Photography by Skip Skipper/148 Films / Downtown Chattanooga is seen from the air above Coolidge Park on Chattanooga's North Shore.

In surveys of companies and employees for the Best Places to Work list, the qualities that make a place a great employer don't change much, despite the pandemic and a year that reinvented work, says Peter Burke, the founder of the Best Companies Group.

"The words pivot, reinvent, all became part of the vernacular," says Burke, whose 23-employee team has gone fully remote. "But being a best place to work isn't physical. It's communication, emotional connection, all those intangibles."

Best Companies Group added questions about remote work and plans to return to the office to its surveys, and many employers are grappling with that transition, Burke says.

"What we're seeing is that employees want to work at home most or all of the time, but people still want connection, they want to go in and see people, they want that in-person interaction," Burke says. "Employers have a big decision to make — am I going to hang onto an office building so people can get together once in a while?"

Burke had to make that decision himself, he says.

"I miss my team, I like seeing the team, but the reality is it doesn't make financial sense anymore," he says. "If everyone was clamoring to be back in the office, that would be one thing."

But the future of work isn't entirely clear, and may look a little more like the best of both worlds.

Most of the companies on this year's Best Places to Work list have brought a substantial number of employees back to the office with masks and social distancing in place. Two companies — Steam Logistics and Text Request — are more committed than ever to the office experience, and will expand their real estate footprints as vaccines roll out and their businesses grow.

"I don't see how you build a company culture over Zoom," says Text Request co-founder Rob Reagan.

When the lease was recently up on the space Text Request had occupied on the Southside for the last four years, company leaders opted to move into the heart of downtown and nearly double their space to 7,200 square feet in an office above Jack's Alley on Market Street.

Nearby, Steam Logistics is grabbing space recently vacated by Austin-based Arrive Logistics, doubling its 11,000-square-foot office on Market Street. Arrive shifted its 19-employee workforce to remote, but Steam is all in to grow and do it in person, CEO Jason Provonsha says.

How these Best Places to Work made the list

Local employers worked through an exhaustive survey process run by the Best Companies Group, which was founded 17 years ago by Peter Burke. Since its inception, Best Companies Group has established over 70 Best Places to Work programs throughout the United States and internationally. For one part of the survey, which launched in the fall of 2020, employers answered a list of 70 questions on everything from the demographics of their workforce to their benefits and community involvement. That element of the survey counts for 25% of the company’s overall score. For the second part, Best Companies Group surveyed employees, who submitted anonymous answers to a host of questions about their work environment and their overall engagement. That element of the survey counts for 75% of the company’s overall score — which means employees call the shots on these results. To make the cut, employers have to achieve both objectively high results on the survey, and have enough employees take the survey to make the results meaningful.

Google, one of the first companies to send workers home, recently made headlines with new remote guidelines that require anyone who wants to work from home more than 14 days a year after Sept. 1 to formally apply for permission.

And for all the talk about remote work, there are many essential roles that can't be done from home, whether it's delivering health care or bagging groceries, Burke adds. For those employers, a Best Place to Work means one that is observing strict safety protocols and putting the health and safety of its employees first, he says.

Frank Butler is a UC Foundation associate professor of management at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and co-host of the podcast "The Busyness Paradox." He sees the pandemic as a potential catalyst for rethinking what engagement and productivity look like.

Many New-York based financial services firms are pushing to get people back to work, citing a drop in productivity in home-based workers, he says. "Some understand that they have to adjust, but they really want people back in the office," he says.

But lost productivity may have been as much about the stressors of working in isolation and during a global crisis as it was working from home, he adds. "You're not having your normal outlets to decompress from work that you should," Butler says.

People with young families, and women in particular, have borne much of the brunt of juggling the work-from-home, school-from-home, no-daycare world, he says. This is the time to address those problems, he adds.

"Companies need to ask how they can provide the resources to help women continue to contribute to the success of our business," Butler says. "The likelihood of us having another pandemic is really high We're very global, and that genie isn't going to go back in the bottle."