Whether you call it telecommuting, remote work, teleworking, or working from home, in a post-pandemic world, the living room is the next corporate frontier. According to a host of area business leaders, productivity has not been significantly impacted, despite a few substantial stumbling blocks.
The changes have been positive in other surprising ways, including opening up unexpected avenues for enhanced communication, work/life balance, and corporate synergy. Yet, regardless of a company’s stance, it’s undeniable that working from home has gone from something in the back of many CEOs’ minds to a pressing consideration for their organizations’ future stability.
When coronavirus first overtook the country, countless workers found themselves suddenly thrust into a world of Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime as each state enacted a form of lockdown. There were some immediate positives: The sleep-industry review and information website Sleepopolis conducted a study that found Americans who switched to working from home post-lockdown got an extra 16.4 hours of sleep per month. This is in addition to the extra hours employees were able to spend with family. Another survey, by The Conference Board, found that 77% of HR leaders surveyed expect the shift toward increased teleworking will continue, even up to a year after COVID-19 substantially subsides.
While the pandemic and its implications were impossible to foresee, many area businesses and organizations were quick to address any dearth of telework policies. This includes the Business Council of Westchester (BCW), the county’s largest business-membership organization. “I think it’s fair to say we didn’t have policies in place as to how we were going to react during a pandemic,” says BCW president and CEO, Marsha Gordon. “The fortunate thing was that we have professionals at the BCW, like Ivette Molina, our director of office operations, who were able to quickly learn the technology and become a resource for many of our members. It surprised and rather delighted us that we were able to keep on going as well as we did, and in as personal a way as we could have, by seeing people through this virtual technology.”
That sentiment is echoed by James D. Schutzer, vice president of White Plains-based JDM Benefits, a leading corporate insurance and benefits service. “While we had no formal work-from-home policies initially, a computer, phone, and email are all we need to do our job. So, it was an easy transition,” he says.
“We had no written policy other than remote work was allowed if authorized by the supervisor,” adds Nancy D. Miller, LMSW, executive director and CEO of VISIONS/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a nonprofit founded in 1926 that is dedicated to providing free services for blind people in need of training, support, and work. “For the safety of staff, we decided to figure it out as we went. Initially, it was a shock to staff as they tried to figure out how to work at home.” Based in New York City but serving clients in Westchester, VISIONS is in a unique position, given that 30% of its staff are blind.
Once regional businesses began telecommuting in earnest, both employers and employees found some surprising benefits. Katrine A. Beck, partner and cofounder of Fullerton Beck LLP, a woman-owned law firm that has grown to 14 attorneys and 35 employees since its 2018 genesis, was one such leader. “I always knew we had a great culture, but I didn’t know how much of that was derived from being physically together,” explains Beck. “I was impressed that the employees all quickly pivoted with us to switch to 100 percent virtual [work] and prepare for the worst, more than one week before most businesses were thinking of shutting down.”
This doesn’t mean there haven’t been some major challenges. For most companies, the biggest issue seems to have been ensuring that employees and management had access to the appropriate tech. “We quickly realized that many staff did not have the proper technology, so we bought laptops, printers, scanners, and accessible software for all staff who needed them,” says VISIONS’ Miller. “We did not know if we could get reimbursed or find grants to cover the costs, but we knew it was the only way to help staff remain productive. We subsequently applied for grants.”
When faced with similar issues, Matt Renna, vice president of human resources at Pace University, says his institution also found creative ways to address them. “In cases where there were challenges, such as workers needing computers, we allocated resources and prioritized employees in need,” he says. “While I wasn’t surprised, I was amazed at the resiliency of the Pace community to overcome this challenge. In some cases, colleagues lent iPads and laptops to each other.”
“It now seems that work and home blend into one another, with no real start or end to either.”
—Katrine A. Beck, Partner & Cofounder, Fullerton Beck LLP
Beck also found ways to respond to unforeseen issues that cropped up in the process of switching to teleworking. Her solution was a level of oversight that she says is based in both respect and the genuine desire to help. “What we do is check in on [employees’] work. We can remotely see what they’re doing — not as a way of checking up on them but instead saying, ‘Hey, I see you are still working on this motion. Do you need assistance from someone else?’ and letting people know that it’s okay to reach out and say, ‘I am struggling this week,’ or ‘I am having a really hard time getting motivated today,’” says Beck.
At VISIONS, the pandemic and its strictures actually created entirely new avenues of synergy and service. “We now communicate with each other and with our blind participants by phone, FaceTime, Google Meets, WhatsApp, Zoom, and any other means that our staff and participants use,” says Miller. “We are offering 50 remote classes a week for older blind persons, including yoga, computer training, support groups, exercise, bingo, and many more. We are in touch for check-in calls with between 300 and 400 of our blind participants every week. We are holding virtual work-readiness and prevocational-training workshops and technology-training classes. In some ways, we actually have better communication now than before, when we operated out of three offices. Now, it doesn’t matter where you live; we are all in touch regularly.”
Renna of Pace also points to additional positives among staff from the switch to teleworking. “For staff, they, too, appreciate the cost savings of not having to commute, and for positions that are not student-facing or -centered, a reduction in real estate costs and the associated expense reduction have a positive effect on keeping tuition costs down,” he says. Soon after their own switch to virtual interaction, the BCW’s Gordon says, “We had 100 people on a Business Council [virtual] meeting, and we realized then that businesses and people themselves were craving that interaction, that content, and the routine of a schedule.”
Overall, business leaders are optimistic about the prospects of remote work but are also honest about its drawbacks. “I think it’s fortunate that we have the technology to conduct some business virtually. However, I think it also highlights that working from home is not as easy as everyone thought,” notes Beck. “Yes, you get to work in comfy clothes and see your family, but you also lose a sense of organization, and the line between work and home disappears. It now seems that work and home blend into one another, with no real start or end to either.”
Gordon shares a similar viewpoint. “Westchester has a strong professional services sector that is well positioned to do remote work, but there is something lost when we’re not all in the office together, so I think there will be some more flexibility, but ultimately people will want to get back to the office,” she says. “I think we will see different configurations in offices as we move forward. I think that employers will look very differently at remote work and will incorporate something first related to the pandemic and second related to remote work in their handbooks and in their policies.”