May 30 | Chattanooga Times Free Press: Coronavirus empties offices, reshapes work in Chattanooga

Coronavirus empties offices, reshapes work in Chattanooga

Chattanooga Times Free Press
Dave Flessner
May 30, 2020

 

In 2009 after years of planning and development, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee reshaped the downtown skyline of its hometown by relocating more than 4,000 employees who previously worked in a half dozen buildings in Chattanooga into a $299 million corporate headquarters built atop Cameron Hill.

Tennessee’s biggest health insurer said consolidating its staff and operations helped boost employee efficiency and morale while better protecting data security.

But barely a decade later, new technologies and the coronavirus have combined to upend such thinking and BlueCross is now planning to have a majority of its staff working from home even after the coronavirus is vanquished.

The Chattanooga-based health insurer has emptied out most of its headquarters during the coronavirus pandemic and found that it has been able to process claims and perform other business operations with more than 5,000 workers doing their jobs from their homes. BlueCross, which had grown its telework staff to about 1,100 of its nearly 6,800 workers at the start of this year, quickly revamped its work approach in March to boost its share of at-home workers up to 96% of the workforce.

In 13 days in March, BlueCross distributed 3,700 computer terminals and other support equipment for employees to work from home, and only about 235 were left doing their jobs in the company’s headquarters atop Cameron Hill this spring.

Nearly three months later, BlueCross still has 96% of its staff working from home “and our member and provider service levels continue to be very high,” company spokesman John Hawbaker said. As a result, BlueCross has decided to permanently keep 53% of its staff working from home more than half of the time and hundreds of other workers working at home part of the week, as their schedules and work needs dictate.

The shift to at-home work by Chattanooga’s biggest office employer is part of a major change in the way, or at least the location, of where thousands of Chattanoogans do their work every day. The shift to at-home work is expected to outlast the current coronavirus pandemic.

Before the pandemic, less than 4% of American employees worked from home full time. A study by the Brookings Institution estimates that share jumped to more than half of all workers soon after governments adopted stay-at-home orders. Among the top 20% of earners — who are more likely to have desk jobs that can be done from anywhere — that share rose to an estimated 70% of workers.

“Remote work is going to increase dramatically” after the crisis abates, says Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution. “There’s a demonstration effect that this current crisis is producing: It’s showing that work can be done from home.”

Global Workplace Analytics, a research consulting firm that tracks the trends in teleworking, estimates 56% of all jobs could be done, at least some of the time, at home in the United States.

At the Chattanooga-based Unum Group, 98% of the company’s 10,000-person staff shifted to at-home work when the coronavirus began to spread, and the insurer has kept most of those workers at home doing their jobs heading into the summer. Unum, the world’s biggest disability insurer, had about about 1,800 workers doing their jobs remotely from their own homes before COVID-19 emptied out most of the company’s offices.

Unum expects to boost the number of workers at its downtown headquarters during June and July to 10 to 15% of the total workforce but will spread out those workers who do come to the office and maintain office capacity at 50% of less for the foreseeable future.

“Our approach to return employees is slow, phased, and entirely up to the employee,” said Kelly Spencer, Unum’s communications manger who works on the company’s business resilience team.”We fully expect remote work to continue for many employees in the months ahead.”

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which changed work locations for 60% of its 10,000 workers in March from TVA facilities to employee homes, began bringing back a few of those remote workers to its offices in May. But the utility is making only a gradual transition to its old ways of doing business at its Chattanooga office complex.

“With the technologies available today, we feel we can be very effective in our overall productivity and service with more remote work options,” said Sue Collins, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at TVA. “If anything, we’ve found our workers doing their jobs from home during this crisis are working even harder and doing more than usual so we are certainly rethinking some of our approaches to how and where we work.”

Even companies that had not previously done much telework quickly adapted to the shift to at-home work and kept their businesses going.

HomeServe USA, true to its name, shifted its 500-employee Chattanooga staff to serve its customers from employees’ homes, rather than the company’s congregated call center on Lee Highway, in just 10 days in March. While doing so, one of America’s biggest home repair services kept answering phones and dispatching repair crews across the country.

“It was a remarkable shift in such a short period,” says Myles Meehan, the company’s senior vice president of marketing.

Lawyers who traditionally have a lot of face-to-face meetings with clients and in-person courtroom appearances have also joined the move to video conferences and remote meetings.

“As with most businesses, we’ve seen a shift to zoom meetings and depositions and a lot of conference calls and webex meetings,” said Justin Furrow, a labor and employment attorney at the Chambliss law firm in Chattanooga who also serves as co-chair of the firm’s COVID-19 response task force. “This has shown that it’s not always necessary to do as much travel and physically go to other people’s offices. But I do think there is something to be said about sitting down with someone in. room and talking with them about whatever issue you are dealing with at the time.”

Of course, many jobs in manufacturing, services and health care can’t be done at home. But the past three months have helped demonstrate that more work can be done by employees at home than many thought or planned for in the past and that is already revamping strategies, especially among America’s biggest tech companies.

Facebook announced last week that it would allow many employees to work from home permanently. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, told workers during a livestreamed staff meeting that within a decade as many as half of the company’s more than 48,000 employees would work from home. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told employees this month they can work from home as long as they see fit.

“It’s clear that COVID has changed a lot about our lives, and that certainly includes the way that most of us work,” Zuckerberg said. “Coming out of this period, I expect that remote work is going to be a growing trend as well.”