Distant work is right here to remain for some Pittsburgh-area firms

Tim Koziarski settled into his Upper Burrell home office a lot more since working partially remote during the pandemic.

He had an advantage. Koziarski, 58, is co-owner of Kozi Media Design, a Pittsburgh-based company specializing in smart technologies for the home and office. Business has been brisk installing technology for remote work, video conferencing and other technologies for businesses.

“For me, it’s not much of a difference working remotely from home and or in an office,” he said. “We were never tethered to a phone and a desk.”

Koziarski is among the thousands of workers in the region who may or may not continue to work remotely after the pandemic.

A survey released by PricewaterhouseCoopers International Limited earlier this year found that U.S. executives and employees envision a “post-pandemic future with a lot more flexibility, yet few are prepared to completely abandon the office space.”

In May, Google said it expects about 20% of its workforce to still work remotely after its offices reopen this fall, while some 60% will work a hybrid schedule that includes about three days in the office and two days “wherever they work best.”

Local employers such as Giant Eagle have already committed to making certain jobs totally or nearly fully remote. They shed one of three buildings at RIDC Park in O’Hara earlier this year because they no longer needed the space for workers.

Employers such as Highmark Health, the parent organization of Allegheny Health Network, plan to offer more flexible work arrangements, calling the change “Work from Anywhere,” because of the success of remote work for certain jobs.

Conversely, NexTier Bank plans to safely work on-site as much as possible because productivity is better with in-person work than remote, the company said.

Others have not yet made a final decision on what remote work will look like after the pandemic. They are taking a hybrid approach, requiring employees to come to the office some days and work remotely other days.

Regardless of the approach, local companies say they remain committed to flexibility for their workers, some of whom continue to deal with pandemic issues such as family health vulnerabilities to covid-19 and complications with childcare and schooling.

“Working remotely or from home used to be reserved predominantly for those who were self-employed,” said Rick O’Domes, site administrator for PA CareerLink Alle-Kiski, headquartered in New Kensington.

“Many companies, including regional leaders such as Giant Eagle, have realized that changes in office staffing levels put in place because of the pandemic make good business sense now as they continue the return to normal operations.”

More job seekers are seeking remote positions, he said.

“The prospects of minimizing or eliminating commutes and expenses connected to working away from home – lunch, parking, etc. – have made some of our customers take another look at jobs and salaries that might not have been considered viable options for them several years ago,” O’Domes said.

Flexibility is key for some

During the height of the pandemic, many of the 1,000 employees on the corporate side of Giant Eagle worked remotely — although some did head to the stores to support the busy staff.

“As far as we are operating, the corporate team will work remotely on a long-term permanent basis,” said Jannah Jablonowski, Giant Eagle spokeswoman. “Things could change, but for right now we are working from home and that is the new normal for us.”

Employees still meet to collaborate at store sites, she said.

“We did everything we could to sanitize and keep the stores well-stocked,” Jablonowski said. When they shifted the corporate workers to remote work, the corporate team responded and productivity was good,” she said. “That was a big moment — this could be the future for us because of how well we are in operating in the new environment.”

After surveying managers and employees, Highmark Health plans to permanently offer flexible work from home or the office.

“Over the last year, employee survey results have shown increased job satisfaction and overall productivity for those who have been able to work remotely,” said Larry Kleinman, Highmark Health’s chief human resources officer. “These results speak for themselves: how we work is more important than where we work.”

While hospital operations require on-site employees, administrative functions subject to flexible work arrangements include public relations as well as some marketing and finance functions, said JoAnne Clobus, spokeswoman for Allegheny Health Network and Allegheny Valley Hospital.

Service industry businesses like the accounting firm Opst and Associates in Greensburg always offered some remote work opportunities. During the heat of the pandemic, remote work increased but now the firm is back to its pre-pandemic operations, said office manager Deanne Caruso.

However, employees now are taking more advantage of the chance to work from home, she said. “As a firm, we like the flexibility that offers,” Caruso said. The firm plans to continue the current work format moving forward because “it keeps our employees happy,” she said.

The value of in-person work

NexTier Bank, headquartered in Kittanning with 31 locations in Western Pennsylvania, remained open during the pandemic with limited lobby traffic and customer appointments, said Lou Palumbo, chief information officer.

More than 150 associates worked remotely including those who worked in accounting, human resources, technology, marketing, and retail and loan operations.

“The long-term plan is to have associates work in the office,” Palumbo said. “We see a value in camaraderie and morale.”

He credits the relationships of workers before the pandemic for allowing them to communicate well while working remotely. “But for a new person to the company, there was a challenge to integrate them into our culture – that was harder to overcome,” he said.

However, the bank still wants to remain flexible, Palumbo said. “If folks need to work from home, we developed infrastructure to support them at home,” he said.

Productivity is better in the office, said Cindy McMaster, the legal secretary for Westmoreland Injury Lawyers in Greensburg.

Working in person gives clients easier access to their services, she said. “I think it’s better to be face-to-face with people.” The firm now has a better remote working system that can be used if pandemic concerns rise again or if an attorney is sick, McMaster added.

Next steps

FirstEnergy Corp., the parent company of Greensburg-based West Penn Power Co., said it has tentative plans to start bringing work-from-home employees back to its offices in September in a phased return-to-work approach.

West Penn Power, with about 750 employees in the Greensburg office and nearby service centers, is considering plans for remote work.

“We have learned a lot about remote work during the pandemic and as a result, have been evaluating what the workplace will look like moving forward,” said Lauren Siburkis, spokeswoman for West Penn Power. “Business needs and employee input will continue to factor into thoughtful decisions about next steps.”

One thing that is for sure, employees impacted by the pandemic will still have flexibility working from home when possible and working more flexible hours, Siburkis added.

Health care giant UPMC, which employs more than 90,000, will exercise workplace flexibility “when appropriate,” said Gloria Kreps, vice president of public relations.

Arconic encouraged employees to work from home if possible during the pandemic, said spokeswoman Tracie Gliozzi.

“While the situation remains fluid, we have not made any permanent changes to employee work arrangements,” she said.

Mike Schimizzi of Schimizzi Law in Greensburg said the firm plans to continue a mixed work format or in-person and remote work moving forward, although they would increase remote work if the pandemic worsens.

“When you look at how efficient these companies are (working remotely), I just wonder if we’re ever going to get back to the way things were,” he said.

The Associated Press and staff writers Joe Napsha and Quincey Reese contributed to this story.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, mthomas@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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