Georgia bosses prep for office return, pick who can stay home forever

The office of the Blue Sky Agency has been nearly empty as employees worked from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. As for a return, “I don’t feel pressure to rush because of how we’ve adjusted," Rob Farinella, the founder and CEO of the Atlanta-based advertising agency, said in an emailed statement. He added later, "when we open, it will be in a phased approach with an emphasis on safety and mental health." (STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)
The office of the Blue Sky Agency has been nearly empty as employees worked from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. As for a return, “I don’t feel pressure to rush because of how we’ve adjusted," Rob Farinella, the founder and CEO of the Atlanta-based advertising agency, said in an emailed statement. He added later, "when we open, it will be in a phased approach with an emphasis on safety and mental health." (STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Spring is blooming. Vaccine appointments are booming. And many Georgia employers are still Zooming.

Broad re-openings of offices are months away for many metro Atlanta companies, and timetables for employee returns are far from certain.

But after more than a year with the coronavirus, many businesses aren’t planning to go back to pre-pandemic ways. Instead, they are mapping out who can keep working from home, who will be able to skip their commutes for a day or two or three each week, and who can forget the office address forever.

That’s not the way things usually worked at Lockheed Martin.

“We have a traditional way of doing work, and we like to stick with it because we know it works,” said Roderick McLean, the site general manager at the company’s sprawling Marietta complex. “But there have been eyes that have been opened to new approaches.”

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Not surprisingly, many of the defense contractor’s 5,000 local workers never went remote. About 60% labored on site during the pandemic, some making C-130 aircraft or putting together parts for F-35 fighter jets.

But in many cases, the company and others have kept operations going with employees at kitchen tables, basement hideaways and spare bedroom offices scattered throughout metro Atlanta and beyond.

Productivity and efficiency didn’t falter. In fact, in some cases, it improved, McLean said.

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Now, Lockheed Martin’s local leaders are creating four pools of workers. Group one has to be on site. Groups two and three will have hybrid home and office schedules. Group four will remain full time from a distance. In April, some in the hybrid groups will begin returning to offices, assuming coronavirus cases recede enough. By mid to late summer, most of those who are coming back could be in their new routines.

Managers have been given the word, though, McLean said: Be a lot more receptive to remote work.

Elizabeth Andrews High School Environmental Science teacher Teresa Massey conducts a virtual classroom with her students from her home office in Snellville. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Elizabeth Andrews High School Environmental Science teacher Teresa Massey conducts a virtual classroom with her students from her home office in Snellville. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Workplace re-entries have varied widely.

“Size definitely matters in how companies are approaching this,” said Deisha Barnett, the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s brand and communications chief.

Small and mid-sized businesses generally plan to bring their people back in sooner or had them return months ago. “The larger enterprises are taking it slower, phasing it in.

Some are eyeing the fall for broader returns, Barnett said. Timing is often tied to expectations for more widespread vaccinations and when more schools will fill classrooms.

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But planning during a pandemic is dicey. Some employers shelved earlier return schedules after COVID-19 cases spiked or employees struggled with family challenges, such as their kids staying home for online schooling.

Home Depot, UPS, Coca-Cola, Southern Company, Georgia-Pacific and State Farm — each with thousands of local employees — have put few back in corporate offices so far. UPS has tentatively set a Sept. 7 return date for its headquarters. Southern, the parent of Georgia Power and Atlanta Gas Light, expects its employees to be out at least through mid-summer. Georgia-Pacific, State Farm, Home Depot and Coke haven’t made any time frames public.

State Farm's corporate buildings near Perimeter Mall remain largely empty as most of the insurer's local employees continue to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company hasn't set a date yet for their return. CONTRIBUTED
State Farm's corporate buildings near Perimeter Mall remain largely empty as most of the insurer's local employees continue to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company hasn't set a date yet for their return. CONTRIBUTED

Workers occupied only 10% to 15% of the office spaces in parts of Sandy Springs and Dunwoody, according to a January review by the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts, one of metro Atlanta’s biggest employment clusters. More than half of the employers in a CID survey had not specified dates to return to offices.

Some workers can’t wait, said Racquel Roberts, the chief people officer of Vinings-based Purchasing Power. “Several of our employees have almost begged us: ‘Please, can I come to the office? I can’t stand another day in the apartment by myself.’”

Providing access to official workplaces is almost “a mental health opportunity,” Roberts said.

And yet, she added, very few employees say they want to work five days a week at the firm, which provides companies with ways for their employees to purchase products and services through payroll deductions.

“Several of our employees have almost begged us: ‘Please, can I come to the office? I can't stand another day in the apartment by myself.' "

- Racquel Roberts, the chief people officer of Vinings-based Purchasing Power

With that in mind, Purchasing Power has reduced how much space it leases, making a full return essentially impossible any time soon. Nobody will have a dedicated desk space in the company’s Midtown location. Instead they will make reservations when they plan to come in. Under that system, Roberts says the firm may begin bringing more workers back to local offices in June, with a more complete return likely in August, coinciding with local school openings.

Pharmaceuticals maker Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA, with 1,300 Georgia workers, is evaluating when to start a wider return to offices and which positions can remain partially or wholly remote.

Those moves might start during the summer, depending on rates of COVID-19 infections and vaccinations, said Randolph Legg, the president and head of the firm’s commercial business. “We are in no rush, and we are trying to take a cautious approach.”

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Roadie, a Buckhead-based company that connects people who want stuff delivered with people who have space in their cars, isn’t signing a new office lease when its current one expires in April.

“While we’ll definitely want a space of our own again at some point in the future, we’re holding off on making any decisions for now,” CEO Marc Gorlin wrote in an email. “We won’t be moving in anywhere new for a while, and we’re staying fluid until we have a better sense of what we need.”

Another Buckhead firm, Fleetcor, anticipated needing more office space by now. Not anymore, according to Crystal Williams, the chief human resources officer for the business payments company. Because of flexible work policies, she predicts that at least 30% fewer people may be in the office most of the time, post pandemic. That percentage may grow, she said.

Most Atlanta Journal-Constitution employees have worked outside of the newspaper’s Dunwoody office since the pandemic. In recent days, management announced plans to move to nearby offices with just a third the current space, factoring in cost savings and employee preferences for more flexible work.

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