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The Unum building is seen from the Republic Centre building Thursday, May 28, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Republic Centre is the tallest building in Chattanooga.

Chattanooga's biggest downtown employers didn't open their offices Friday when a water main break cut off water service across most of the central city, but for many workers it was no day off from work.

Most workers at the headquarters of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Unum and TVA's Office of Power shifted their work sites from downtown to their home, turning to laptop computers, cell phones and tablets to handle their daily tasks.

Even with more than 7,000 workers at the three biggest downtown office employers not able to come to the office, the work went on by shifting work to other sites and relying upon employees doing their job at home.

"Telecommuting is definitely a huge advantage for us on a day like this," said Scott Pierce, chief operating officer for BlueCross, which handled thousands of phone calls and bill paying transactions with telecommuting workers and BlueCross employees at other company sites. "We realized we couldn't open our main office and keep sanitary conditions without any water so we told all of our telecommuters to keep working at home and to pick up the slack. Combined with shifting some work to our Memphis office, that worked pretty well today and we were able to keep up with our phone volume and answer 80% of our calls within 30 seconds."

Telecommuting by the numbers

26.2 million: Number of U.S. workers who worked at home at some point last year

4.7 million: Number of U.S. workers who regularly worked full time at home last year

3.4%: Share of total U.S. workforce working remotely at least half of the time

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, GlobalWorkplaceAnalystics.com

BlueCross has 1,993 full-time telecommuters and another 3,657 additional employees able to work remotely, company spokesman John Hawbaker said.

Across town, Unum also told workers not to come to its downtown headquarters Friday and to work from home when water was unavailable at Unum's headquarters buildings in downtown Chattanooga. Preston Rogers, assistant vice president of Unum's customer contact centers, said about 10% of Unum's 10,000-employee staff are telecommuters who regularly work from hom. But nearly 80% of the staff have computer links and are able to work from home in emergency situations like what developed Friday, Rogers said.

"We plan for days like this so this is not unanticipated," he said. "We have very strong business resiliency plans and we practice for these type of events one of two times a year."

On a typical day, Unum gets about 25,00 incoming calls from customers but nearly half of those coming to the Chattanooga headquarters are handled by those working from home. On Friday, the number of at-home workers jumped much higher and Unum also used its offices in Portland, Maine, Columbia, South Carolina and Worcester, Massachusetts to handle some of the call volume.

"Even though it was far from business as usual, we were able to handle all of our calls and service our customers on a fairly normal basis," Rogers said.

Friday's success in keeping business flowing despite the closing on the company's headquarters facility underscores one of the key advantages of telecommute work, which has grown at Unum from 6% of the staff in 2006 to 10% today and will likely continue to grow, company officials said.

"A huge focus of our workspace strategy is flexibility," Unum spokesperson Kelly Spencer. "Empowering our employees to have remote-working options also helps support Unum's comprehensive business continuity plans. Many employees could work from home today, and business could operate as usual thanks in part to the commitment we've made to flexible arrangements and telecommuting."

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which has several thousand workers at its Chattanooga Office Complex and power headquarters in downtown Chattanooga, shifted control of its power operations to its backup site off of Amnicola Highway Friday and told other office workers not to come downtown when water was unavailable for bathrooms and cooling in the TVA complex.

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Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press - July 25, 2012 - The BlueCross BlueShield complex features a modern architectural campus atop Cameron Hill in downtown Chattanooga.

"In a situation like today, there are emergency plans in place to ensure that we can continue to provide reliable energy to the Valley even if we aren't in our normal seats for the day," Hunter said. "Those in critical operations roles and support roles move to alternate locations where they still have the tools they need to keep the lights on across the Valley. It's a smooth process as we train and drill on emergency situations like this regularly.

Hunter said all TVA employees have the ability to access their email via a smart phone or mobile device. TVA IT has a secure system in place for employees to remotely access TVA applications.

Pierce said he expects the share of work done at home by telecommuting workers will continue to grow at BlueCross and other companies as events like Friday highlight the advantages of telecommuting work.

"A lot of workers really like it and it helps us to recruit and keep people," he said. "Having our operations dispersed is certainly helpful in time like this and allows us to continue to grow our business within the same office space that we have."

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 26.2 million workers, or nearly 24% of all persons on the jobs, worked at home at some point last year.

The number of people telecommuting in the U.S. increased 159% between 2005 and 2017, according to data compiled by the American Community Survey by Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.

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