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Virtual workforce adopted in the Heartland

Signs are emerging that a long-term shift to remote work post-pandemic is gaining traction far from the high-tech centers. They'll save on office space and please employees.

A shift to a virtual workforce is becoming permanent for many workers at Protective Life Corporation. This 3,000-employee firm in Birmingham, Ala., plans to reduce its office space and allow about 40% of its employees to work from home post-pandemic.

This type of move isn't unusual in Silicon Valley or other high-tech centers. Tech firms, such as Facebook and Twitter, have already shifted to long-term remote work. 

High-tech firms have led the charge on virtual work, said Andrew Hewitt, an analyst at Forrester Research. "But it is unusual for a non-tech company to commit to this," he said.

"Most companies are in a wait-and-see mode, particularly because they have investments in real estate contracts that are generally around 10 years or so," said Hewitt. 

Before the pandemic, about 19% of Protective Life's employees were full-time remote workers. That's now at about 95% because of the coronavirus.

The firm is preparing for a post-pandemic world of 40% remote workers. It plans to close six of its nine offices and shift affected workers to remote.

Protective Life says the remote shift has worked. "We have learned our employees can succeed in the virtual environment," said Rich Bielen, Protective Life president and CEO, in a statement.

"Over the past six months, our employees have been performing well in this environment, and we have heard that 75% have a preference for working virtually post-pandemic," said Brittnie Bordonaro, a Protective Life spokesperson.

"The combination of these factors gives us confidence that this new workplace model will enable us to meet and exceed business needs, customer satisfaction and employee expectations," Bordonaro said.

Protective has nine offices, and within the next two years it will close six offices in Bannockburn, Ill.; Brentwood, Tenn.; Denver; Elgin, Ill.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Portsmouth, N.H. It will keep operations in Birmingham, Ala., Cincinnati and St. Louis.

Remote workforce here to stay

Pre-pandemic, Forrester estimated that about 7% of employees were part of the virtual workforce. Post-pandemic, Hewitt predicts this will rise to as high as 20%.

[Remote work] has given employees a taste of what's possible and it's going to be hard to drag most back to the way things were.
Kate ListerPresident, Global Workplace Analytics

"A lot of organizations have found that they haven't had a giant productivity hit as a result of going remote," Hewitt said. "Giving people that flexibility in terms of retaining the talent is also an important area as well."

Another Heartland firm, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., in Columbus, Ohio, plans to close most of its buildings outside its four main campus locations. The plan is for a "hybrid operating model" with office workers at four main campuses.

Employees in the areas designated for building closings, including in Gainesville, Fla., Raleigh, N.C., and Richmond, Va., will move to permanent remote work status. The firm has about 28,000 employees and expects to have a virtual workforce of about 32% post-pandemic. It was at about 17% pre-pandemic, a spokesperson said.

The need for office space will shrink by a billion square feet as a result of this shift -- or a quarter of all the U.S. office stock, said Kate Lister, who heads Global Workplace Analytics, a research and consulting firm. That's a conservative estimate, she said.

"While the circumstances of working from home during the pandemic have been less than ideal for many, it has given employees a taste of what's possible and it's going to be hard to drag most back to the way things were," she said.

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