Remote control: home-work wave creates new momentum for employers, employees, business developers local news
Jeanine Jerkovic said employers have always been chasing skilled workers and labor pools. Especially now in the pandemic-stricken world, these aspirations are leading businesses away from expensive downtown areas and congested urban centers.
The work-at-home craze, which boomed during the pandemic’s social distancing and shutdown orders, continues to impact jobs across the country, despite some efforts by employers to reverse the tide.
The trend toward remote work continues to impact companies’ economic development decisions, offering suburban communities, small towns and rural areas more opportunities to find jobs and business investment in a changing workplace landscape.
“Companies have always gone where they can find talent, and the trend toward remote working has made that more evident for suburban communities,” said Jerkovic, director of economic development for the town of Surprise, a Phoenix suburb about 50 minutes from Sky Harbor International Airport.
She said professional, creative and other office workers are reluctant to return to office parks and towers — particularly in congested metropolitan areas.
“There is reason to believe that for many, the main barrier to a more meaningful return to the office is a long commute,” said Jerkovic, a veteran economic development manager. “The city’s high-rise office workplaces, previously tied to long commutes from the suburbs, will most likely remain remote or at least hybrid; for example, computer engineering, financial services, and data engineering and analytics jobs that are desk-bound.”
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, a third of US employers have increased telecommuting and remote work options for employers during the pandemic. This benefited clerical and specialist workers, who were able to meet via Zoom and connect via online chats, while their blue collar and service peers either saw jobs and hours lost or were forced to show up at their frontline workplaces.
Sharon Beaudry, a professor of business administration at the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls and a longtime human resources executive, said the pandemic has forced managers to reluctantly take up remote work — and proved to workers that it’s a viable, longer-term option .
“During my previous HR experience enforcing remote work policies, it was always management that pushed back. They found it difficult to understand how to manage staff who were “out of sight,” said Sharon Beaudry. It proved that employees in all kinds of positions can be productive when working from home.”
Some employers continue to allow many employees to work from home, while others are looking to smaller office spaces in the suburbs and smaller markets. Other employers and bosses are urging workers to return to the office — or at least come into the office two or three times a week.
Beaudry himself is moving to a remote faculty position in the fall and said a third of Oregon Tech’s students are fully online.
She said the pandemic has prompted employers to re-examine their overheads – including real estate footprints. “Many employers who have opted for a smaller office have redesigned the workplace,” she said. This includes investing in technology and equipment for remote work and creating more collaborative and flexible workspaces instead of 9-5 cubicles and desks.
Beaudry said workers are pushing hard against employers looking for a rigid return to pre-pandemic workplace policies. Many have grown fond of working at home with children and pets and in elder care situations. This resistance is compounded by high gas prices and high costs for car repairs and other travel expenses.
Bosses who push too hard to bring employees back into the office risk losing key workers in an already difficult job market. “To attract and retain talent, employers need to consider remote working to be competitive,” Beaudry said. “The traditional nine-to-five model appears to be trending down.”
Conversely, some employers expect inflation and the current economic climate to push more workers back into more traditional forms of work.
Remote work can also help employers in smaller and more remote markets hire and retain workers, according to Chris Kaselemis, economic development for St. Mary’s County in southern Maryland — more than two hours from Washington DC and Baltimore.
“Remote working allows our existing businesses to hire employees from other areas who are not interested in relocating to St. Mary’s. That’s an advantage in a tight job market,” Kaselemis said.
According to the BLS, there were 11.2 million job openings in the US in May as employers struggle to fill vacancies. That includes 1.1 million in retail, 2 million in the professional services sector and more than 1 million in the public sector. But the number of job openings improved from April data, when there were 11.7 million job openings nationwide
Kaselemis said remote operations and work-from-home policies can expand the talent pool for employers challenged by recruitment and retention. “Really any business that has work that can be done remotely will benefit from having a larger pool of workers to employ,” he said.
America has talent
The key for suburbs and outlying areas is the ability to expand their workforce and talent base.
Contemporary and pandemic migration trends have also caused some entrepreneurs, professionals, including creative and technology workers, and businesses to move from higher-cost markets like New York, Chicago, and California to lower-tax, more affordable states like Florida, Texas, Idaho, Arizona and Nevada. Civil unrest, rising crime, and homelessness have also spurred some migrations from expensive coastal cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Philadelphia.
Jerkovic said the pandemic trendlines are prompting economic development groups to shift their focus from real estate-centric site selection to nurturing and retaining a skilled and creative workforce to build fiscal and economic foundations.
“We are now working to incentivize the local workforce to achieve certifications – which we know will appeal to the best companies. The ideas behind creative class theory, which emphasizes the importance of talent as a local economic engine, are very much what motivates our community and many others like us,” said Jerkovic. “We’re betting that if we can retain and attract the talent — many of whom are already office workers or hybrid workers, like parks, swimming pools and Libraries.”
The future of remote work and workers’ preference for home and flexible arrangements is playing out across a range of industries – including the US defense industry.
Driven by the Pentagon’s $750 billion annual budget, the sector is a major economic engine across the country — including states like Florida, Arizona, California, Texas, Maryland and Virginia.
“Companies that have work that can be done remotely from a computer are benefiting the most from this (work-at-home) trend. Many of our defense companies are in this situation,” said Kaselemis, whose region is home to a Patuxent Naval Air Station and a number of defense companies, and is a stone’s throw from the Pentagon and DC.
“However, some contractors have fabrication and advanced fabrication operations that need to be done on-site,” he said
This creates some challenges as manufacturing and production workers need to be on-site while clerical and skilled workers prefer to work from home.
Charlotte-based Honeywell International, which has large offices in Florida, Arizona, Puerto Rico and Minnesota, is requiring many workers who have been working from home to return to work for up to two days a week. This hybrid model is being adopted by a number of other employers, both Kaselemis and Beaudry said
In a statement, a Honeywell spokesman said the hybrid model aims to “meet personal commitments while balancing business needs.”
Honeywell, which makes aerospace thermostats and components in addition to weapon systems, is also among the companies offering job sharing and part-time arrangements for some workers.
However, that doesn’t stop other defense contractors from poaching employees who will pass on full-time remote work options to prospects.
A number of other companies declined or did not respond to requests for comment — including some defense firms that compete with Honeywell for talent.
Jerkovic said the work-at-home trend is also appealing to so-called gig workers — which include creatives, techies and entrepreneurs — who may not be interested in traditional jobs and hours and the dreaded commuting to big city cores.
She said suburbs and other less traditional places would be smart to nurture these innovative and creative communities.
“The other enduring category of remote work is the gig economy worker, which has been really important in recent years and has inspired a high level of small business creation and entrepreneurship,” Jerkovic said. “We’ve always prioritized fostering innovation in our local community, but the past few years have truly validated the importance of supporting our small businesses and entrepreneurs.”
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