With COVID-19 cases climbing and related restrictions a moving target, Colorado Springs employers aren't in a hurry to bring workers back to the office.
Good news came last week with reports that an effective COVID-19 vaccine could be widely available next year, but that won't have any impact soon on the workplace. Gov. Jared Polis said Monday that the first doses of a new coronavirus vaccine could be available before year's end, with the rest of vaccine expected to show up between January and May. However, the first doses will go to health care workers and then to public safety workers, with the general public getting doses after those groups.
Many office-based employees in Colorado Springs and around the country have been working remotely — often from home — since the pandemic triggered widespread stay-at-home orders in March. Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom said in June that surveys he conducted found more than 40% of the U.S. workforce was working from home this summer, and that employers would be slow to order their return.
Bloom estimated a bit more than half of all employees can work from home. Hotel, restaurant, construction, transportation, retail, health care and public safety workers are obvious exceptions, but so are military contractors doing classified work that must be done in a secure location. He estimates more than a third of all U.S. workers don't have fast enough internet service to telecommute.
Dirk Draper, CEO of the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, said many employers in the professional, business and technical services sector, which employs more than 50,000 locally, plan "to keep employees working remotely well into 2021. The percentage of remote work in some industries — financial services and aerospace — can be as high as 75% and others like retailing and personal services is the inverse of that."
Employers that have asked workers to return to the office have recalled only a fraction of their staff to maintain social distancing and comply with local and state capacity limits, Draper said. He said many businesses are letting workers decide when to return to the office, seeking volunteers and conducting surveys of employees to determine whether they are comfortable returning to the office.
"Employees are cautious to come back. They face challenges with child care and remote schooling and there are concerns about being exposed to COVID," Draper said. "It really depends on the company and their culture — the chamber let employees decide. Some have polled employees and others have made workspaces available for employees to come back to work (in the office) if they want to do so."
The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas estimated the percentage of workers doing their jobs entirely from home declined from a peak of 35% in May to 24% in August, but that is still about triple the pre-pandemic level. Draper expects employees to return to offices gradually, partly because employers plan to make changes in the layout of their offices to increase social distancing and add protective measures like plexiglass panels to prevent potential spread of the virus.
"I suspect you will see a rollback of the open office concept with higher walls and more spread out workspaces," Draper said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see some employees stay with remote work for several years"
Draper isn't aware of any large Colorado Springs employer that is abandoning their office entirely. There would be a devastating effect on the commercial real estate market if many employers canceled leases or vacate a lot of space, as a handful of office tenants already have.
The vacancy rate for office space in Colorado Springs didn't change much through midyear, but tenants will have to decide whether to give up some space as leases expire, Dale Stamp, president of Quantum Commercial Group in Colorado Springs, said recently.
Insurance Technologies, which employs 250 workers, is now operating entirely remotely and doesn't plan to bring those employees back to its downtown Colorado Springs office this year, Tammy Shuminsky, the company's chief operating officer, said in an email. The company develops and sells software that helps carriers, agencies, financial institutions and others sell insurance, annuities, retirement funds and other investments.
Insurance Technologies sent a survey about returning to employees last week and plans to use the results in concert with local and state guidelines to firm up its return-to-work plan and the timing, Shuminsky said. Insurance Technologies has hired a contractor to make changes in its offices to reduce the risk of employees spreading the virus, but Shuminsky said those changes will be shelved if employees don't want to come back to the office during the pandemic. The company remains "anxious to get back to work in the office," she said.
Colorado Springs-based Cherwell Software also has all of its employees worldwide working remotely, CEO Sam Gilliland said in an email. The company plans to reopen its offices in the first quarter of 2021, subject to current COVID-19 conditions and the guidance of local governments, he said. Employees will have the option of returning to the office "if they are comfortable doing so," he said.
Cherwell plans to configure its offices to optimize social distancing, require employees to wear masks and ensure all workstations and common areas are sanitized regularly. Gilliland expects some employees will opt to continue working remotely even after Cherwell opens its offices, but the company doesn't expect to give up office space since it will need to spread out the workers who return.
USAA has already started to bring employees back to its Colorado Springs call center, one of the largest in Colorado Springs that already had a large number of employees working remotely. The insurance giant last month expanded a voluntary pilot program to bring employees back to the office, Laura Propp, a USAA spokeswoman in San Antonio, said in an email. About 6% of USAA's local 1,800-person staff and about 1,500 nationwide have returned to the office as part of the pilot, but most others won't return until next year.
The pilot program will "help us learn how we can reintroduce larger numbers of employees into the office when it is safe and appropriate to do so," Propp said. "In developing our return to office strategy, we’re relying on trusted medical guidance that includes criteria for community readiness; considering federal, state and local decisions; factoring in employee feedback and other considerations such as school and camp closures, and lessons learned from other organizations that open sooner."
Propp said USAA has taken several steps to prevent the virus from spreading in its offices, including screening for symptoms, deep cleanings, configuring work areas to increase social distancing, requiring facial coverings when employees are away from their desks and closing most gathering places like cafeterias and gyms.
Many defense contractors in Colorado Springs have started bringing employees back to the office, mostly in phases. Most large contractors had at least two-thirds of their local staff working remotely in the first few months after the pandemic hit Colorado, but many are in the early stages of returning workers to their offices. Some contractors say they could have a significant percentage of their workforce doing their jobs from home long term.
"Our (office) footprint will look different in 2021-22 than it did in January," said Brad Bolstad, president of space superiority and geospatial systems at L3 Harris Technologies in Colorado Springs. "Long term, we will need to figure out the right investment strategy (in office space) to have the capacity needed whether we have (employees) completely or partially working from home."
Many employees at wireless provider T-Mobile's Briargate call center are expected to continue working from home for the rest of the year, said Joel Rushing, a company spokesman in Seattle. Employees working from the office must follow guidelines that limit the capacity of the entire building, individual rooms and elevators and require them to wear masks at all times except when working alone. T-Mobile has installed social distancing markers and directional signs throughout all of its offices, and employees and vendors must complete temperature checks before entering.