Remote work as a way of life may come to an end in February for thousands in San Antonio if public health experts advise it’s safe.

By then, it will have been nearly a year since USAA employees, and many others, joined in a national migration to working from home when the coronavirus pandemic began in March, perhaps forever altering the cubicle landscape.

In the U.S., while the percentage of workers who are telecommuting has changed modestly since last year, a Gallup poll shows the average number of workdays telecommuters are working from home has more than doubled, from 5.8 days per month in fall 2019 to 11.9 days currently. 

With a coronavirus vaccine nearing widespread distribution, there’s talk of returning to the office.

For USAA, which employs 19,000 people in San Antonio, the target date of Feb. 1 is not set in stone. “In developing our return-to-office strategy, we continue to rely on trusted medical guidance,” stated spokesman Christian Bove.

With employees’ safety the top priority, a decision to return will be based upon community readiness; federal, state, and local decisions; employee feedback; and other considerations such as school closures, according to Bove. 

“Our employees’ safety continues to be our top priority,” he said. And any return plan will be phased-in and voluntary. “This continues to ensure the safety of our employees and allows them to return with consideration to their individual situations and our business needs,” Bove said.

After months away from the workplace environment, however, some American workers might not be ready for life in the office.

More than half of employed adults whose job responsibilities can mostly be done from home say that if they had a choice, they would want to work from home all or most of the time when the coronavirus outbreak is over, according to a recent Pew Research survey.

A third said they’d want to work from home some of the time, while 11 percent said they’d want to do this rarely or never. 

Even those who did not get a taste of working remotely during the pandemic said they want the chance to do so. The Pew survey found that of those who rarely or never teleworked before the outbreak, almost half said they would want to work from home all or most of the time when the pandemic is over.

Among the criteria USAA officials will consider before recalling its workers are lessons learned from organizations that opened sooner than most, Bove said. 

For instance, USAA’s corporate neighbor, Valero, brought employees back to the office in June, after only about two months of remote work. Though a contingent of employees voiced concerns, the company defended its decision by insisting long-term remote work wasn’t feasible or necessary. 

That stance has not changed despite spikes in cases within the community. “We have had zero instances of workplace transmission on our campus as a result of our strong safety culture and ‘Stay Healthy’ protocols across our campus,” stated Valero spokeswoman Lillian Riojas, who said in June the company employs a consultant to track its coronavirus cases.

Valero also “makes accommodations” for employees in a risk category, she said, and the company is “being flexible” with employees who have school-age children participating in at-home learning. 

“We continue to encourage our employees to stay vigilant and follow protocols including daily self-assessment, stay home if sick, social distancing, wear a face covering as required, and practice personal hygiene at work and at home,” Riojas said. 

Most workers who can’t work from home are satisfied with the measures their employers have put in place to protect them from being exposed to the virus, according to the Pew survey. About 1 in 5 workers say they are not satisfied.

Of those not working exclusively from home and who have at least some in-person interactions with other people at their workplace, a majority said they are at least somewhat concerned about being exposed to the coronavirus at work. About half are concerned that they might unknowingly spread the virus to the people they interact with at work.

At NuStar Energy, most employees continue to work from home, said a spokesman, unless they want to work in the office. For those employees and essential workers, the company has put protective measures in place, made upgrades to the building, and is providing rapid COVID-19 testing at no cost to the employee. 

He said NuStar would continue that approach through the end of the year and reevaluate in early January. 

San Antonio-based specialty insurer Argo also has no target date for returning to its IBC Centre Building on East Houston Street. Almost all Argo employees have worked remotely throughout the pandemic, said spokesman Dave Snowden. “When we do [return], it will likely be a slow transition.”

But working from home hasn’t been all pajama pants and afternoon naps. Productivity actually might have gone up. A University of Chicago survey concluded that remote work following the pandemic could raise productivity as much as 2.4 percent, signaling that Americans might have traded long commutes for long hours at their laptops. 

The Pew survey showed a third of remote workers are toiling more hours than they did before the coronavirus outbreak. Yet workers whose jobs can’t be done from home are most likely to say they are now working fewer hours.

Disclosure: USAA, Valero, and NuStar Energy are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.