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Some things will never change, but remote toil could revamp the workplace landscape

Justin Robertson, a full-time staffer, works at state liquor store in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.
Justin Robertson, a full-time staffer, works at a state liquor store in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — While the numbers are down significantly from a peak early in the COVID-19 pandemic, some 33 million U.S. workers are still toiling from remote locations in a massive, albeit compulsory, experiment in redefining the American workplace.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, those 33 million employees represent just under a quarter of the total U.S. workforce, and the Utah Department of Workforce Services believes that ratio likely holds up amid the state’s 1.6 million wage earners.

The timeline for a safe, en masse return to the in-person workplace remains hazy, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that many of those now grinding it out from home are having a fine time and are in no hurry to revert to commuter days. With the increasing possibility of a tidal wave of new, permanently out-of-office employees comes the realization the workplaces left behind last spring by the 400,000 or so current remote Utah workers may never look the same again.

Some 40% of the respondents in a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll said they were working from home either partially or fully, and 30% said they believe their remote work situations won’t change by the end of the year. The survey of 1,000 likely Utah voters was conducted Oct. 12-17 by independent pollster Scott Rasmussen. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Drew Ellsworth, a part-time clerk, stocks wine at a state liquor store in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.
Drew Ellsworth, a part-time clerk, stocks wine at a state liquor store in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

A survey conducted by the Utah Clean Air Partnership of 7,500 Utah employees and employers found that an overwhelming majority of those working from home reported numerous benefits like increased productivity, zero commute times, money savings and increased time with loved ones. Employers also logged rosy reports, noting their own cost savings, improved employee attitudes and increased productivity.

High employee satisfaction has also been an earmark of the state of Utah’s foray into remote work and it’s one that started, quite serendipitously, well before COVID-19 became part of the landscape.

Jeff Mottishaw, senior consultant for the Utah Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, said the state began winding up an effort to conduct a broad test of telecommuting back in 2018. The idea was to assess whether remote working could help the state reach multiple, and disparate, goals in one fell swoop.

Mottishaw said a successful launch of teleworking at scale could help address air quality issues by taking cars off the road, mitigate an increasing shortage of physical workspace for state employees, move a portion of the jobs concentrated along the Wasatch Front to rural Utah communities yearning for some economic gusto, and help boost employee productivity and morale by adopting some new and positive work flexibility options.

Freddie Rico rings up Sam Tyler at a state liquor store in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.
Freddie Rico rings up Sam Tyler at a state liquor store in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The state launched a beta test in late 2018 that ran through spring 2019 and gave 135 employees across four agencies an opportunity to put remote work through its paces.

Mottishaw said the outcomes of the test were surprising, including changes to worker productivity over the course of the pilot.

“We saw an overall increase of about 20% with the group,” Mottishaw said. “We really weren’t expecting to see that. As we talked to employees about the experience, we learned that, for many of the test group, remote work helped reduce office distractions and being able to dispense with commuting and traveling to meetings led to better outcomes.

“And the remote work experiment also led to improvements in a lot of processes that were due for updating.”

Mottishaw noted that many state employees have jobs that simply do not transfer to telecommuting and cited Utah Highway Patrol personnel, many employees of the Utah Department of transportation, all the in-store workers at state liquor outlets, state prison workers and others. But Mottishaw said analysis and feedback from department leaders identified that about 38% of state employees, around 8,500 workers, have jobs that are transferable to remote work status.

He said after the positive results of the pilot last year, the work was already underway to lay the groundwork for a sizeable, but phased, effort to open the doors to remote working options for thousands of state employees. That included building up the necessary technology infrastructure to make that happen, as well as having plans in place for each area of state government to make the anticipated influx of telecommuting meld with various workflows and responsibilities.

So, a full year before the pandemic hit, state government had already been preparing to accommodate a seismic shift to remote work, just under much different circumstances.

Mottishaw said even those who were skeptical about remote work seem to have crossed over after having their own positive experience. Now the state is trying to get a read on how many of those workers, forced into outbound work thanks to the public health crisis, would like to stay that way when the pandemic is behind us.

“We’re now starting to look at how many would prefer to stay remote past a return-to-work scenario,” Mottishaw said. “Assuming COVID-19 issues get addressed, what’s the future look like with this program?”

Salt Lake Chamber President/CEO Derek Miller also sees the long-running experiment in remote work as a relative success.

“I think we’ve all learned a lot over the past seven months,” Miller said. “Remote work is not at all a new concept, but out of necessity we’ve put it to a test and, first and foremost, we’ve found that it can work.

“In many ways, it’s highlighted that where we may not have seen flexibility before, we’ve found it.”

Miller also remains very concerned about some of the downstream impacts of the shift to remote work, particularly as they relate to those business that, like the majority of state workers whose tasks can’t be accommodated from home, don’t have an easy internet-based analog.

Miller noted every business across the state that relies on an in-person business model is struggling at some level. Most restaurants, many retailers, sporting and entertainment events and venues, fitness centers, recreation activities — and all the travel and accommodations that go with them — have seen business virtually evaporate amid the restrictions brought about by the novel coronavirus.

Miller said an informal chamber survey of downtown businesses had findings closely mirroring what respondents reported in the Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll about the number of employees working remotely versus those still reporting to work in person. When only 30% of the tens of thousands of pre-pandemic daily Salt Lake City commuters are headed downtown for work everyday, a downtown ecosystem that is so reliant on those humans is taking a massive hit.

Miller said he believes getting back to work can happen safely even amid the ongoing spike in COVID-19 cases.

“What we’re seeing, what businesses are showing is, we can get back to work safely,” Miller said. “I really want to see that happen. The current COVID-19 data reflects that most people are not getting sick from any workplace exposures but from outside of work, from those casual interactions.”

Besides laying low the models of so many Utah businesses, remote work comes with its own set of functional downsides.

More than half the respondents to the Utah Clean Air Partnership survey said their biggest concern was the limited connections with co-workers and a decreased “sense of team.”

Miller noted that in a world dominated by endless Zoom meetings, every conversation has to be scheduled and the isolation of remote working runs contrary to the “millennia of heredity that’s made us the social creatures that we are.”

Mottishaw noted not everyone has a personal predisposition, or home environment, that gels with remote work.

“There are always going to be a faction of people who just want to come to work at the office and for whom that is the best work setting,” Mottishaw said. “And some employees who have small homes or live in apartments may just be feeling stuck right now.”