Some things will never change, but remote toil could revamp the workplace landscape

SALT LAKE CITY — While the numbers are down significantly from a peak early in the COVID-19 pandemic, some 33 million U.S. workers are still toiling from remote locations in a massive, albeit compulsory, experiment in redefining the American workplace.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, those 33 million employees represent just under a quarter of the total U.S. workforce, and the Utah Department of Workforce Services believes that ratio likely holds up amid the state’s 1.6 million wage earners.

The timeline for a safe, en masse return to the in-person workplace remains hazy, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that many of those now grinding it out from home are having a fine time and are in no hurry to revert to commuter days. With the increasing possibility of a tidal wave of new, permanently out-of-office employees comes the realization the workplaces left behind last spring by the 400,000 or so current remote Utah workers may never look the same again.

Some 40% of the respondents in a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll said they were working from home either partially or fully, and 30% said they believe their remote work situations won’t change by the end of the year. The survey of 1,000 likely Utah voters was conducted Oct. 12-17 by independent pollster Scott Rasmussen. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Drew Ellsworth, a part-time clerk, stocks wine at a state liquor store in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.

Drew Ellsworth, a part-time clerk, stocks wine at a state liquor store in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

A survey conducted by the Utah Clean Air Partnership of 7,500 Utah employees and employers found that an overwhelming majority of those working from home reported numerous benefits like increased productivity, zero commute times, money savings and increased time with loved ones. Employers also logged rosy reports, noting their own cost savings, improved employee attitudes and increased productivity.

High employee satisfaction has also been an earmark of the state of Utah’s foray into remote work and it’s one that started, quite serendipitously, well before COVID-19 became part of the landscape.

Jeff Mottishaw, senior consultant for the Utah Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, said the state began winding up an effort to conduct a broad test of telecommuting back in 2018. The idea was to assess whether remote working could help the state reach multiple, and disparate, goals in one fell swoop.

Mottishaw said a successful launch of teleworking at scale could help address air quality issues by taking cars off the road, mitigate an increasing shortage of physical workspace for state employees, move a portion of the jobs concentrated along the Wasatch Front to rural Utah communities yearning for some economic gusto, and help boost employee productivity and morale by adopting some new and positive work flexibility options.

Freddie Rico rings up Sam Tyler at a state liquor store in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.

Freddie Rico rings up Sam Tyler at a state liquor store in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The state launched a beta test in

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