No Vacancy: Midlands Companies Still Warming to Remote Work

Remote work is now widespread in the U.S., irrevocably altering how office environments look and operate. But rumors of the demise of the in-person workplace have been greatly exaggerated, at least in Nebraska.

“There was a lot of discussion about how things were changing,” said Eric Thompson, director of the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “What we found was things were changing, but there was a lot of steadiness out there as well. I think it’s fair to say I expected there would be a bit more change than we identified.”

Thompson’s team completed a study on commercial real estate usage and attitudes toward remote work, released in late 2022. The study found while business leaders are more comfortable with the idea of remote work, nearly 80% regarded in-person work as vital to their business now and in the future. Nebraska employees in remote or hybrid work arrangements (16.5%) have increased by less than 6% since the first quarter of 2020.

“We did find some difference between metro areas, defined as Lincoln and Omaha, and small metro/non-metro where we also included Grand Island,” he said. “In both areas, there was an increase in employer comfort with remote work pre-pandemic to when we surveyed about two years later. But the difference was about three times bigger in the metro areas.

“That could be because fewer businesses had to experiment with it, so they never had a chance to find out if they’d get more comfortable. But it also could mean fewer business owners who tried it found it acceptable.”

Space Not Changing

Respondents also noted they are unlikely to cut back on space or change how space is apportioned, even among companies supporting remote work. About half saw the need to retain designated space for such workers, even if they weren’t in the office every day.

Catherine Lang, executive director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Nebraska Business Development Center, which commissioned the study, said the findings offered some intriguing insight. 

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“To the commercial real estate owner or developer, I think the study helps them know that looking ahead, [demand] will be level,” she said. “Maybe there won’t be huge demand for more commercial real estate, but the study at least let us know this isn’t going to be the fire sale many of us worried would happen.”

Varying Strategies

Karna Dam, community engagement representative with RTG Medical in Fremont, said the company does not offer hybrid or remote work options in part due to employee preference for working onsite. The company moved into its new headquarters in May 2022 and not having alternate work options hasn’t prevented it from growing headcount.

“The employees were really wanting to come back and work here. It’s part of our culture,” she said. “It’s who we are that makes us RTG Medical and that relationship side of who you work with every day is so vitally important. We worked really hard to get everybody back as quickly and safely as possible.

“We had about a 39% increase in employment during 2022, and in 2023 we are on target for filling this building. We are not having any trouble whatsoever finding good talent who want to be here.”

Omaha-based Scoular moved into its new headquarters in 2021 and while the building’s usage hasn’t deviated from the past, the company’s attitude toward hybrid work has. Since the pandemic, it’s offered an optional three days in-office/two days remote for designated job classifications. 

“We do an annual engagement survey and we just got our results back,” said Kelli Eickhoff, senior vice president and chief human resources officer. “We’re just getting into the data right now, but we’ve already received very specific comments that are very positive about the hybrid work schedule.

“We certainly are hearing from candidates who are applying for jobs with us: ‘That’s great. I love that. My current employer doesn’t do that.’ It’s a real differentiator from a new employee standpoint.”

Opening The Door?

Nebraska’s slower adoption of remote work might suggest the state’s businesses are putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage in several operational areas, but Lang said it’s too early to know if that’s true.

“I think we all recognize that Nebraska business is conservative, careful,” she said. “We’re not going to ever be on the cutting edge, but we’re really never on the lagging edge, either. I think many businesses in Nebraska embraced virtual work very positively, especially at the beginning of the pandemic when none of us knew what was going on. 

“Knowing some of our businesses are adopting hybrid models and it’s not having a dramatic impact on the need for space perhaps will give other businesses confidence to think about offering hybrid work opportunities to their employees. Maybe the pandemic helped prove it could work for far more businesses than we ever thought before.”

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