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Thousands in Tampa Bay are working from home. What about after the quarantine?

Just a few months ago, many business didn’t consider a remote workforce realistic. But government-mandated stay-at-home orders have forced the issue.
Thousands of Tampa Bay employees are working from home. What about after quarantine? Pictured is Curtis Hixon Park and downtown Tampa in January. [Luis Santana | Times]
Thousands of Tampa Bay employees are working from home. What about after quarantine? Pictured is Curtis Hixon Park and downtown Tampa in January. [Luis Santana | Times] [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Apr. 16, 2020

Just a few months ago, many business owners didn’t consider a remote workforce realistic. But government-mandated stay-at-home orders have forced the issue, causing companies that can to adapt to getting work done without employees in the office.

How, then, will Tampa Bay’s workforce look once quarantine ends?

“You are going to see an acceleration of what has already been a trend over the last decade,” said Liz Farmer, research fellow and fiscal policy writer at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government.

That trend is an increased number of employees telecommuting — working from home a few days per week or month — and potentially working from home full time. In 1997, about 7 percent of employees in the U.S. worked at home at least one day per week, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. That figure climbed to just more than 9 percent in 2010.

According to Farmer, the two main fears many business owners have expressed in the past are having the technology to make a remote workforce possible and whether productivity takes a dip.

“Most of them are seeing those fears are largely unfounded,” Farmer said. Employees continue to maintain their workloads at home, while government grants for equipment or repurposing existing technology have helped ease concerns about physically being able to perform the work.

Bob Rohrlack, CEO of the Tampa Bay Chamber, said many members’ biggest challenge over the past few weeks is addressing technology needs. While it’s too early for many of the businesses to see major shifts in how people work, Rohrlack’s early feedback is that members are adapting.

He expects this will trickle over into how companies operate going forward.

“Businesses are going to realize there’s a way they can continue to be operational and have limited kinds of employees coming in to the physical location” post-quarantine, he said.

A full-time work-from-home workforce is unlikely, experts said. But companies that didn’t have many work-from-home options before may take slices of the model as an incentive to attract and retain workers.

As the labor market tightened over the past year, Fritz Eichelberger, CEO of Tampa Bay recruiting firm HotSpaces, said more companies in the area offered employees flexible schedules to employees as a way to entice them to stay, particularly if offices were in areas such as downtown Tampa where parking and traffic are challenges. Employees for firms who have flexible schedules, he said, tend to be more loyal to the company.

“It’s a major fight for talent,” he said. “If a growing number of other firms are going to do it, it’s hard to be an outlier and say, 'You need to be in the office 8 (a.m.) to 5 (p.m.) five times a week.”

More remote or partially remote positions could also bring about different hiring practices. Employers may begin to ask new hires about how well they work from home and how they handled work during the pandemic to screen for candidates who are best suited to such positions.

“(With) partial work-from-home, it will be easier to ramp up with people that are accustomed to it, skilled at it and can be productive,” Eichelberger said.

These changes, however, will likely be limited to white-collar sectors that have the ability to work remotely. Industries such as hospitality and service often don’t have the ability to adapt to the work-from-home model.

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“There’s a large portion of the economy that’s driven by face-to-face communication,” the Rockefeller Institute’s Farmer said.

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