote work.
“You have to make sure you’re organized and that you’re dedicated because it’s harder than working in an office,” Heather Burks said. “You’re going to have to work harder. Someone looking for an easier way out of an office setting: It’s definitely not easier. It’s rewarding if you’re a go-getter and you can get things done on your own.”