As vaccination rates increase and mask mandates disappear, Anchorage companies are navigating a return to in-person work.
While some employers brought workers back to their desks, others have stayed primarily remote and some are still figuring it all out. Nationally, the number of people who recently worked from home due to the pandemic shrank, from 21% of employed Americans in March to 18.3% in April, according to a survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A few weeks before lockdowns swept the nation in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Barbara Bell, chief people and culture officer at the Alaska nonprofit RurAL CAP, had been researching the 1918 flu pandemic. That jumpstarted her planning for a work-from-home policy for the about 90 employees at the agency’s central office in Anchorage.
And now, more than a year later, the organization is beginning to bring employees back to that office, Bell said. For the moment, they’ve increased the allowed number of employees there from 10 people to 40, though employees still have to sign up to come in a week in advance.
“Some people have not set foot in our central office since the beginning of the pandemic and the work has not suffered,” Bell said.
The organization found that some employees love the flexibility of working from home while others need to work around people, she said. Bell is crafting a survey to learn more about employee preferences.
She said the organization is expecting that some may continue working from home while others will want a mix and some will return full time, depending on their jobs.
“For people whose jobs involve a lot of policy or remote communication, reports, research, they don’t need to physically be in the office,” Bell said. “But at the same time, people — especially extroverts — miss that kind of coffee room chatter. They miss touching base.”
And the organization wants to accommodate.
“We think that in order to remain a competitive and viable employer, it is absolutely necessary for us to consider the newer preferences derived from this,” Bell said.
Eva Gregg, community technical assistance coordinator at RurAL CAP, started working back in the office about five weeks ago. She asked her supervisor for the ability to come back in. She missed the normalcy and routine of life pre-pandemic.
“I’m sick of working at my kitchen table,” she said.
She’d spent five years at that kitchen table while she worked toward a degree in social work at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“I did all my homework — every assignment — at my kitchen table,” Gregg said. “And then I graduated, got this job, and then they sent me back to the kitchen table.”
For some companies, like Yuit Communications, a return to in-person work has felt like a reunion for a tight-knit team, said Grant Johnston, co-founder and partner at the public relations and communications firm in Anchorage where employees began going back to the office in February.
“It took us about a month or so for employees to settle back in, but it’s been wonderful,” Johnston said.
They’ve been better able to add an element of person-to-person collaboration back into their work, he said.
“It’s that ability to just bounce things off the wall with one another and to gauge the reactions of your colleagues to ideas, and to react to other ideas that are thrown out,” Johnston said. “It’s just that natural synergy that is hard to replicate when you’re working in all different locations remotely.”
At ConocoPhillips Alaska, employees are back in their offices full time, with a few exceptions, according to Rebecca Boys, a company spokesperson.
Over half of the company’s nearly 1,000 Alaska employees work in Anchorage and are mostly vaccinated, Boys said. The company started going back to in-person work in March, though some people are exempt for health and medical reasons as well as parents who have school scheduling conflicts related to the pandemic, Boys said over email.
At CRW, an engineering consulting firm in Anchorage, most of the company’s 75 employees are back in the office, said Mike Rabe, managing partner at the firm. Besides a few people, the entire firm went remote within three weeks of the pandemic’s onset.
But by the end of last summer, employees started asking about coming back to the office because some preferred it — which was allowed since CRW’s work is considered an essential service, Rabe said.
“As the year progressed, more and more people wanted to wanted to come back to the office,” he said.
By January, roughly half of employees were back in the office some amount of time, while by this month around 80% work there either full or part time.
CRW likely won’t ever mandate people work from the office, he said, and it’s been going fairly well to have some people work remotely continuously. But, he said, the firm feels like they do their best work collaboratively and in person, so they’re asking employees to come in a couple days a week.
Remote work has gone similarly well at Spawn Ideas, an Anchorage-based advertising agency with roughly 37 employees, said Karen King, the agency’s president and CEO. The firm has been entirely remote since March 2020, and had a few employees in other states who were already working remotely pre-pandemic.
The agency is planning to start some form of a hybrid back-to-office plan after surveying the staff’s preferences, meeting with young employees as well as executives and enlisting the help of an employee committee to figure out how to navigate the return, King said.
While employees have been productive over the last year, King said a creative agency like Spawn benefits from getting together and brainstorming. She also noted that younger staff do well with working in person because of opportunities for mentoring and spontaneous questions without the formal process of Zoom or email.
But at the moment, the group is still primarily working remotely, aside from a few people who regularly work in the office, and King said they likely won’t ever go back to in-person work fully.
King also said the company is likely to leave open the possibility of entirely remote work for some employees but through an application process. And that will be a challenge, she said, wondering how many people might apply and how they might feel if turned down.
Overall, the agency is not pushing for a specific date to go back, King said. There are child care and other adjustment needs to consider among staff, and she wants people to come in and sit at their desks for a few hours, just to make sure everything still works and won’t be completely chaotic on the first day back, she said.
“Because we’ve been productive for this year and because I trust and believe in the work ethic and the positive attitude of my staff, I don’t feel hurried,” King said. “But it’s ultimately important to have more time together.”
Reporter Marc Lester contributed.
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