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Freightwaves CEO Craig Fuller talks about the expansion of the Chattanooga business in the offices at 1500 Chestnut St. / Staff file photo by Tim Barber

Working from home is shifting from temporary measure to steady state for some Chattanooga companies, including FreightWaves, whose 130 employees will become permanently remote, founder and CEO Craig Fuller said.

"We did a survey of our staff and only 10% of our team wanted to come back full time," said Fuller, who launched the Chattanooga-based freight data and analytics startup in 2016. "Our plans long term are not to have anybody come to the office other than the production crew."

The company will keep its downtown headquarters on Cherry Street, and about 18 people will come to there regularly for video production, Fuller said. Once it's safe to gather again, the team will come together on the first floor for events and meetings, he said.

"We'll keep that as a communal space," he said. "It was a great meeting spot."

But the headquarters, which is 22,000 square feet on two floors, was already getting tight, and the company had considered expanding into the nearby John Ross building at Market and Fourth streets. That won't happen now, Fuller said.

"We were out of space, anyway, and we were looking at expansion," he said. "We have no desire to do that now."

The business hasn't missed a beat in terms of productivity, and while the coronavirus crisis that forced everyone out of the office is a terrible circumstance, it has also prompted some changes that aren't all bad, Fuller said.

"There's an opportunity here to rewrite modern work and modern society," he said.

The coronavirus crisis has emptied offices across the country. Data from the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates half of workers in the U.S. now work from home, including 35.2% who report they were commuting before April and switched to working from home.

It remains to be seen how many businesses will opt to stay permanently home to work, but American Exchange co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Andrew Hetzler said he thinks the trend will grow.

"I think a lot of companies are going to start making the switch," said Hetzler, who co-founded American Exchange in 2013 to help people navigate the individual health insurance market.

The company has 23 employees who had been based in a 2,500-square-foot space in the Fleetwood Building on 11th Street. In late May, they made the decision to go permanently remote.

"Once we realized there weren't any big hiccups or bottlenecks to working from home, we said, 'Hey, we can do this,'" Hetzler said.

They'll save the cost of their lease, and they'll be able to hire people from anywhere — an advantage as open enrollment season approaches and the company grows its temporary workforce to help people navigate health insurance coverage options in the individual market.

"We hire seasonally for open enrollment, and trying to find that in Chattanooga was getting harder," Hetzler said.

Since FreightWaves will maintain its building, the savings there won't come from rent or utilities, but from reduced travel, entertainment and events, Fuller said. And the benefits of a closer-to-home lifestyle have hit more than just the bottom line, Fuller said.

"My doctor who's known me for 20 years told me today my blood pressure is the best he's ever seen it," he said.

Not everyone is sold, however, on the remote approach. At Steam Logistics, an international logistics firm founded in 2012, about half of the company's 81 employees are back in the office downtown, said Brittany Paone, human resources manager.

"We started a phased-in approach in May, and we don't foresee having a full staff in-house at the end of this year," she said. "Hopefully 2021 will be the year we can all reunite."

Employees are allowed to return if they want to, she said, and there are no plans to go fully remote.

"We will always have an office space, and we would love to see it filled at capacity again one day," Paone said.

Major employers have been cautious in bringing back their employees as the pandemic has persisted, and at least one has no plans to get back to previous occupancy levels.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga's major office employers in no rush to bring workers back to the office.)

In July, only a few hundred of the more than 5,000 employees of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee were coming to the corporate campus to do their jobs. Even at the undetermined point when more people return, the company plans to have more than half its employees work fully remotely, a company spokesman said.

At Chattanooga-based trucking company U.S. Xpress, roughly 1,400 employees have been working from home since March, and leaders recently announced that the office won't reopen this year, said CEO Eric Fuller.

"We're coming back in January at the earliest," said Eric Fuller, brother of Craig Fuller. "We wanted employees to have that line of sight of not having to worry about going back to the office."

About half of TVA's roughly 10,000 workers are working remotely through at least Labor Day, and maybe longer, a company spokesman said.

In addition, about 85-90% of Unum's roughly 2,800 Chattanooga-based employees are working remotely.

"We expect to see more employees return to the office for a few days each week as schools and child care facilities reopen," said company spokeswoman Kelly Spencer.

The company has no plans to transition to a permanent work-from-home environment, but will remain flexible for individual circumstances, she said.

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.

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