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Is more telecommuting here to stay in SC? It might be hard to say.

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A product manager works remotely from his apartment in Charleston. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

The amount of time people are spending in physical workplaces in South Carolina is down roughly 18 percent compared to January 2020, data from Google and the economic tracker at Opportunity Insights show. 

The online search giant's COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports offer just a snapshot of its users' movements. Whether the changes are here to stay is harder to say. 

Google is able to collect the information from wireless phones when the owners turn on the "location history" setting. The results it shares don't include any individual-level information, so they're kept anonymous. Among the other insights: Travel to retail stores and restaurants started to recover to pre-pandemic levels in March, but overall, South Carolinians are still spending less time away from their homes compared to January 2020.

South Carolina's unemployment rate — 5.1 percent in March, up from 3 percent a year before — can't account on its own for Google's data showing people spending less time at workplaces.

But knowing how widely remote work has been adopted, and especially how likely it is to stick, is just as hard to pinpoint.

Patricia Mokhtarian, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Tech, said reliable data showing remote work is hard to come by.

Information about the increase in telecommuting is mostly coming from polls, Mokhtarian said, and surveys might not capture what's happening in specific geographic areas like South Carolina. For instance, a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey showed executives' attitudes toward remote work is shifting, with 83 percent of employers saying remote work has been a success.

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Long-distance teleworking in particular may not be as prevalent as some might assume, even during COVID-19, Mokhtarian said. Most people who work remotely do so only part of the time.

Before the pandemic, remote work was seeing an uptick in South Carolina and across the country, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. But the size of the statewide labor force that reported working remotely was still modest, at about 5 percent, and in line with the national rate.

Generally speaking, Mokhtarian said, telecommuting is an advantage enjoyed by higher-income employees.

"I suspect it's an option extended to highly skilled and possibly hard-to-find workers," she said. "It will be more of a minority option than a rule."

Some companies have moved to make changes already.

For example, Blackbaud Inc., the Daniel Island-based company that sells software and technology services to nonprofit organizations, came into 2021 "having roughly halved our real estate footprint," finance chief Tony Boor said earlier this year during a call with investors.

Boor estimated at the time that decisions to purchase its headquarters and exit leases for other offices around the world will yield $14 million in annual savings.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-607-4312. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

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