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Chattanooga-area workers return to the office, but more work is now remote

In March 2020, in just days, schools, churches, restaurants and offices of all sizes were emptied as employers sent workers home as the COVID-19 outbreak worsened.

Two years later, most people are finally back to a more normal life. But office work at some of Chattanooga’s biggest employers will never be the same.

Forced to work remotely to limit the potential spread of the virus, employees quickly adapted to working from home and, in many cases, found they were more productive and liked not having to make the daily commute to in the office.

“We’ve been extremely flexible during this time, and we’ve proven that we can be successful with more than 70% of our employees working from home,” Amanda Thompson, director of human resources at US Xpress Enterprises, said in an interview. telephone.

After months of discussions about the changes and talks about returning workers, Thompson said US Xpress finally decided this spring to continue long-term remote work for most of the 1,400 workers at its headquarters in Chattanooga. .

“Our offices are open and available for work, and some of our employees are still required to work onsite,” Thompson said. “But for those who were working from home, we chose a more permanent remote status.”

US Xpress Enterprises, one of the nation’s largest long-haul trucking companies with nearly 10,000 drivers and other workers nationwide, is among several of Chattanooga’s largest office employers that have decided to allow permanently a large part of their workforce to do their work remotely after the pandemic.

Decline in turnover

At BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, more than 85% of the company’s more than 6,000 employees now work under an arrangement in which most of their work is done from home, but workers can come into the office if needed. they want it. Roy Vaughn, senior vice president at BlueCross, said surveys showed 94% of employees thought BlueCross’ approach, called FlexWork, was right for them.

“We’ve seen that this commitment to flexibility helps us attract and retain top talent now.” — Roy Vaughn, senior vice president of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee

“We believe flexibility is real currency in today’s world as our employees seek to integrate work into their personal lives,” he said in an emailed statement. “We have experienced a much lower turnover rate than what we have seen at other large employers, and we attribute this in part to our flexible working model which provides the option to work in the office or remotely most of the time. weather. “

Employees are encouraged to come to BlueCross headquarters at the top of Cameron Hill for frequent meetings and face-to-face contact with colleagues and managers, but much of most employees’ day-to-day work can be done from home .

“We’ve seen that this commitment to flexibility helps us attract and retain top talent now,” Vaughn said. “We listened to what employees told us they wanted, and it shows.”

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Chattanooga-area workers return to the office, but more work is now remote

Thompson also said US Xpress was more successful in recruiting and retention by being more flexible in its working arrangements. To help build company culture and promote worker interaction, Thompson said US Xpress is planning a series of occasional in-person summits at corporate headquarters “so we can create the atmosphere to try to ensure that we engage our people and that they are learning from each other.”

While workers who like to come into the office may choose to do so, most head office staff will be working from home most of the time.

Hybrid Exploration

At the Tennessee Valley Authority, most office workers continue to work from home, at least some of the time, as the utility undergoes a six-month “hybrid exploration.” While factory and maintenance workers stayed on the job during the pandemic at TVA, a majority of TVA’s 10,000 employees initially transitioned to working from home, and a majority of TVA’s office workers are still working remotely. , at least some of the time .

“Frankly, in many areas of our workforce, we’ve actually seen an increase in our productivity through remote working.” — Jeff Lyash, President of TVA

“I think you’re going to see expectations around employee flexibility,” TVA chief operating officer Don Moul told TVA’s board in February. “The employee market has become increasingly competitive, and flexibility is something everyone appreciates in their work-life balance. »

TVA President Jeff Lyash said companies like TVA have learned how to better operate and oversee staff working from home.

“We’ve made great strides in how we apply technology and how we use our IT system and incorporate video into our meeting formats,” Lyash said. “Frankly, in many areas of our workforce, we’ve actually seen increases in our productivity through remote working. So rather than just going back to the workplace as it was before the pandemic, we have tried to build a vision for the future that will capture all of these lessons and benefits that we have seen and leverage them for productivity, efficiency and cost reduction in the future.”

Find the right balance

At Unum, company spokeswoman Natalie Godwin said the insurance giant now also operates as a hybrid company. Each week, approximately 45% of Unum’s more than 2,500 local employees travel to the company’s downtown headquarters.

“We believe in the benefits of in-person interactions and the flexibility of working remotely,” she said in an emailed statement. “It’s about finding the right balance to support our customers and employees. This flexible working model aligns with our agile and inclusive culture.”

Godwin said Unum will continue to monitor the pandemic and adjust its approach as necessary.

While most large office companies employ a combination of in-person and remote working for different jobs, Cigna Healthcare chose last year to move its entire staff of 450 employees in East Brainerd to remote jobs. . Cigna decides to permanently close its 98,652 square foot office and allow call center and support staff work to be done from home by its employees. The vacated 95-acre campus is now considered a site for a new Hamilton County school.

Smaller spaces

Derek English, president of the Greater Chattanooga Realtors Association, said office workers’ shift to remote working has weakened the commercial real estate brand in Chattanooga with fewer workers commuting to the office or eating in restaurants. near. But in a report last month, English said the overall commercial property market, although much slower than the hot residential market, is again showing signs of growth.

“In March 2020, many businesses closed temporarily, and unfortunately many of those closures turned into permanent closures,” English said. “This trend has led to a period of uncertainty for the commercial real estate market. However, there are encouraging signs that the national commercial real estate situation is beginning to adjust to these new circumstances.”

A recent National Association of Realtors survey found that 65% of respondents said more businesses are adopting a hybrid work schedule, and 63% of real estate owners contacted said more businesses in their local markets are leasing space. smaller than the pre-pandemic level.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter @dflessner1.

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