Business/Economy

Years after the pandemic forced many Alaskans to work from home, these employers are sticking with it

Gina Romero, remote work

The pandemic has changed the way Alaskans work.

GCI, First National Bank Alaska and many other Alaska employers have implemented policies allowing much of their workforce to telecommute from home.

The companies say they learned during the pandemic’s early days that employees prized working from home, after many were forced to telework to avoid spreading COVID-19.

Company officials say the arrangements support workers without sacrificing quality, when implemented properly. And it gives them a hiring edge in a tight labor market, they say.

Employees say it makes them more committed to their job and helps them juggle domestic duties as virus-related impacts continue to disrupt life.

Gina Romero said she took a job with Yuit Communications more than a year ago after supervisors there agreed to let her work from home a few days a week.

The Anchorage marketing company gives its 20-person staff the opportunity to work remotely part of the week.

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Romero said that when her firefighter husband is working 24-hour shifts, the schedule lets her shuttle their teenage kids to school and activities.

In return, she puts in extra time, she said. She props her computer in her lap in school parking lots, waiting for her kids. And she works into the evening at the kitchen counter, dinner simmering on the stove.

“If my company is going to come in and give me this flexibility, then I’m going to be the first to give them 100%,” she said. “I have that time to be there for my kids, so I make that time to be there for my job.”

Yuit, Yuit Comm, Yuit Communications, remote work

A ‘remote-first’ working policy

GCI, the state’s largest telecommunications company, has embraced remote working, in contrast to large employers nationally, like Apple, that are trying to bring workers back into the office.

[More workers are back in offices. It’s still nothing like before.]

GCI adopted a “remote-first workforce” after learning in surveys that employees wanted to keep telecommuting after pandemic requirements eased, said Heather Handyside, the company’s chief communications officer.

In other words, employees are typically required to telework unless their job duties prevent it.

Now, around 1,400 hundred employees work from home, about 80% of the company’s workforce. They get an allowance from GCI for equipment, supplies and internet.

Another 400 or so employees still do their job in-person, such as field technicians or retail workers.

Chief executive Ron Duncan said that six months into the pandemic, GCI realized worker productivity had not dropped, even with the vast majority of its workforce home-based.

In fact, sales were sharply better than in previous years, as Alaskans suddenly needed high-speed internet, Duncan said.

Remote working offered an opportunity to transform the company, he said.

“(We realized) it was going to enhance productivity and also reduce costs because the cost of supporting home offices is a lot less than the cost of supporting the real estate footprint that we have,” he said. “And over time that real estate footprint will shrink.”

GCI is letting some leases expire, Duncan said. Several floors at the company’s Denali Towers headquarters in Midtown Anchorage are largely empty because of the policy. It’s also upgrading meeting spaces to provide remote video-conferencing, and creating office areas where remote employees can reserve a spot.

Under the policy, GCI can better compete for highly skilled workers in Alaska and nationally, Duncan said. It’s also retaining longtime employees who needed to move out of state, he said.

[Bosses say remote work kills culture. These companies disagree.]

Companies that “bang the drum” to get employees back in the office are swimming upstream against what most workers want, Duncan said. “So if I say, ‘Dammit, you have to be in the office everyday, that’s just one more reason for you to say, ‘Well maybe that’s not the job I want.’ "

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The new approach has challenges, but they’re surmountable, he said.

Occasional in-person meetings, including social get-togethers, are critical to keep people connected, he said.

GCI, Megan Webb, remote work

Megan Webb, GCI’s corporate communications director, telecommutes from her home in South Anchorage.

Webb said she doesn’t really miss the office’s daily social interactions, compared to the benefits of teleworking. Several months pregnant, she recently kept working as she traveled with her husband to his work conference in Nashville, Tenn.

“The flexibility is really nice,” she said.

Employees say working at home frees up time for their job, since there’s no commute. It also saves money on gas and food.

Josh Edge, media relations specialist for GCI, said he’s “remote-remote.” He recently left Alaska to live in North Carolina, after his girlfriend took a job there. But his job duties, like writing newsletters, allow him to work anywhere.

He misses the office’s social aspects, but not disruptions that snapped his groove when he was writing, he said.

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“I can take advantage of those bursts of creative energy when the words are coming easily,” he said. “It’s huge in my particular job.”

Less time in offices

Most Alaskans have returned to their traditional workplaces as pandemic concerns have eased, said Nolan Klouda, head of the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development.

[Alaska’s child care sector is in crisis, but market conditions are great for small entrepreneurs]

Still, many workers appear to be working from home, he said. People are spending 24% less time in Anchorage workplaces than pre-pandemic, similar to national averages, he said, citing Google tracking data.

“We don’t know if people are working entirely from home, or spending less time in the office,” Klouda said. “But it points to some persistence in remote working. It seems to be lasting longer than other pandemic measures.”

Yuit, Yuit Comm, Yuit Communications, remote work

Not everyone prefers to telework.

Mike Mason, information security officer for First National Bank Alaska, said he occasionally works remotely but likes being in the office. Even brief interactions with other employees spark good ideas.

“And I’m more focused on work when I’m physically at work,” he said.

Early in the pandemic he worked with a team at First National, the biggest Alaska-based bank, to create special cybersecurity measures for a workforce that suddenly needed to log in to banking systems from homes instead of central offices.

The security changes helped set the stage for First National’s remote working policy in place today, said Steve Patin, the bank’s human resources director.

About 90 of the bank’s employees, or 15%, work a hybrid or fully remote schedule, Patin said.

The move has opened up floor space in offices, allowing First National to spread out for social distancing, Patin said. The bank also expanded community working areas where remote bank employees can plug in if needed.

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The system can enhance productivity and create a “win-win-win” for employees, customers and the bank, he said.

ConocoPhillips, employing about 960 in Alaska, offers hybrid working for many employees on Wednesdays and Fridays, though office roles require others to be in-person, spokeswoman Rebecca Boys said in an email. The program allows ”individual flexibility while maintaining the advantages of in-person engagement,” she said.

Some Alaska Native regional corporations said they allow remote working, such as CIRI, representing many Southcentral Alaska shareholders.

The company lets eligible employees work remotely Mondays and Fridays, with supervisor approval, said Ethan Tyler, CIRI senior director of corporate affairs.

Tyler lives in Girdwood and occasionally telecommutes himself on those days, saving an hour-plus on the roundtrip drive to Anchorage. Inevitably, the dog barks when he meets virtually with company executives, but things usually go smoothly.

The option is valuable for recruiting talent, he said.

“We want to provide that flexibility because we want to make sure we are getting the best employees we can get,” he said.

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Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.

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