Chattanooga's biggest private employer has decided to keep most of its staff working from home as so-called "office work" has evolved during the pandemic into "homework" for thousands of white-collar workers in Chattanooga.
BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, which built a $299 million corporate campus atop Cameron Hill in 2009 to house a majority of its 6,300 employees, told its workers Friday it plans to keep most of its staff working remotely and won't require them to come to the office.
"Our people have made it clear that they value the ability to work from home and they want to keep it," BlueCross Vice President Dalya Qualls said in a statement Friday. "As a response to employee feedback, remote work is here to stay."
Only a few hundred employees are now regularly using their offices at the BlueCross headquarters in downtown Chattanooga and 88% of BlueCross's staff now works remotely, Qualls said.
Forced to work remotely to limit the potential spread of COVID-19 when it broke out in 2020, BlueCross and other employers quickly adapted to having workers telework from home. In many instances, they found that workers were more productive and liked not having to make the daily trek to the office.
Qualls said remote work has helped BlueCross both recruit and keep workers and "helps employees balance their whole lives and bring their best selves to their work." BlueCross surveys show that even newer employees hired since the pandemic began to say they still feel connected to the company and its mission while working remotely.
"Our company is performing well on all the key metrics we currently track, clearly showing that remote work benefits the organization as a whole," she said.
MORE HOMEWORK IN CHATTANOOGA
Although major U.S. employers such as Apple, Tesla, Disney and Goldman Sachs began requiring more workers to return to the office after Labor Day, Chattanooga's biggest office employers are taking a different approach, at least for now.
Local employers such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, Unum, Cigna, Freightwaves, Convergys and Homserve have all shifted their Chattanooga offices to mostly remote and hybrid work, and are allowing many workers to do their jobs at home.
Chattanooga's largest downtown office complex -- the 1 million-square-foot TVA power headquarters in the 1100 block of Market and Broad streets -- is regularly used by fewer than 500 employees, and some of those housed in the basement operations center will be relocated out of the downtown complex by 2024 to a new $300 million power center TVA is building in Meigs County.
TVA's Chattanooga Office Complex once had more than 2,000 workers.
"It is going to be different forever, and we're going to have to reevaluate all of our office spaces," TVA President Jeff Lyash said in an interview last week with the Chattanooga Times Free Press."The days of walled offices and dedicated cubicles, I think, are coming to an end. The long-term trend is going to be much less square footage and much more flexible uses."
Allowing workers to do their jobs remotely helps with recruitment, retention and productivity and offers opportunities to reduce office and travel expenses, Lyash said.
"We're engaging our employees in what this new model looks like, but we clearly have a large share of our workforce that will be more productive if they work in a hybrid environment," he said.
U.S. Xpress Enterprises, one of the nation's largest trucking companies, allows most of its 1,400 employees at its Chattanooga headquarters to work remotely some or all of the time.
"We have been extremely flexible during this time, and we've proven that we can be successful with over 70% of our people working from home," Amanda Thompson, chief people officer with U.S. Xpress Enterprises, said in an interview earlier this year.
CLOSING OFFICES, SHIFTING JOBS
Cigna last year closed and later sold its 98,000-square-foot East Brainerd office after COVID-19 forced the company in 2020 to shift its call-center work to employee homes. Cigna's 450 workers who previously gathered daily at the Hamilton Village complex now work from home, and company officials say a majority of workers report that they like it better and are just as or even more productive working remotely.
Unum, the world's biggest disability insurer, has more than 2,500 employees in Chattanooga, where it is headquartered. But most of the local staff works now on a hybrid basis and comes to the company's downtown offices only some of the time. Each week, about 45% of Unum's local employees come into the company's downtown headquarters.
"We are a hybrid company," Natalie Godwin, assistant vice president of external communications at Unum, said in an emailed statement. "We believe in the benefits of in-person interactions and the flexibility of remote working. It's about striking the right balance to support our customers and employees."
The permanent shift by some workers away from their company offices is likely to limit some of the downtown demand for office space and restaurants that cater to the downtown office employees.
Emily Mack, president of the River City Co., which works to promote and develop Chattanooga's central city, said downtowns are constantly adapting and must be more than just a place for office workers during weekday work hours.
"Downtowns have evolved and reinvented themselves over time and will continue to do so as markets change," Mack said by phone, noting that most downtowns began as retail hubs and later developed into office centers as stores migrated to the suburbs. "We've seen in the past few decades in many downtowns like Chattanooga that the central business district can also become a place for more restaurants, entertainment, nightlife and cultural venues."
Office space that may be vacated by more remote work can be reinvented with new types of housing, shopping, entertainment, housing and art facilities, Mack said.
"I think that this gives us the opportunity to work alongside these companies and organizations to reimagine and reposition those facilities or campuses for our community and to create very people-centered places," she said.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or 423-757-6340. Follow on Twitter at @Dflessner1