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Will Westchester work from home permanently? In the aftermath of pandemic, hybrid work presents new changes and possibilities in the county.
As the pandemic recedes, employees and employers are wrestling with the future of hybrid work. The results have the potential to change the very fabric of business in Westchester.
Piper Gunnarson — the Peekskill-based executive director of an opera company — isn’t the type of professional you’d expect to work from home. Operas, after all, are about costumes, rehearsals, and grand venues.
But the pandemic changed a lot of things.
Gunnarson runs On Site Opera, a New York City-based nonprofit that stages performances in nontraditional venues, like museums and gardens. “For our organization, working remotely full-time has been a practical financial decision, catalyzed by the pandemic,” Gunnarson explains. Prior to the pandemic, the organization had an office and rehearsal studio in Manhattan that employees generally reported to full-time. But that lease was terminated in 2020.
Working from home ended up happily surprising Gunnarson. No more commuting or desk time in Manhattan meant more time with family. And, she found, it meant just as much productivity. “I have learned to prioritize better and to be willing to say no to things that won’t ultimately have a noticeable benefit to my work performance,” Gunnarson explains. “This shift in day-to-day work has definitely had more positive effects than not.”
But with the pandemic ebbing, Gunnarson is unsure of what lies ahead. “We frequently revisit the question of returning to an office, weighing the pros and cons of maintaining that overhead expense,” she explains. She’s not alone.
The pandemic isn’t over, but it is receding. With most of Westchester vaccinated and boosted, and with managers eager to work shoulder-to-shoulder with employees once again, offices are opening doors that have been shut for years. But not everyone is ready for a hasty return.
“Remote-work policies are not simply a matter of where you expect your employees to work; it also says something about how you expect your employees to live.” — Piper Gunnarson
“I think Westchester is a lot like other parts of the country,” says Bridget Gibbons, director of economic development for Westchester County. “We have adjusted to the fact that working from home was born from necessity during the pandemic, but it has remained a desirable feature for many workers.”
So, how will county businesses navigate what’s ahead? There’s no dictum for how this should be done — no playbook for how to return to a pre-COVID world or if we even should. “Even though remote work brings new and creative ways of working, it also sometimes alienates us from others,” explains Segolene Prot, chief people officer of Heineken USA, which is based in White Plains.
As a result, Westchester businesses and professionals are currently experiencing a hodgepodge of approaches.
“For those businesses that are able to — those that don’t require daily, direct customer contact — the somewhat-hybrid model seems to be the way most are working,” says Marsha Gordon, president/CEO of the Business Council of Westchester (BCW). “Employees are back in the office about three days a week, on average.”
But there are bigger questions at play than just the number of days in the office. “There are a bunch of different angles,” says Michael Romita, president/CEO of the Westchester County Association. “There’s the impact on businesses. There’s the impact on how workers work. There’s the impact on the regional commercial real estate market and population migration.”
Some pundits have painted the future of work as a pitched battle: the employee, eager to work from home, versus the employer, eager to repopulate the office. But Gibbons says it’s not that simple.
“What it boils down to is a business decision,” she explains. “Can the business function as efficiently, and as profitably, with a [hybrid model], or is there some degradation to the service? Businesses have come to the realization that work can get done at the same level — and sometimes to an even greater degree. It’s not like all employers are saying, ‘Everybody back!’”
Still, “with some exceptions, the businesses we speak to want to see their workers back in the office,” Romita explains. “However, they want to accommodate their workforces, and they’re sensitive to the way work has changed over the past few years.”
Indeed, employers are feeling pressure from their workers — a powerful lobby. “We have a very tight labor market right now,” Romita says. And for Westchester businesses to be able to attract and retain talented staff, a hybrid approach remains necessary, says Gordon. “It makes an employer all the more attractive.”
Gunnarson agrees: “I think that flexibility is the new currency in hiring practices, at least for office jobs. Remote-work policies are not simply a matter of where you expect your employees to work; it also says something about how you expect your employees to live.”
Mastercard, which is headquartered in Purchase, is one company that’s paying close attention to this trend. “Flexibility is critical, and giving our people options about where, when, and how they work helps improve their overall well-being,” explains chief people officer Michael Fraccaro. “Embracing hybrid work is one way we’re evolving and promoting flexibility.”
Smaller companies are also paying attention. At the Valhalla-based PR firm Buzz Creators, remote work affords staff “the opportunity to sleep in a bit instead of commuting, save some gas money, and maybe throw in a load of laundry while working,” explains the firm’s president, Christina Rae.
Of course, there are nuances to who benefits from hybrid work; we can’t all open our laptops at the kitchen table and expect the same experience.
First, of course, are the professionals who can’t work from home — the cashiers, the nurses, the firefighters. “If you are in a service industry, like the law, it’s a little bit easier to work from home than if you work in a hospital or a factory,” Romita says.
On the flip side, companies that churn out software can have workforces that are almost entirely remote. “Tech companies are more likely to have a higher degree of flexibility than other sectors,” Gibbons explains.
There’s also the challenge of mentorship. Sustained face-to-face interaction between junior and senior employees is still a crucial part of just about any workforce, Romita says. “If you are a pretty well-seasoned, mid-level professional, it may be easier to do your job remotely,” he explains. “Not so if you are a young professional trying to build a career. For the young workers, this is going to be more challenging.”
Zachary Gordon, a White Plains-based CPA and financial professional who works from home, agrees with Romita. “It has taken a bit more effort to establish relationships with coworkers and other important professional parties,” he says. “The ‘Zoom fatigue’ became very real, very fast, so it was important to come up with novel ways to interact.”
Another way to combat this is having designated days when the whole staff convenes, like Buzz Creators does. “Our team currently works from home on Mondays and Fridays,” explains Rae. “And we are all in the Valhalla office together to collaborate and brainstorm client strategies — which I think works best in person — on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.”
Then, there are the inherent challenges that come with working from home. “Work hours are more blended than they have ever been,” explains Zachary Gordon. “While the nine-to-five lifestyle doesn’t really exist for CPAs, there was at least a delineation between time to work and time for life. That line is very difficult to maintain when working from home and requires you to establish some semblance of boundaries.”
How and where Westchester residents work will have far-reaching ripple effects, experts say.
“We’re at a pivotal time in Westchester’s history,” the BCW’s Gordon explains. “Many people who previously commuted into the city are now working here remotely, at least part time.”
With a slew of skilled, suburban professionals now ready to axe their commute, some industries across the county could thrive. “I think this could be a very opportune time for some Westchester businesses,” she adds, noting that one law firm she knows of doubled down on its Westchester space instead of its New York City space.
But does this mean Westchester workers will now also have to compete for jobs with professionals from far-flung states, even if the company is right next door? “I don’t get the indication from our businesses in Westchester that that’s a model they’re actively exploring,” Romita says. “For the most part, employers still want to see their employees back in the office several days a week.”
Working from home has triggered other cultural changes in the workplace too — like working from, well, anywhere. “Recognizing that the shift to remote work meant that many people could switch up their scenery and work from different places around the world, we also instituted Work From Elsewhere Weeks,” says Mastercard’s Fraccaro. “This gives employees the option to work up to four calendar weeks per year in a different location than their home bases.”
Mastercard has also introduced novel new policies, like designated meeting-free days and end-of-week flextime. Mores are changing at Heineken USA too. For example, employees are encouraged to turn on their cameras during remote conference calls, in order to promote camaraderie, says Prot.
Commercial real estate is hurting right alongside local restaurants, who can no longer rely on a regular business lunch crowd. “It’s true that the ‘trophy properties’ will continue to thrive,” Romita says. “It’s those second-tier properties that have more challenges. Vacancy rates across the county have stabilized, but the commercial real estate owners would obviously like to see those vacancy rates drop and would like to see more people coming back to the office.”
If and when people return will likely be “a function of how the office is reconfigured,” Romita adds. Replacing cubicles with more open spaces that foster interaction and cameraderie is one likely change. Another example is a Zoom hookup in every conference room, which can beam employees into important meetings from anywhere in Westchester — or the world.
“Flexibility is critical, and giving our people options about where, when, and how they work helps improve their overall well-being.” — Michael Fraccaro
But as traditional commercial real estate suffers, another type of real estate is booming: Westchester’s coworking spaces. “I know that when I worked from home, I didn’t enjoy sitting at my living room table every day,” Gibbons says. “So, people are heading off to coworking spaces, where they can interact with people, maybe not from their company, but see other workers, talk to people.”
Indeed, a handful of these spaces — like HudCo in Dobbs Ferry, KOI Creative Space in White Plains, and Daybase in Harrison — are thriving, according to Gibbons.
As the future gets sorted out, one thing employers can do to stay on track is simple: listen to employees. At Heineken, the company surveyed employees throughout the pandemic to determine if and when they were ready to return to the office. Those surveys informed Heineken’s decision to welcome employees back voluntarily in 2021. More recently, in March, the company has implemented a new hybrid approach: White Plains employees are expected to be in the office Tuesday and Wednesday and can work from home the other days if they desire.
Mastercard is also getting the message: “It’s clear that flexibility and hybrid work are the way of the future, so Mastercard is leaning in,” Fraccaro says.
But not all companies have been so decisive. “Employers have to come to terms with it. If they haven’t, they will,” Gibbons says. “Work from home is probably here to stay.”