More laptops are powering up at the kitchen table, and more people are dialing in to conference calls in their living room. Working remote — already common at many companies — has helped employers maintain some sense of routine during the coronavirus outbreak.
Telecommuting policies can help many companies keep functioning at a time of extreme uncertainty in the economy, when travel plans, conferences, business lunches and other once-routine functions are canceled.
Remote-working arrangements reduce the odds that the coronavirus will sweep through cubicles, break rooms, factory floors or other company facilities.
“We need to keep businesses moving forward,” said Kathleen Duffy, CEO of the Duffy Group, a recruiting and human-resources company in north Phoenix. Working remotely, she said, is one way to do that.
Many employers learned a lesson in adaptability in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when airlines were grounded, and the economy slowed to a halt. Technology is much more advanced now, and smartphones, laptops, remote-conferencing websites and other advancements allow workers to stay connected with customers, vendors and one another.
The tools are in place, and the global spread of COVID-19 might be the catalyst for giving more employees the option of working at home, said Duffy, whose own 30-employee company primarily works remotely.
Pete Tamburelli, director of member solutions at financial-services company USAA, one of the larger employers in metro Phoenix, leads a team of managers in the company’s insurance sales and services department.
All of those managers telecommute, as he has done on and off for the past decade, including daily for more than three years.
“Working at home is a game changer,” said the Peoria resident in an email. “I get more time with my family, which is incredibly important to me with young kids, but I’m also able to invest more time into work and get more work done because there’s no distractions.”
Tamburelli feels he’s more productive working from home but adds that it’s important to manage “cabin fever” by getting out of the house to exercise every day with morning hikes and engage in off-the-job social interactions.
He converses with co-workers each day, face to face, through a webcam. He said he actually feels more connected to his work colleagues “because we’re all meeting from the comfort of our own homes.”
USAA is asking at least 25% of its employees who don’t directly deal with members or customers to work from home.
Other large Arizona employers are embracing remote work for at least some of their employees, including Phoenix-based utility Arizona Public Service Co.
“We have the capability for a broad array of employees in many different functions to work remotely,” company spokesman Jim McDonald said. “Given the current circumstances, our plans increase the options for worker flexibility if our facilities are impacted.”
Earlier this week, Cox Communications asked all employees who can work from home to do so, said John Wolfe, a senior vice president and Southwest regional manager for the telecommunications company. That’s in addition to refraining from much travel, limiting large-group meetings and observing various other health safeguards.
The Arizona Republic and its parent company have implemented similar policies.
UnitedHealthcare, another large statewide employer, has a variety of telecommuting positions and has had them for a long time, company spokeswoman Lisa Contreras said. “Quite a lot of employees are (full-time) telecommuters and even more telecommute periodically,” she said.
Insurer State Farm is “implementing social distancing in the workplace and instructing employees who can, to work from home,” spokeswoman Angie Harrier said. Those who aren’t equipped to work from home might qualify for paid administrative leave, she added.
State Farm, which has a large campus in Tempe, later said it is “working quickly on tools to make it possible for most employees to work from home.”
Discover, Intel, PetSmart and U-Haul International are among other large metro-Phoenix employers with some levels of telecommuting, while Freedom Financial Network is in the process of instituting a work-at-home policy through its Tempe office.
Intel has recommended employees work at home if their job functions allow it. For others who must remain on site, the company has implemented “social distancing” policies such as reducing seating capacity in cafeterias and limiting attendance at meetings.
“We first put these policies in place at our sites in China, and they have helped keep our employees safe and our operations running,” Intel said in a prepared statement.
At utility Salt River Project, a relatively small number of the company’s more than 5,000 employees work remotely. But roughly half of the workforce has laptops, “and we are evaluating each position regarding the ability to work remotely,” spokeswoman Kathleen Mascarenas said.
In light of the coronavirus threat, “SRP will be increasing the number of employees who can work remotely through a temporary telecommuting arrangement,” she said.
A survey of more than 1,200 full-time employees nationally, including both those who work at home and those who don’t, found that remote workers tend to be happier, less stressed and feel more trusted by their employers.
One-third of the employee respondents said they would take a pay cut of up to 5% if offered the option, and one-quarter said they would accept a cut of up to 10%, according to the survey by Owl Labs.
Advantages of remote work cited by respondents include a healthier work/life balance, increased productivity and the ability to avoid a commute. Concerns ranged from missing workplace social interactions to the fear or getting bypassed on promotions, although most respondents said they weren’t worried about that.
Higher-paid, white-collar workers tend to have more remote-work possibilities than lower-paid, blue-collar staff.
Obviously, certain jobs are easier than others to be done remotely. Some of the highest remote-working positions, according to the survey, were those in facilities, operations, information technology, customer service, sales and administration.
Industries with relatively high concentrations of remote workers include the health-care sector, technology/internet, financial services and education.
In certain business areas, including supermarkets, restaurants, delivery services and bank branches, remote work isn’t always feasible.
“The majority of our employees serve customers, care for critical operations or are in regulated capacities and therefore (are) unable to work from home,” said Liana Enriquez, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman in Phoenix.
But some employees are able to work at home and are being asked to “coordinate with their managers to determine appropriate work arrangements,” she said.
At supermarket chain Bashas’, the vast majority of the company’s 8,500 employees work in a store setting, “and their job functions require them to be present at the store,” said Rob Johnson, a company spokesman.
But at the company’s two offices, “We are continually assessing the situation and putting together preparedness plans to address remote-work functionality across critical departments,” he said.
Scottsdale-based Troon has limited non-essential travel and is taking other health precautions, but company employees “are working at both the golf courses we manage and in our corporate offices,” said Kris Strauss, a senior vice president.
Meanwhile, at Arizona State University, which is transitioning to online classes, faculty have been given the option of working at home or in the office, with the university otherwise open. Certain other staff members also have the option of working remotely, depending on circumstances and supervisor approval.