The multistory office buildings in Cool Springs are normally teeming with hundreds or even thousands of workers, but many of those buildings have been mostly empty for months.

While restaurants and retail stores in Williamson County are already reopening, many of the largest offices are taking it much slower. 

Many of the largest employers in Williamson County were able to shift seamlessly to remote work when the coronavirus outbreak reached Middle Tennessee. That success is allowing employees to continue working from home while leaders develop thoughtful plans for a return.

Associates at Mars Petcare will continue to work from home while a team plans out what a reentry to the office will look like. The vast majority of Williamson and Davidson County employees at Community Health Systems have been working from home during the pandemic. Some have now returned to the office, but many will continue to telecommunte.

A spokesperson for Brookdale Senior Living said it’s too early to talk about about how the virus will change work permanently at the Brentwood headquarters, but the company is taking a conservative approach when it comes to bringing employees back to the office.

Before the coroanvirus pandemic, more than 1,000 employees worked in the Brentwood headquarters for Tractor Supply Company on a normal day. Now, there are only 40 to 50 employees who need to be at the office to complete their work.

The company already had a work from home program before the pandemic, and between 10% and 15% of employees worked remotely. On March 12, as the public health officials started to identify the first cases of COVID-19 in Tennessee, leaders at Tractor Supply decided to test out the effect of having all employees work from home.

“We decided ... let's all go home tonight and act like as if we can't come back tomorrow. Let's put ourselves into a drill," Vice President of Human Resources Brian Evans said. "It was so successful we repeated it the next day. We decided let's stay out on March 13 as well, and basically have not come back since."

Now, a task force at the company is trying to plan out the best way to bring employees back.

"Our goal is three things: make sure that we're making an environment that is as safe as possible for our team, as welcoming as possible ... and focus on path forward, meaning let's not put a band-aid on something,” Evans said. “Let's think about what the future looks like and try to invest to make sure we're ready for that.” 

Tractor Supply is investing in technology and automation at the Brentwood office to reduce touch points at the office. Doors and elevators will open automatically. Conference rooms will have Bluetooth technology so employees don’t have to touch hardware. The company is installing more video conferencing technology in conference rooms to make it easier for employees to continue working from home.  

The office layout will change in some ways, as well. The company is removing chairs from conference rooms to create more space. 

Employees will continue working from home at least through the end of May, but the company hasn’t set a specific date for when workers will return. Leaders aren’t sure how many people will ultimately return to the office. 

“It's just too early to speculate on that,” Senior Vice President of Investor and Public Relations Mary Winn Plinkington said. “We're going to do everything through that lens of health and safety. We're not going to rush.”

As companies plan for a return to the office, some are looking into whether they should test employees for COVID-19 before they return. The Williamson County Emergency Management Agency has asked large employers to coordinate with the county, which is offering free drive-thru tests, if they want to test large numbers of employees. As of early May, the county hadn’t coordinated with any large companies to conduct mass tests.

Evans said the task force at Tractor Supply is researching whether the company should be testing employees when they return to the office, but there are a lot of question marks.

“How would we do this if we wanted to do this? … We're finding out who is available. How is the testing developing? We haven't decided yet what makes sense for us from a business standpoint,” Evans said. “With industry peers, we're all asking, how is this a practical application for us? We don't want to create a false sense of security. We test you and we say you're good to go. Do I need to test you again tomorrow? I think like everyone else we're still trying to figure out how to use that in a practical application at work.”

Tractor Supply already works with a lab to perform drug tests for employees at distribution centers. Evans said the company is looking into whether that lab would be available to run tests for COVID-19. The company’s medical plan already pays for tests if employees need to get tested on their own.

At the Brentwood firm LBMC, leaders are paying close attention to government guidelines as they plan a return to the office.

"It's watching the framework of the federal, state and county guidelines and then applying that to our business," Chief People Officer Michelle Endres said.

The company hopes to let some employees return to the building starting June 1, but there will be changes. The company is removing chairs in conference rooms to make more space for social distancing. Managers will only bring back a maximum of half their team at first, and going back to the office at LBMC will be voluntary.

“We want people to self direct themselves,” Endres said. “Are they comfortable? Does their family situation allow that to happen? ... We have to be sure we're meeting team members where they're at and where their family situation is at.”

Like Tractor Supply, Endres said the transition to remote work at LBMC has been very successful. The company has about 402 employees at their Brentwood office, and about a quarter of LBMC employees worked remotely before the pandemic.

Evans said that the successful transition is buying his company more time to plan for a thoughtful and safe return to the office building. Employees have already proven they can effectively work from home, so there’s not a rush.

“It has been one of the best tools available to us to continue to support our stores and distributions centers,” he said. “Our store support center really didn't miss a beat. We don't want to risk that at all with rushing into anything.”

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