Some big Georgia employers aren’t rushing to end pandemic teleworking

Some businesses have turned their lights back on in Georgia: Restaurant dining rooms and hair salons have reopened, and malls are inviting in customers. Yet many corporate offices in metro Atlanta remain eerily quiet.

Many of the biggest companies are in no rush to see their desks filled with staffers who have been working from home during the coronavirus pandemic. Coca-Cola Company, UPS, Home Depot, Delta Air Lines, Southern Company, AGCO and other local employers say they have no set timeline for teleworkers to return. Some other workers might not be sitting inside offices again until the fall or even next year.

That’s a testament to the success of remote working. But it’s also an acknowledgement of continued public health concerns, the complexity of making offices safe, and child care challenges employees face with closed schools, camps and day care centers.

Amazon recently told employees who can telework that they can stay out until at least October 2, even as it took heat over the safety of staffers in its warehouses.

Plenty of U.S. workers aren’t clamoring to get back to offices. Two out of three American adults recently surveyed by Qualtrics say they would feel uncomfortable returning to workplaces right now. The discomfort existed across age groups.

For its office staff, Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A will begin the first step of a three-tiered phase-in on May 18, though “with very limited numbers returning” initially, a spokeswoman wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Meanwhile, others aren’t there yet and don’t feel they need to be.

At Delta, “by and large, the consensus is teleworking is going well,” spokesman Morgan Durrant said.

Most of Coca-Cola’s office-based employees are working from home and that’s expected to continue until at least June, according to a spokeswoman. Home Depot wouldn’t speculate on when employees would return to its offices. A UPS spokesman wrote that “this remains a fluid situation.”

Lucinda Smith, a senior vice president for Duluth-based farm equipment maker AGCO, said the company continues to encourage employees to work from home. “Our employees have done an excellent job in transitioning to working remotely as well as adopting social distancing guidelines in our production and other facilities.”

A spokesman for Southern — the parent of Georgia Power, Atlanta Gas Light and other energy entities — wrote that decisions about when to bring more workers back to offices depends on a variety of factors, “including the health and safety of employees, status of the virus, the feasibility of each group continuing their responsibilities remotely, the impacts of school closures, childcare availability and more.”

Chris Clark, the president and chief executive of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, wrote in an email to the AJC that employers’ reopening plans “vary from skeleton crews and slow ramp-up models to mid-summer starts, and even ongoing virtual operations until the fall.”

The return may be even farther out for many employees.

Josh Wilson, who leads the Atlanta office of human resources consulting company Mercer, wrote that “most companies are looking at early to mid-June before bringing back any significant portion of their employees. The reality is, most companies will phase in some portion of their workforce over the next few months. Many companies don’t plan to be at full capacity in the office until 2021 at the earliest, and some companies may never have as many people back in the office as they did before COVID-19.”

Various surveys, even ones by major commercial real estate firms such as Colliers International, suggest the recent shift toward teleworking has had benefits beyond safety. While many employees miss time with colleagues and view working in offices as a better way to facilitate collaboration, they say remote work fosters creative thinking and improves work/life balance. Only 22% say their productivity has decreased, according to Colliers.

Whenever workers do return to offices, they are likely to find changes. Employers are contemplating how to enforce social distancing, such as keeping office cafeterias and breakrooms closed, staggering work schedules, and shifting how workers move around the office. An option: One-way hallways.

Elevator giant thyssenkrupp, with its North American headquarters in Cobb County, suggests that the number of people riding in elevators be limited and that, for now, people take the stairs instead if possible.

Real estate services firms and local chambers of commerce also are offering guidance: prohibit hand shaking, rearrange desks so they don’t face each other, install clear plastic shields in front of reception desks, leave office and conference room doors open to limit touching door handles, encourage employees to bring their food from home to limit going in and out of offices, rework heating and air conditioning systems so they provide more filtration and only circulate fresh air.

A Cobb Chamber report, created with input from local public health officials, also included this: “Continue teleworking, if possible.”