By Sabrina Valle and Gram Slattery
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazil's Petrobras has decided to keep half its administrative staff working from home permanently, the company told Reuters, in a dramatic example of how the novel coronavirus has major companies rethinking their use of office real estate.
The oil company has sent as much as 90% of its 21,000 administrative staff home since March due to the pandemic. The experience has revealed new opportunities to save costs with office space, Petrobras said in a response to questions.
The state-controlled firm, known formally as Petroleo Brasileiro SA <PETR4.SA>, is the first oil major to plan a widespread and permanent shift to remote work.
Producers including Exxon Mobil Corp <XOM.N>, Royal Dutch Shell Plc <RDSa.L> and BP Plc <BP.L> have extended their work-from-home periods for most office staff into the foreseeable future but have not made any permanent decisions.
Technology companies such as Twitter Inc <TWTR.N> have been taking the lead on a permanent shift that is gaining traction in other industries as firms seek cost reductions, employee convenience - or both.
The shift to permanent work-from-home arrangements will be an opt-in process at Petrobras, according to press officers, but requests from workers so far suggest demand will be high, with more than 10,000 expected to participate.
The new policy will not immediately affect operational personnel working outside of administrative offices, such as refinery technicians and platform workers, who are part of a 46,000-strong workforce at Petrobras, excluding subsidiaries.
The permanent shift to more remote work is also under consideration for the company's logistics subsidiary Transpetro, or Petrobras Transporte SA.
Petrobras has not set a date to increase staffing in offices and will keep in-site workforce to a minimum for now to reduce health risks during the pandemic, the company said.
Workers from at least two departments are discussing a possible rotation system, in which employees would spend one week in the office and one week at home. Petrobras said that is an option under consideration, with no final decision.
Chief Executive Roberto Castello Branco has been on a crusade to cut costs since he took office in January last year. He announced a $8.1 billion cost-reduction plan through 2023, including dismissal programs and office space reductions.
Since then, he has decided to cut back overseas offices to five from 18, shutting locations in New York, Mexico City, Libya, Angola, Nigeria, Tanzania, Iran and Tokyo.
Petrobras has been also vacating entire buildings in Rio and Sao Paulo that it does not own. The company decided last year to concentrate employees at its iconic headquarters in downtown Rio, where the cost per desk is cheaper than in rented corporate buildings nearby.
Petrobras was one of the first oil majors to cut oil output as the coronavirus pandemic battered global demand. It also booked multibillion-dollar writedowns on assets to reflect lower long-term oil price forecasts, in a move followed by BP on Monday.
(Reporting by Sabrina Valle and Gram Slattery; Additional reporting by Ron Bousso in London; Editing by Brad Haynes and Steve Orlofsky)