RALEIGH – The COVID-19 crisis might have forced companies to shift millions to working remotely. But there are also some serious upsides, top execs are quickly finding out.

“Our number one savings has to be snacks,” joked Red Hat’s Chief People Officer DeLisa Alexander on Wednesday afternoon.

“And travel, what a huge cost savings. So we’re definitely thinking about how we re-invest in that.

Alexander was speaking as part of a Zoom video webinar organized by UNC’s Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise.

The focus: this new normal that businesses – big and small – find themselves in as people operate under a statewide “shelter in place” and the majority work from home.

Proof? Nearly 90 percent of NC tech companies have 50 percent or more of their employees working from home, executives told the North Carolina Technology Association in a new survey. And half say 100 percent of their employees are now laboring online.

This sudden shift, however, isn’t such as bad thing.

That’s according Arvind Malhotra, professor at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, who appeared as part of the webinar. He said he believes about two-thirds of jobs can be done at home – and many industries, not just high tech, stand to gain.

“If you ask me what kind of work you can do better, I’d say routine work where it’s data-driven upkeep maintenance, you get this bandwidth that you never thought you add, right, even if you have your kids running around,” he said.

Working from home becomes new normal for NC tech firms, survey finds

“If you balance that all well, I think creative and thinking work gets way better, especially because you have the reflective moments; you’re not fighting a daily fire, you’re not be constantly disrupted so there’s a there’s a flow of creativity. For me, it’s collaboration, if done right, be much better.”

The perks

Even before the crisis hit, Alexander emphasized, Red Hat already had a strong base to draw from.

Around 25 percent of its workforce is historically considered to be remote, she said.

However, she called it “unprecedented” to make the quick call to send the majority of teams home.

DeLisa Alexander shows off some of Red Hat’s trophies on display in a window overlooking the street late last year, before social distancing.

“It pushed us to change quickly as well,” she said.

They’re now reimagining “on the fly” to do everything virtually, including their major annual Red Hat Summit, which had been scheduled for San Francisco in late April.

And while they’re seeing some significant savings, they are also realizing some unexpected perks.

Red Hat has always prized itself on its “collaborative” culture, and Alexander contends that working virtually has become a great leveler.

“We have always encouraged teams to work in a way that honors the person who’s not in the room. But it’s really helping us to become experts … because no longer is anyone in the room together. It puts us in a totally different world.”

And does productivity take a hit? Just the opposite, said Alexander.

“What the situation is showing is, if you give people the right amount of flexibility, they certainly can be productive at home. I know this doesn’t apply to every industry in every role, but in roles that are more office-oriented roles where you’re using computers to communicate and collaborate, all day, every day, I think we’re learning that, yes, remote work can be incredibly productive.”