Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 25, 2021

‘What now?’ as office workers return

Employers push for return to normalcy as pandemic wanes

As more people receive the COVID-19 vaccine and the pandemic continues to ease, people are no longer asking “How long will this last?” but “What comes next?”

Fears that dense urban cores played a large role in spreading the virus led some prognosticators to declare the death of city centers, which they claimed would empty out as companies abandoned their offices and established permanent virtual workspaces that connected employees online.

Some companies, like Boston-based ButcherBox, a meat delivery business, did move to the digital domain. From there, the company’s staff now uses a network of electronic tendrils to complete tasks that were previously done in a physical space.

Text Request, a Chattanooga-based outfit that develops text messaging software for small businesses, could also make this model work, says Kenneth Burke, the company’s vice president of marketing.

But when the company’s leaders convened earlier this year to ask, “What comes next?” they placed only one answer on the table: Return to the office.

“Having an office where we bring people together is by choice,” Burke explains. “We made it work remotely during the pandemic, but we like things better when people are together.”

Like every other Chattanooga company that was operating out of a brick-and-mortar, Text Request abandoned ship March 13, 2020, when former Mayor Andy Berke signed an executive order establishing a communicable disease policy for Chattanooga and sent everyone scrambling home.

As a tech company, Text Request had previously established an infrastructure that allowed its employees to work remotely. So instead of having to focus on logistics, the company’s leaders were free to fret over how to guide their staff through the storm.

“Our challenge was, ‘How do we lead people who are used to being in the office but are now at home during a frightening and uncertain time?’” Burke recalls. “’How do we communicate effectively, how do we set expectations and how do we help our employees be as productive as we could reasonably expect?’”

As husband-and-wife co-founders Brian and Jamey Elrod and Chief Technical Officer Rob Reagan endeavored to answer these questions, another cluster of storm clouds rumbled in the distance.

Fueled by the nationwide shift from face-to-face interactions to virtual connections, as well as increased political traffic leading up to the presidential election in November, demand for Text Request’s software skyrocketed 400% in 2020, Burke reports, requiring the company to hire and train additional staff.

“Companies needed to let their customers know they were still doing business and were able to serve them,” Burke suggests.

Burke says Text Request’s staff excelled during the peak of the pandemic despite the additional remote workload.

“There was a learning curve in terms of productivity, as March, April and May were our three biggest sales months to date,” Burke notes. “It involved a lot of work, a lot of ongoing conversations and a lot of touching base with employees, customers and partners.”

Jessica York, content editor for Text Request, gives the company and her co-workers high marks for performance while working from home.

“Our team is great at communicating, so it was easy to stay on top of tasks,” she says. “We actually started several new projects and pushed out four eBooks during the lockdown.”

A few things did fall through the proverbial cracks, Burke admits, which boosted the case for returning to in-office operations.

“When you’re physically together, you can overhear someone’s conversation during a phone call and, if you’re a manager, then you can more easily help them improve on that,” Burke says. “There’s also more brainstorming. If you’re at home, you’re less likely to present your ideas to others because you have to use email and explain everything in writing.”

Spring eventually yielded to summer, and as the sweltering months wore on, Burke says the company’s leaders began allowing a small number of employees to return to their space in Chattanooga’s Southside community – providing everyone followed strict safety protocols.

“Some people were enjoying working from home, and some people were going out of their minds,” Burke remembers. “My wife does her best work at home. Close the door to her office and let her run. I have to get out of the house. And there’s an even mix of that here.”

Slowly, more and more employees began spending time at the office, and by spring Text Request was planning its return to fully in-person operations.

“We knew quality work could be done remotely, but we also knew relationships are best built when you’re physically together,” Burke says.

Burke adds those relationships are essential to maintaining Text Request’s integrity as a Chattanooga company.

“We’re a tech company with clients in every state and province in North America, so we could work anywhere. But Brian and Jamey are from here, and they want to stay here, so part of our mission is to be a profitable, sustainable Chattanooga company where people love to work.

“And very few people wake up in the morning and say, ‘I’m excited about looking at my laptop for the next eight hours.’”

Although York worked full time during the pandemic, she typically did not spend eight-hour stretches at her computer. Instead, she would complete a task and then take a scenic walk along Stringer’s Ridge near her home to help her reboot for the next undertaking.

While York enjoyed these excursions, she says she had difficulty disconnecting from her work while at home.

“I’m both a commercial and creative writer, so when I’m not creating copy as Text Request’s content editor, I’m working on my novel or short stories,” York says. “Part of how I balance those two different types of writing is mentally separating them by working in different locations.

“Before the pandemic, I would finish my commercial writing in my office by 5 p.m. and then driving to a coffee shop to work on my creative writing until 7 p.m. I lost access to both those workspaces when the lockdown hit, and my amount of personal writing took a nosedive because I no longer had a separate, designated space to do my creative writing.

“It’s wild how our brains can become dependent on certain kinds of environments for different types of work. It’s the same way track runners prefer different kinds of shoes for different events. I felt like I’d lost my favorite pair of racing spikes without that special spot in my go-to coffee shop.”

York says she also missed her teammates and collaborating with them face-to-face.

“When I’m in a professional setting, most of my energy comes from spending one-on-one time with mentors and peers,” York says. “Fostering those relationships gives me a sense of purpose and belonging, and it’s disheartening when you can’t have those moments to learn from each other and grow professionally together.”

With the disadvantages of working at home outweighing the benefits, York was happy to return to the office and her daily routine. This was just as well, as Text Request’s leadership did not ask, but required, its employees to come back.

Burke says no one dissented.

While Burke says he would rather not discuss what would happen if a Text Request employee did refuse to return to the office, Tennessee law is on the company’s side, says Donna Mikel, an employment law attorney with Mikel & Hamill in Chattanooga.

“Generally, an employer can dictate where its employees have to work. An employee does not have any right to work remotely unless he or she has the right to an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Mikel explains.

Burke says employees are free to work remotely during a trip to a coffee shop or while out of town, but otherwise are required to work at the office.

“During COVID, working from home was our default. Now our default is working in office.”

Text Request didn’t summon its 22-member workforce back to the office it had occupied since Brian and Jamey Elrod founded the company in 2014, it beckoned everyone to a new and larger space in the heart of downtown Chattanooga.

Previously housed near Sculpture Fields at Montague Park, Text Request now occupies 7,200 square feet above Taco Mamacita on Market Street.

From there, Text Request’s employees develop the company’s software, market the product to potential clients and provide tech support to customers, among other tasks.

They also look for ways to help themselves reboot for their next undertaking. York has already found hers.

“Downtown is beautiful, and I take walks to the aquarium now,” she says. “It was really nice getting that fresh air on the trails, though.”