Post-pandemic, working from home will still be a thing in Alaska

State Office Building Willoughby Avenue entrance 2021 01 22
A six-month old memo announces a face mask policy at the State Office Building’s Willoughby Avenue entrance in Juneau on Jan. 22, 2021. The offices still appear to be mostly empty. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

In the normally busy atrium of the massive State Office Building in downtown Juneau, it’s the middle of the work day and pretty quiet. Most of the offices are dark.

“All the offices are closed,” a security guard says, her voice echoing in the empty space. “Most of the levels will be closed off to the public.”

In the building’s garage, parking spaces are plentiful. State workers are mostly still working from home.

State Office Building empty parking garage 2021 01 22
Parking is plentiful in the State Office Building’s parking garage in Juneau on Jan. 22, 2021. Most state workers still appear to be working from home. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

One thing that 2020 taught us is that moving a huge chunk of the workforce out of the office and into the living room or garage or yurt, can work. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the shift, but working from home is likely to stick with many of us well after the pandemic is over. It’s also shifting work-related costs around.

You’ve probably heard a version of this line about one of the tradeoffs.

“You’re saving on, potentially, office clothing. You just have to buy the top, nowadays,” said Brian Penner with a laugh.

Which is a real thing retailers noticed early on in the pandemic. It’s even influencing the world of high fashion.

 

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Penner is the business manager for the Alaska Public Employees Association. It’s a union that represents municipal workers, educators and other government employees around the state.

The union polled its membership about telework and Penner said they got mixed responses. Some people appreciated the flexibility, plus saving gas and time by not commuting. Or being able to care for a relative out of state while still working their job.

Others had to spend a lot more on ergonomic furniture, phone and internet service, even printer toner.

Everyone’s situation varies. But on the whole?

“I would say that the stay-at-home costs far outweigh the cost savings,” Penner said. “Especially in the winter, I mean, with home heating costs.”

Penner said some offices are supporting or reimbursing for various work-from-home adjustments, some aren’t.

“There’s very little consistency across departments, divisions, even offices,” he said.

And a lot of workers aren’t asking.

“If they’re worried about their job, they probably don’t want to stir the pot much,” Penner said.

Penner thinks pandemic aside, the Dunleavy administration is keen on expanding telework options because of the savings to the state.

In Juneau, for example, many buildings are heated with electricity from the utility AELP.

“I think I probably spent five straight months without coming into the building at AELP,” said Alec Mesdag, who directs energy services for the utility.

He walked through this table of data comparing electricity use in 2020 to 2019. There was a clear shift from institutional customers to residential ones.

“And that, you know, is kind of what we would assume when a whole bunch of people stopped going into the office and instead start working from home,” Mesdag said.

Ralph Townsend is the director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He said the pandemic forced workplaces to consider telework, but that trend was already happening.

“I think the pandemic probably is more about accelerating a trend, than fundamentally changing it,” Townsend said.

Townsend figures that in the short run, yeah, there was a shift in costs to employees who were forced to work from home. But in the long run, he thinks it’ll only be the workers who want to work from home doing it.

From an employer’s perspective, it opens a huge pool of potential employees.

“You can hire people that you perhaps couldn’t have hired before,” Townsend said.

Some elected officials fear the trend will further disconnect state workers from the communities they serve. In Juneau, it’s another flavor of capital creep. That’s the gradual shift of the state bureaucracy out of Juneau, and the impact to the local economy of losing those steady state jobs. In rural communities where unemployment tends to run high, losing a local state job to telework has an outsized impact.

Townsend said Alaska can be an attractive place to telework from, as well.

“It’s going to go both ways,” he said. “You’ll have people, you know, living in Alaska working out of state, and people out of state working in Alaska. … And there are plenty of people who would like to be fat tire biking in the winter in Alaska and working in someplace else.”

The Juneau Economic Development Council is actually working on getting remote work to cut in the capital city’s favor. It’s got a campaign in the works called “Experience Juneau.” The idea is to attract and help people to temporarily live like a local in Juneau — especially in the tourism off-season — while they work out-of-town jobs.

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