Michael Mercier / UAH
Huntsville is the No. 2 midsize metro nationwide that’s most prepared to work from home, according to a report by Filterbuy.com, and the city’s connectivity, workforce and job mix have a lot to do with that, says an associate professor of management at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).
“Huntsville is a booming community and some of the jobs that are here – and that continue to come here – lend themselves well to working from home,” says Dr. William “Ivey” Mackenzie, a faculty member at the College of Business at UAH, a part of the University of Alabama System.
Huntsville’s high standard of living boosts its adaptability to working from home and has made such a transition easier for the community in general during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People here are more likely to have access to home computers, have home offices or extra space to set up a place to work in their homes,” Dr. Mackenzie says.
“We also benefit from access to relatively inexpensive fiber internet access,” he says. “Obviously this isn’t the case for everyone, especially if there are security issues, but many workers are benefiting from the types of jobs we see in Huntsville.”
The evolution of the Huntsville area’s economy has put many workers in the right place to be location flexible.
“The type of worker who is able to work from home is typically more educated or works in a knowledge-based industry,” Dr. Mackenzie says.
“Many knowledge workers already had deliverables before COVID that could not be directly measured, which would be another reason this group is virtual,” he says. “We still see lots of workers in traditional onsite work contexts, but the attitudes towards COVID-19 early in the pandemic pushed many companies to go remote.”
The pandemic was the change catalyst, and companies like Zoom and Skype were the facilitators, but the tangible and intangible benefits for companies are now gradually being realized. They include reduced infrastructure needed to support onsite workers and greater flexibility in work hours, as well as fewer travel expenses for meetings.
If the wane of the pandemic still finds a strong Huntsville work from home corporate culture, he says the community will definitely be impacted by changes to infrastructure needs.
“Commute times will decrease. Areas like Hampton Cove will see more development to serve workers looking for a quick bite to eat for lunch, while restaurants that were struggling in the heart of the city might not see their customer base return to pre-COVID levels,” Dr. Mackenzie says.
“Some communities will see workers move further away in search of affordable housing,” he says. “Huntsville benefits from a relatively low cost of living, so while we might not see a decrease in residents, we may find more people wanting to live in our area because they can work remotely.”
Area businesses facilities will be smaller if more employees are regularly working from home, and the layout of offices will change, he says. Shared office space will increase to house remote workers on days when they work onsite.
Company travel could change, too.
“Employee travel is often a desirable perk, so while companies may see reduced travel costs in the future, my guess is many employees will want to travel to desirable locations but the less desirable destinations will probably see an increase of remote meetings,” Dr. Mackenzie says.
More virtual meetings could unlock greater employee productivity because workers aren’t physically moving from one meeting to another, and there could be declines in absenteeism when working from home is an option. As well, having a system that allows employees to work from home allows employers to continue operations during emergency or unforeseen circumstances like bad weather.
Employees gain a more positive work/life balance but that would be tempered by uneven access to remote technologies across all employees and the need for certain jobs to be performed onsite.
“Many workers gain hours of additional time each week by eliminating their commute,” Dr. Mackenzie says. “Pets are the clear winners of the pandemic.”
He says he’s also read many anecdotes from workers about being able to eat better and get more activity because they have been able to adopt a healthier lifestyle while working from home. For those with families, it’s great to be able to work from home if a child needs to be home that day.
On the other hand, lack of access to the internet and technology can create a second class of workers in companies that could create legal issues for employers. Remote workers may also get left behind for raises and advancement.
“They miss out on the day-to-day exchange of information, and being offsite could negatively impact them when it comes to promotion opportunities,” Dr. Mackenzie says. “I mentioned pets and children earlier, but they can also be distracting for workers, and young children at home can negatively impact productivity.”
No longer having a commute to unplug from work also could make it harder to disconnect and transition to personal life.
“There also becomes an expectation that employees are always available when they work from home,” he says.
For employers, disadvantages include weaker worker connections to the company and the difficulty of finding and retaining workers under certain circumstances.
“Culture is a very important asset for successful businesses,” Dr. Mackenzie says. “If employees are unable to interact with one another in meaningful ways, it can really disrupt the organization’s culture.”
That could impact employee turnover, performance and other important employee outcomes of interest. Employee connectivity is so important that companies have studied how to encourage it.
“There are companies that have studied their onsite cafeteria waiting lines to make certain they are long enough to promote employee interactions,” he says. “A quick, spontaneous conversation in the hallway has tremendous value for some organizations.”
Companies that require employees to work onsite while competitors are having employees work remotely could see negative impacts to their ability to recruit and retain workers.
Still, Dr. Mackenzie says the benefits of a home-based workforce may result in substantial numbers of Huntsville’s knowledge-based workers logging in from home long after the pandemic has waned.
“The big catalyst for change would be necessity, but as people become accustomed to working from home, companies recognize this is a desirable benefit for recruiting and retaining talent,” he says. “My guess is that we will see employers becoming more open to working from home.”