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Is Tampa Bay officially back to work at the office? Well, sort of.

Plenty are still working from home at least a few days a week as workplaces figure out the new normal.
Kimberly Sadler, a legal assistant, strolls through Lykes Gaslight Park while on a break from work. Sadler said employees at her office returned to working three days a week in the office this spring.
Kimberly Sadler, a legal assistant, strolls through Lykes Gaslight Park while on a break from work. Sadler said employees at her office returned to working three days a week in the office this spring. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 15

TAMPA — At lunchtime, the scent of garlic wafts from Michelle Faedo’s Tampeño Cuisine restaurant on the ground floor of the 28-story Frederick B. Karl County Center building downtown — a smell that drifts across Kennedy Boulevard and around the corner to the courthouse.

Before the pandemic, the line of downtown workers waiting for thick Cuban sandwiches and warm devil crabs could stretch the length of the 109-seat restaurant and out the doors. But lately, not so much.

These days, at least half of county center’s 820 employees are only required to be in the office two days a week and can work the rest from home, a remnant from the pandemic shutdown. Over at the courthouse, some workers are in three days a week. Other flexible workplace schedules have downtown at about 50% capacity, at least anecdotally, a figure that by one count is reflected nationwide for desk jobs.

“We usually close at 6,” said Kassandra Faedo as she worked the restaurant register. “But now we close at 3.”

Michelle Faedo's Tampeno Cuisine in downtown Tampa's county center building has fewer county employees at lunchtime these days.
Michelle Faedo's Tampeno Cuisine in downtown Tampa's county center building has fewer county employees at lunchtime these days. [ SUE CARLTON I Times ]

For employees in many fields — health care and retail stores, for example — working from home is not a practical alternative. But going remote remains an of-the-moment option for plenty of desk jobs as the world makes its way back from emptied offices and downtowns turned to ghost towns by the pandemic.

“You get in a groove,” said Ashley Bauman, senior vice president at Mercury Public Affairs, who has been working remotely for a year now. From her Tampa apartment where her desk overlooks the Hillsborough River and the city skyline — and sometimes from her couch — she likes the freedom of setting her own day and getting more done without distraction.

“But you miss seeing your old friends,” she said. “You miss having a team around to just grab lunch or gossip with.”

How flexible — or traditional — offices currently are varies across Tampa Bay.

“One thing we and many other workplaces learned through COVID is that flexible work schedules can be as effective as traditional work hours exclusively in-office, when applied strategically,” said Ken Welch, mayor of St. Petersburg, where 12.5% of city staff telecommutes typically two or three days a week.

But just across the bay, Tampa city employees are fully back to the office.

Some Pinellas County employees work remotely up to three days a week, and in Hillsborough, those whose jobs qualify are in the office at least two days a week or eight days a month. “We are getting a great response to that balance,” said Ivey Martin, Hillsborough’s director of human resources.

Across the U.S., about half of employees with desk jobs are working remotely, according to the president of the Virginia-based Society for Human Resource Management, compared to 15% pre-pandemic.

A spokesperson for Pinellas County said their hybrid policy is working well and helping the county stay competitive in recruitment and retention. Others echo that: “Offering work flexibility, where appropriate, helps to attract and retain high-caliber employees,” said Cherie Jacobs, spokesperson for Tampa Electric, where 25% of workers are offered hybrid schedules and 10% are fully remote.

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She Bien, a legal assistant, enjoys a recent lunch break at Lykes Gaslight Park in downtown Tampa. Bien said her co-workers returned to working five days at the office in March.
She Bien, a legal assistant, enjoys a recent lunch break at Lykes Gaslight Park in downtown Tampa. Bien said her co-workers returned to working five days at the office in March. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

While some have enthusiastically embraced the at-home option, others still prefer the structure of getting dressed and going to work.

“Some of our lawyers just don’t want to work anywhere but in their office,” said Marie Tomassi, president and managing shareholder at Trenam Law, where employees at its Tampa and St. Petersburg offices can work flexible hybrid schedules.

Mentoring can be a challenge, said Jennifer Compton, managing partner in the Sarasota office of the Shumaker law firm, which has about 130 lawyers working in the Tampa Bay area, some on hybrid schedules.

“We’ve all recognized the younger the associate, the more they kind of need to be in the office,” said Compton. “And you’ve got to have some of us older people here to mentor the young people.”

There’s also in-person collaboration: “To me it’s invaluable to be able to go into my partner’s office next door and say, ‘OK, am I off the wall on this one?’” she said.

To Michael McKinley, a Shumaker lawyer who works fully from home with his legal assistant and wife, Zenia, the trade-offs are worth it.

“Lawyers tend to be collegial, they tend to talk about their cases and their problems and their sports teams during the work day. I never saw myself living without that,” he said. But the at-home perks — no long commutes, so more time and energy for work — “far outweigh the disadvantages,” he said.

Some worry about a “Zoom ceiling” — an out-of-sight-out-of-mind tendency for at-home workers to get passed over for assignments and promotions. There’s also potential burnout from a workday with no defined beginning or end.

When she worked from home in the pandemic, Compton said she looked at emails while still in her morning workout clothes and was online by 6:30 a.m. “I would say yes to Zoom calls at 7 p.m,” she said.

“Everyone’s struggling to figure out how to do (remote and back-to-work options) and how to do it well,” she said. “It’s consistently inconsistent.”

Opinions on the future of where we’ll work vary.

“Most employers have begun to accept they’re going to have some hybrid work environment,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO for the Society for Human Resource Management. “That’s what we’ve learned: The one size fits all approach doesn’t work for all our workforce.” Ultimately, about 30% of those whose jobs qualify are expected to work remotely at least some of the time, he said.

Mayor Welch said his city will continue to explore work flexibility long-term “to ensure both work-life balance and efficient delivery of city services.”

Peter Cappelli, professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote this in an email: “Employers still seem to want people back, employees are less keen on it. Employers tend to win.”

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