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The Great Reshuffle: New poll finds a roil among places where we toil

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Katie Riser, Special Project and Volunteer Program Manager, works at her desk inside of the Salt Lake City and County Building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Seismic impacts on the function and philosophy of where we do our work, first wrought by COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, continue to be felt by business owners and employees as new definitions of the workplace are still being written.

While public health rules limiting in-person interactions and public gatherings have long passed, current workplace dynamics look nothing like those of the pre-pandemic world and a new normal, when it comes to where we toil, may be emerging.

A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll checked in with Utahns to find out where they’re spending their work days.

Of those surveyed who are currently employed, over half, 54%, said they are working entirely in an on-site setting. About one-fifth, 17%, are doing their jobs entirely from home, with 15% working a hybrid schedule but spending the majority of their time on-site, and 14% have a hybrid schedule that skews toward the home office.

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The statewide survey was conducted Oct. 3-6 by Dan Jones and Associates of 801 registered Utah voters. The polling data has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46%.

The new Deseret News polling data is similar to tracking by Salt Lake City’s Downtown Alliance that found, as of last month, about 54% of downtown employees have returned to on-site work compared to the same time in 2019.

Downtown Alliance Executive Director Dee Brewer said the current dynamic, which is seeing about 50,000 fewer daytime workers commuting to Salt Lake City’s central business district on weekdays, is a huge shift for Utah’s capital city.

“Our collective experience of the last two years has certainly reshaped the downtown workplace,” Brewer said. “And the numbers have been pretty consistent over the last six months.”

Brewer said it was too early to categorize the current downtown commuter influx as the “new normal” and that he expects to see the volume inch up, but how far the recovery will go remains unclear.

Brewer noted downtown businesses have embraced a variety of new workplace solutions, with hybrid work schedules a common approach for the companies that can accommodate them. But while daily commuter volumes are down sharply, Salt Lake City’s central business district is staying busy thanks to a healthy return of “social economy visitors” who are attending events, dining out and engaging with their favorite retailers. As of last month, the volume of social economy visitors was at 82% of pre-pandemic levels and has been trending upwards.

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Angela Price, left, Victor Tran, middle, and David Driskell, right, leave the Salt Lake City and County Building after having meetings in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Last month, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report detailing the national changes in workplace dynamic, and they are profound.

Between 2019 and 2021, the number of U.S. workers primarily working from home tripled from 5.7% (roughly 9 million people) to 17.9% (27.6 million people), according to latest 2021 American Community Survey data released last month.

The Census Bureau reports the 2021 data marks the highest number and percentage of people working from home recorded since the American Community Survey began in 2005.

“Work and commuting are central to American life, so the widespread adoption of working from home is a defining feature of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Michael Burrows, statistician in the Census Bureau’s Journey-to-Work and Migration Statistics Branch, in the new report. “With the number of people who primarily work from home tripling over just a two-year period, the pandemic has very strongly impacted the commuting landscape in the United States.” 

And an even larger percentage of Utah workers are engaging in shoes-optional work-from-home scenarios.

According to new Census Bureau data analyzed by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, 7.4% of Utahns worked primarily from home in 2019, a rate that shot up to 20% in 2021. In breakout data that only included rates for Utah counties and municipalities with 65,000 or more residents, Salt Lake County was top in the state for home-based workers with 23.5%. But South Jordan outstripped the rest of the state’s largest cities for its work-from-home rate of 28.5%, with Salt Lake City and Sandy rounding out the top three with 25.4% and 24.7%, respectively.

The big shift in remote work is being driven by new workplace flexibility options from public and private employers alike, many of whom found successful formulas when forced into unprecedented circumstances by pandemic restrictions.

Last month, Deseret News and Overstock.com hosted a roundtable discussion at which about two dozen Utah business leaders shared how they were navigating the present, and future, of workplace solutions.

To be sure, no consensus as to the optimum work environment has been reached and Utah companies are embracing approaches as diverse as the products and services they offer.

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Andrea Osojnak, an Engineer IV, works at her desk inside of the Salt Lake City and County Building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

At Utah outdoor gear maker Cotopaxi, leaders have embraced a shift in workplace philosophy that was unexpected but is now bearing measurable benefits, according to the employees themselves.

Cotopaxi co-founder and CEO Davis Smith said before making a shift that was precipitated by pandemic restrictions, he was solidly behind the concept of a daily, in-person workplace. But, in practice, the benefits of remote work revealed themselves.

“I was the biggest believer of working in the office,” Smith said. “I never worked at home, I discouraged employees from working at home and then that totally changed.

“In August of 2020, we decided we were a remote-first company.”

Smith said his foremost concern in making the change was bringing new staff into the mix who hadn’t had the opportunity to first build relationships in an in-person environment that could be carried into the remote realm. New and very intentional ways to promote team building and connectedness became part of Cotopaxi’s revised, remote-first modus operandi, and Smith said there’s plenty of data that reflects how well it’s worked.

Not only is productivity up, but in-house surveys reflect Cotopaxi employee morale is at levels any business leader would celebrate.

In a recent LinkedIn post, Smith shared the most recent results from the annual sentiment assessments, noting that 76% of the current Cotopaxi roster of about 300 employees were hired after the company shifted to a remote-first workplace policy.

• Eighty-seven percent rated their sense of belonging as an 8+ (47% rated it a 10).

• Ninety-one percent rated their sense of purpose as an 8+ (52% rated a 10).

• Seventy-eight percent say they are more productive working remotely. 6% report being less productive.

• Fifty percent say they are working more hours than pre-pandemic. Thirty-seven percent report their workload is unchanged. Note: When factoring in commute time, people work less total hours.

• Ninety-one percent prefer working from home with 6% preferring to work from the office (0% reported wanting to work from the office 100% of the time).