Charlotte companies delay returns to the office

Plus: Jobs announcement coming this week?; Anti-Covid ad campaign unleashed; Planning director wants to examine impact fees; Cam signs deal with New England Patriots

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Rise in Covid cases means bosses are in no rush to return you to your cubicle; Schools decision expected this week

Outlook cloudy: A lot of uptown Charlotte offices are expected to be mostly vacant for at least several more months, as employers hold off on calling back workers from home.

by Tony Mecia

Have you become accustomed to sleeping in and doing work in your PJs? You might want to get used to it.

With public health officials expressing continued concern about increasing Covid cases, many Charlotte businesses are still holding off on bringing their employees back to the office — which might not happen now until the fall.

On Friday, Wells Fargo, the Charlotte region’s second-largest employer, said its employees who are working from home won’t return until Sept. 7 at the earliest. Earlier in the week, the bank had said the earliest possible return date was July 31. In May, Wells had told employees to expect to work from home until at least June 30.

Wells’ sliding timeline for bringing its workers back to the office mirrors the experience of many other local companies. Many of them had hoped to return employees to work starting in June or July, based on a schedule set by state officials in April that indicated that by now, North Carolina could be moving into its final stages of reopening.

Instead, state officials said last week that they are concerned that the virus continues to spread at a faster rate than they had hoped, and they held off on reopening businesses including bars and gyms and mandated wearing masks while in public. Other states are taking similar steps.

Companies are being cautious.

“With cases rising and Phase 3 being pushed out a little later, I think that is also pushing back some of the bigger moves,” said Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte City Partners, which works to enhance the city’s uptown area. Most of his organization’s 25 employees have been working from home and had planned to return to the office on a rotating basis when North Carolina’s Phase 3 started. Now, that’s at least another three weeks away.

School decision ahead: Another key decision on returning to the office looms this week: Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to announce by Wednesday the terms for students to return to school in August. Options include at least partial at-home virtual instruction, which would likely keep tens of thousands of Charlotte parents at home at least part-time for months.

Charlotte’s center city usually has about 130,000 workers. Smith said he has no estimate of how many are working uptown nowadays. Most big employers seem to have most of their office workers at home, though certain jobs require being in the office. Some smaller companies have brought workers back, though many are on flexible schedules that don’t require everybody to be in the office at once. There’s a lot of variety in what companies are doing, Smith says.

He says he is optimistic that companies will start returning their employees to offices when it is safe, because studies have shown that creativity and efficiency are enhanced by in-person collaboration. Some companies have noted increases in productivity from at-home workers but worry about burnout and the effect on corporate culture by having so many people working alone at home.

It is unclear how quickly and how much demand for office space will increase, as people are becoming more accustomed to working from home. Before the pandemic, the demand for Charlotte office space outstripped the supply.

Vexing issues: Bringing workers back to the office raises many tricky issues, including how to configure workspaces, how to use elevators and how to deal with employees who are too fearful to return.

Here is how some of the city’s largest employers say they’re bringing workers back to the office:

  • Wells, which has about 26,000 local workers, says it is working to design “a thoughtful, phased plan for returning to the workplace” and will “use guidance from health experts to maintain a safe workplace for all employees,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. About 3/4 of its workers nationwide are working from home.

  • Bank of America, which employs about 16,000 local workers, says that when it brings workers back to the office, it will “move slowly and carefully, driven by business need, with safety as our highest priority.” It says it will give workers at least 30 days’ notice before calling them back to the office. About 24,000 of the bank’s 208,000 workers are working from offices, including branches, a spokesman said — the same figure the bank used a month ago.

  • Duke Energy, which has nearly 8,000 local workers, says about 60% of its 29,000 employees are working remotely, and that it plans to “transition back to normal work locations gradually in several phases that will span months.” It brought back about 200 workers to offices this month. “We’ll closely monitor this approach and trends around the virus and adjust our plan accordingly,” a spokesman said in a statement to The Ledger. Workers are required to watch a 20-minute training video on safely returning to work.

Big jobs announcement this week?

We picked up some chatter from multiple reputable sources over the weekend about a huge economic development announcement that sounds as if it’s coming this week.

We’re told it could be one of the biggest deals in state history, if not the biggest. And it’s not in financial services — so let’s not get our hopes up that another big bank is moving its HQ here.

It just so happens that the state’s Economic Investment Committee is meeting Wednesday at 11 a.m., a Commerce Department spokesman told The Ledger on Sunday. It approves Job Development Investment Grants, or JDIGs, which are usually part of big state economic development packages.

The largest incentive package to a company in North Carolina is thought to be the 2005 offer to Dell that totaled $260M. More recently, government incentives dangled last year to attract the Lowe’s tech hub going up in South End were worth an estimated $72M.

City officials have said in recent months that they are pursuing several business expansions or relocations. In addition, there is one line of thinking that Charlotte is well-positioned to gain jobs from other cities, as businesses and workers flee densely populated areas that have been hit the hardest by the coronavirus — but it remains to be seen if that is accurate or just wishful thinking.

Stay tuned. —TM

Today’s supporting sponsors are T.R. Lawing Realty

… and Landon A. Dunn, Attorney at Law in Matthews:

Photo essay: Creatives at work

Continuing with our weekly photo essay series in partnership with The Biscuit, this week’s photographer is Mitchell Kearney. Mitchell has traveled the world over and photographed some of rock’s biggest legends. For us, he used his lens to share portraits of other Charlotte creatives — especially those living in the Oakhurst area — during the pandemic.

Osiris Rain, a fine artist/muralist, is at work creating his latest mural in NoDa.
Scott Swimmer (center) and his family gathered at Misty Meadow Farms for what was to be the 14th Annual DRUMSTRONG event. (It has been postponed until October.)
Violinist Alicia Driver takes a bow for an audience of two at The Evening Muse in NoDa.

Check out the full gallery here.

Each week, The Biscuit and The Ledger offer views of neighborhoods and communities across the city through the eyes (and lenses) of local photographers.

Coronavirus attacked with new ad campaign

Local business and government leaders are launching a $150,000, 12-week marketing campaign urging local residents to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

Jennifer Appleby of Wray Ward outlined the plans to the Mecklenburg County Covid-19 Business Leaders Roundtable last week. It includes billboards, digital and print ads and social media under the name “Count on Me CLT.” It is aimed to raise awareness of the seriousness of the coronavirus and to let people know how to prevent the spread. Money for the ads comes from the Covid-19 Response Fund, which gives money to local nonprofits and gets its money from donations by local businesses, the city and the county.

The campaign targets groups who most need to hear the message, such as young people (aged 13 to 39), as well as groups that have had disproportionate numbers of cases or deaths, including Hispanics and African-Americans. The first ad in the campaign was donated by the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority and appeared in Friday’s Charlotte Business Journal. (Officials did not say if reading the Business Journal is linked to higher risk of catching the virus.)

Other plans for the campaign including having sports mascots wear masks (“Really would be engaging for the young people,” Appleby said). Slogans include “Wear your heart on your face to spread compassion, not the virus”; “It’s better 6 feet apart than 6 feet under”; “In your face, coronavirus”; and “The farther the better, like your mother-in-law.” —TM

Charlotte planning director says ‘it’s time to explore’ impact fees

Economists: Renewed Covid threat will ‘weigh on the recovery’

Economists at Wells Fargo put out a research note Friday that cautioned that the recent increases in Covid cases in the South, including in North Carolina, imperil the country’s economic recovery. They said:

We recently wrote that a growing number of coronavirus cases in several metro areas in the Sun Belt region could inhibit economic activity in those areas and potentially set back the broader economic recovery. Since then, public health conditions in those areas appear to be getting worse, meaning a smooth climb back towards prior peak levels is beginning to look increasingly less likely. …

Even in the absence of new regulations, the renewed threat of the coronavirus will likely lead to more cautious consumer and business behavior and weigh on the recovery nationwide. …

The increase in positive tests in the Sun Belt is also among significantly younger persons, which helps explain why hospitalizations have not yet ramped up in line with new cases. While the spread has picked up among the young, the threat is across the entire economy and we expect the pace of re-openings to slow as households and businesses exercise more caution.

In brief:

  • Fuller flights: American Airlines will start booking flights to full capacity this week. Charlotte’s dominant carrier “will continue to notify customers if their flight is likely to be full and let them change flights at no extra cost” and will also “let passengers change seats on the plane if there is room and if they stay in the same cabin.” Previously, American booked flights to 85% capacity by leaving about half the middle seats empty. (Associated Press)

  • Charlotte fireworks cancelled: The annual 4th of July fireworks show put on by the Charlotte Knights has been cancelled this year because of concerns about Covid-19. Fireworks this weekend in Belmont, Gastonia and Tega Cay appear to still be a go. (Observer/Charlotte on the Cheap)

  • Coming this afternoon: Look for an email announcing this year’s Charlotte Ledger 40 Over 40 Award recipients.

  • Cam to become a Patriot: Cam Newton is reported to have signed a one-year deal with the New England Patriots. “A source familiar with the Patriots’ thinking said the agreement with Newton was appealing to the team as a low-risk, high-reward situation, factoring in Newton’s health, a modest contract and New England’s transition at quarterback without [Tom] Brady.” (ESPN)

Taking stock

Unless you are a day trader, checking your stocks daily is unhealthy. So how about weekly? How local stocks of note fared last week (through Friday’s close), and year to date:

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The Charlotte Ledger is an e-newsletter and web site publishing timely, informative, and interesting local business news and analysis Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, except holidays and as noted. We strive for fairness and accuracy and will correct all known errors. The content reflects the independent editorial judgment of The Charlotte Ledger. Any advertising, paid marketing, or sponsored content will be clearly labeled.

Executive editor: Tony Mecia; Managing editor: Cristina Bolling; Contributing editor: Tim Whitmire; Reporting intern: David Griffith