Pittsburgh Companies Ponder When to Bring Back Employees

According to one projection, 70% to 80% of workers in central business districts nationwide will be back at the office by year’s end. But even a partial continuation of the work-at-home experiment could save billions.

Health-care worker wearing gloves handles COVID-19 vaccine
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(TNS) - A year ago, when businesses abruptly shut down their offices and sent people home to work as the pandemic hit, some expected a return by summertime.

But after a summer surge in COVID-19 cases, targets were pushed back to Labor Day. Then Labor Day morphed to New Year's Day.

Now, as more people get vaccinated, major Pittsburgh-area companies again are trying to determine when to recall remote workers back to the office — or, in some cases, whether to recall them at all.

One of the region's biggest grocers has already decided hundreds of workers across its footprint will be working from their kitchen tables for good, while more than one major Pittsburgh-area employer is fine-tuning plans to establish hybrid working models that will allow a mix of days in the office and days at home.

According to one projection, 70% to 80% of workers in central business districts nationwide will be back at the office by year's end. But another estimate calculated that even a partial continuation of the nation's great work-at-home experiment could save businesses billions of dollars via lower office costs and increased productivity.

What businesses eventually decide will have major implications for retailers, restaurants, parking operators, building owners and others in the Pittsburgh region counting on a full exodus back to the office and a return to business as usual. Ultimately, fewer people commuting to work means smaller lunchtime crowds, fewer shoppers and emptier office buildings, even if it also might ease traffic congestion and reduce pollution.

One thing is clear: A new normal is emerging. Exactly how different that will look is still to be determined, but some of the pieces are falling into place.

Last fall, O'Hara-based Giant Eagle made a momentous decision — the bulk of its roughly 800-person headquarters staff at RIDC Industrial Park that was sent home in March 2020 would continue to work from home permanently. That includes merchandising staff, customer care agents, community relations workers, and marketing and IT development teams.

"There definitely are a lot of factors that go into making a decision as big as this," said Jannah Jablonowski, spokeswoman for the supermarket chain. She's permanently stationed at home, too. "Relatively speaking, we are a traditional company. We like person-to-person interaction."

What helped sway the company into embracing remote work was the performance of employees.

"We just saw such a great response from everyone. Everyone continued to be really productive," and appreciated the flexibility of working from home, Ms. Jablonowski said.

Throughout the pandemic, the company has relied on lots of video conferencing to keep workers connected. When employees need to get together in person, they can use shared workspace in Lawrenceville, warehouse space in Crafton or Butler, or even gather at a store location, she said.

Giant Eagle has moved out of one of three buildings it leased in O'Hara, retaining only mail/delivery services and certain IT functions there.

Another local firm, natural gas company Equitrans Midstream Corp., is looking to sublease a portion of its 150,000 square feet of office space at its headquarters at Southpointe near Canonsburg after being pleased with how efficiently office employees have been working from home.

The company likely will retain some space at Southpointe, where it has 400 to 500 employees, spokeswoman Natalie Cox said. There are times "when it is important to have employees together," she said.

Equitrans is still trying to work out how many people will be needed in the office full time, how many part time, and how many will work remotely all the time.

Calculating savings

Two of the biggest employers in this region aren't ready to say yet whether they would preserve a work-from-home option.

PNC Financial Services Group, Pittsburgh's biggest bank, said office staff would return no earlier than June 1, while Bank of New York Mellon said the majority of its employees were working remotely and should expect to continue to do so at least through September.

"Further details about return-to-work plans for our employees who currently are working remotely will be communicated with them prior to their return," PNC spokeswoman Marcey Zwiebel said in an email, adding that the health and safety of employees and customers was the top priority.

PNC employs some 12,500 people in the Pittsburgh region. The majority of the bank's non-customer-facing work force has been working remotely since the beginning of the pandemic, including nearly all employees at the bank's corporate headquarters, Downtown, and call center at Firstside Center on First Avenue.

According to a recent study by human resources consulting firm Robert Half, companies that don't offer a flexible work option risk losing valuable employees.

The research showed that 1 in 3 professionals currently working from home would look for a new job if forced to return to the office full time. Nearly half of those surveyed prefer a hybrid structure that includes a mix of days at the office and days at home.

A combination of office/remote work would save companies nationwide an estimated $500 billion a year, or roughly $11,000 per remote employee, according to Global Workplace Analytics in San Diego.

The savings — which factor in extra costs an employer might incur to support remote work — are the result of increased productivity, plus lower real estate, absenteeism and turnover costs.

Employees would save, too — an estimated $3,000 per year — largely from savings on transportation, food and clothing, Global Workplace said.

Pittsburgh-based Highmark Health wants to give as many non-clinical, corporate staff as possible the choice of coming back or staying home when it launches its "Work From Anywhere" model in the latter half of this year.

"It is crystal clear that we will not be resuming to a pre-COVID business-as-usual," said Larry Kleinman, chief human resources officer at Highmark Health.

"Over the last year, employee survey results have shown increased job satisfaction and overall productivity for those who have been able to work remotely. These results speak for themselves: How we work is more important than where we work," he said.

Details are being worked out. Plans are to extend the policy to all of the health care giant's markets in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware and New York.

How many will return?

Nationwide, 40% of the downtown workforce is expected to head back to the office by the end of the summer, according to the commercial real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle. Assuming a critical mass of vaccinations, up to 80% could return by the end of the year.

Locally, " Downtown Pittsburgh is likely to be in the lower range, given that a few large companies control the majority of the employees," said Dan Adamski, senior managing partner at Jones Lang LaSalle in Pittsburgh. "The suburbs will be in the higher end of the range."

Mr. Adamski believes working remotely full time has its risks.

"Not having to commute each day means more time with family, as well as savings on the associated costs. But isolation and Zoom-fatigue has set in with many employees," he said. "The lack of in-person social interaction is detrimental to an employee's happiness and sense of place within the company's culture."

He sees a "dynamic workplace" emerging built on fewer employees coming to work on any given day, where people rotate in and out of the office on flexible schedules.

A nationwide survey released last month by the executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas showed 70% of businesses plan to institute a hybrid work model where workers come in some days and work from home some days, or keep certain categories of their workers remote permanently.

That's what Mitsubishi Electric Power Products, based at the RIDC Thorn Hill Industrial Park, plans to do when it implements its "telework program" late this summer. Still, certain positions will require the traditional five-days-a-week commute.

"We designed the telework program to support productivity, recruitment and retention of employees and to manage office space and facilities," said Susan Renda, vice president of human resources.

"Even as we plan on returning to the office, we continue to look to the state and the [ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] for guidance," she said.

"We will continue to wear face masks, enhance the airflow in our buildings and maintain six feet of distance in our interactions."

At Giant Eagle, Ms. Jablonowski said she wasn't sure how much the grocer's decision to give up some of its office space would save the company, but the driving force behind making remote work permanent was a desire to change with the times — and attract younger workers used to more flexibility in the workplace.

"As we ramp up our digital presence [as more customers shop online], we want to attract that next generation of tech talent," she said. "This is an opportunity for a traditional company to stay relevant as the work force changes."

Patricia Sabatini: PSabatini@post-gazette.com; 412-263-3066.

First Published April 26, 2021, 6:00am

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