Lynn Tillotson, president of Visit Portland, sits in an empty conference room on Congress Street on Friday, May 7, 2021. Tillotson's company used to have 11 people working in the office before the pandemic. Only four remain plus a recent new hire. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Many Maine employees who spent the past year working from home do not want to return full-time to their offices, leaving businesses to devise hybrid schedules and reconfigure workspaces.

Most nonessential Maine businesses sent employees home in March 2020 as the state imposed pandemic restrictions. A little over a year later, offices are gradually reopening, with more usual flexibility. Many have polled employees about their comfort level with returning to the office and are allowing some remote work to continue, at least for a while. At the same time, workers have established new ways of working with each other from home, without the office commute, and they’d like to keep it that way.

A recent questionnaire answered by Bangor Daily News readers found that many wanted to continue working from home at least part of the time. Almost all said they would prioritize future employers that offered remote work and some said they would quit their job if they are not allowed to work remotely, reflecting sentiment across the country.

A small sign hangs outside the Visit Portland office on Congress Street on Friday May 7, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

More than 80 percent of workers nationally said they enjoy working from home, according to a national survey released in January by LiveCareer. Nearly two-thirds said they will prioritize future employers who offer work from home and 29 percent said they would quit their jobs if not allowed to continue working remotely.

Businesses said a key to getting people back to the office is to talk openly about any concerns before returning and to establish policies for masking and cleaning common areas.

“We just had a really good open conversation and I think that really helped to make the people feel comfortable, but I certainly wouldn’t go to force anyone to come in if they didn’t want to,” Lynn Tillotson, president and CEO of the tourism nonprofit Visit Portland, said.

The office shut in March 2020 and reopened this month. The nonprofit employed 11 people before the pandemic hit, but it laid off seven of them. It is supported by members, mostly in the hard-hit hospitality industry. Remaining workers have come back to a much different office, one where half of the space is empty because of the layoffs. She said workers have felt good about getting out of their homes and returning to the office, but she would be flexible if staff want to work from home occasionally.

Lynn Tillotson, president of Visit Portland, works at her desk in an empty office on Congress Street on Friday May 7, 2021. Tillotson’s company used to have 11 people working in the office before the pandemic. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“Being in the same space and having a socially distanced conversation with a real human and not the ‘Brady Bunch screen’ was so welcome,” she said, referencing video calls.

Other small businesses are finding it tough to configure small spaces in a safe way. Kelsey Moore, outreach coordinator for the Frenchman Bay Conservancy in Hancock, said the land trust’s office is not set up for social distancing because it is a single room with cubicles.

Starting in June, the staff of four will each spend two or three days a week in the office. The plan is to have everyone back full time in the fall. Moore said the emphasis is on making sure everyone feels comfortable, and the staff have been talking regularly about how they feel about returning.

Moore said she did go into the office a few times over the past year, but it felt eerie with no one else there. The experience made her realize the importance of the small in-person interactions that she took for granted.

“I think people get burnt out from remote work because they feel like they need to be on all the time,” she said. “You don’t have the five minutes with your coworker to ask them how their morning was.”

Kyle Blanchette, an inventory forecaster at L.L. Bean, said his job can easily be done remotely. He has worked from home for the past 13 months, and he won’t return to the office until the summer of 2022 because L.L. Bean is expanding its headquarters.

One car sits in the parking lot outside Visit Portland’s offices on Congress Street on Friday May 7, 2021. Before the pandemic, 11 people worked in the office. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Working with a team of 15 people split between Freeport and Costa Rica, he said he misses face-to-face interactions, but gets more done working alone at home. At L.L. Bean, workers will be brought back to the office in stages, he said, with those like him who can do all their work remotely being the last to return to the office.

“It would be nice to have a couple days at home and not have to commute, but I’d like to balance it out with some in-person interactions at work,” Blanchette said.

WEX, the financial services company based in Portland with 1,500 employees in Maine, also is bringing people back in stages. Employees have the option to work from home through July 1, Melissa Smith, president and CEO, said. Once they return to the office, they will have safety criteria to follow. The company is opening locations based on area risk profiles.

“We’re working through exactly what it’s going to look like, but we do have an emphasis around flexibility,” Smith said.