This story was updated at 6:12 p.m. on Thursday, July 8, 2021, with more information.
Last year, companies around the U.S. scrambled to figure out how to shut down their offices and set up their employees for remote work as the COVID-19 virus suddenly bore down on the world.
Now, in a mirror image, they are scrambling to figure out how to bring many of those employees back.
Most companies are proceeding cautiously, trying to navigate declining COVID-19 infections against a potential backlash by workers who are not ready to return.
Chattanooga's biggest private employer, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, welcomed several hundred workers back to the office this week among those who volunteered to return to work at the company's Cameron Hill corporate headquarters. But most of the insurer's 5,485 workers in Chattanooga are still working remotely and the company has decided to allow more than two thirds of its workforce to work remotely most of the time even after the pandemic is over.
"The first phase of our voluntary return has been smooth so far – we had roughly 330-350 employees on our downtown Chattanooga campuses (Cameron Hill and Gateway) Tuesday and Wednesday, and attendance in our regional offices has been in line with our expectations," said Dalya Qualls, communications director for BlueCross. "We expect to remain in Phase One, with employees coming in voluntarily one day per week, for the next three weeks."
BlueCross, Unum and the Tennessee Valley Authority — the three biggest downtown office employers in Chattanooga with collectively more than 10,000 workers —don't plan to be back to full staffing downtown until after Labor Day and, even then, the companies are looking at more flexible work arrangements for many of their workers.
Wendy Gibson, senior vice president of corporate services at Unum, said about 25% of Unum's workers who traditionally worked full-time in the office are coming to the downtown headquarters each week, which is a steady increase from the height of the pandemic. After Labor Day, Unum home office employees will move to a flex schedule that includes the option of two remote days each week.
"This flexible work model aligns with our agile and inclusive culture," Gibson said. "We'll continue to monitor the pandemic and adjust our approach, as needed."
TVA remains at maximum telework for its office workers and TVA has pledged to give workers adequate notice before they are recalled to their former work sites, TVA spokeswoman Malinda Hunter said.
Tensions have spilled into the public at a few companies where some staff have organized petitions or even walkouts to protest being recalled to the office. Many workers in high demand fields, such as tech or customer service, have options amid a rise in job postings promising "remote work" — an alluring prospect for people who moved during the pandemic to be closer to family or in search of more affordable cities.
"A lot of people have relocated and don't want to come back, " said Chris Riccobono, the CEO of Untuckit LLC, a casual men's clothing company. "There's a lot of crazy stuff that is a big day-to-day pain point."
Riccobono said he can't wait to get his 100 corporate staffers back to the office in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood because he believes that productivity and morale are higher that way. Starting in September, the company will require those employees to report to the office Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays on the hope that the flexibility of a "hybrid" schedule will keep everyone happy.
Many others are similarly introducing a gradual return. Companies like Amazon and automakers Ford and General Motors have promised to adopt a hybrid approach permanently for their office staff, responding to internal and public surveys showing an overwhelming preference for work-from-home options.
At BlueCross, Qualls said the company is seeking a more flexible approach she says "will help improve work-life balance for employees, allowing those who thrive in an office to do so – but with the option to work from home. It will also provide employees who enjoy working from home the ability to continue, while still being able to attend meetings in person and see their coworkers when needed," she said.
But implementing a hybrid workplace can be a headache, from identifying which roles are most conducive to remote work to deciding which days of the week employees need to be in the office. There are client meetings to consider. And some business leaders argue newer employees need more face-time as they begin their careers or start new at at company.
"Thursday is the new Monday," according to Salesforce, a San Francisco-based technology firm, which found that Thursday was the most popular day for employees to report to the office when the company reopened its Sydney offices back in August.
Riccobono, on the other hand, insists employees show up on Mondays to get organized and set the tone for the week. Like many employers, however, he acknowledges he is still figuring things out as he navigates uncharted territory.
"We will revisit in January, " he said. "We will see how it works."
Across the country, office buildings in the top 10 U.S. cities had an average occupancy rate of about 32% in late June, according to estimates from Kastle Systems a security company that monitors access-card wipes at some 2,600 buildings. In Manhattan, just 12% of office employees had returned as of late May, according to the latest survey by the Partnership for New York City, a non-profit organization of major business leaders and employers.
Romina Rugova, an executive at fashion brand Mansur Gavriel, enjoyed the tranquility as she sat on a riverside bench in lower Manhattan after a rare day back at the office for a meet-and-greet with the company's newly hired head of e-commerce.
A mother of two, Rugova had mixed feelings about returning to the office. Seeing colleagues in person after so long was invigorating, and she did not always enjoy blurring her family and professional life.
"The challenge is you have to be three people at the same time. You have to be a professional, you have to be a cook, you have to be a cleaner, you have to be a mom," Rugova said. "Being in the office after a while was so nice and refreshing. It's completely different experience, you don't realize it."
But she doesn't want to completely give up the three hours of extra time she saves without the commute. Many of her colleagues feel the same way, so Mansur Gavriel will likely implement a flexible policy when most of its 40 employees return to the office after Labor Day.
"We are still figuring it out," Rugova said.