Hybrid work is here to stay.
As coronavirus cases stabilize and the world inches back to whatever “normal” is, businesses in Maine and across the country are weighing whether to bring employees back to the office, and if so, in what form.
By and large, a hybrid home-and-office model seems to be the answer, though the “how” varies widely, from a set number of days a week in the office to simply keeping the door open for anyone who wants to come in.
After two years working at home because of the coronavirus pandemic, many workers say they have come to value a better work-life balance and would like to continue to have that option.
But companies are eager to bring people back to the building, working collaboratively under one roof. Employees, too, say they miss the camaraderie being in an office can create.
It’s not an easy problem to solve, and human resources professionals say businesses that want to keep their employees will have to approach the issue with equity and sound reasoning.
At Spinnaker Trust in Portland, the company worked hard to find a happy hybrid medium.
In December, the company started by bringing people back one day per week, with different teams coming in on different days.
But starting last week, employees are now expected to work in the company building Tuesday through Thursday.
Jessica Roberts, senior operations manager, said her immediate reaction to learning she had to be in the office three days a week was something along the lines of an anguished, “Noooo!”
But now that the initial shock has worn off and Roberts is settled into her office, she’s found the hybrid model offers a good balance between work and home life.
“I was initially resistant, but it’s for the best,” she said, adding that as a new employee, she’s grateful to get to know her co-workers in person.
Sara Lewis, director of client service and principal at Spinnaker, said the wealth management firm has worked to create a balance that works for the company and its roughly 35 employees.
“We knew we couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle,” Lewis said. “We know we can all work from home and it’s not a bad thing, (but) the culture of the firm is really built on seeing people.”
Neither Roberts nor Spinnaker’s leadership is alone in their thinking.
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey of nearly 6,000 U.S. workers, 59 percent of those able to do their jobs from home said they were doing so all or most of the time. Additionally, 76 percent of workers with offices already open said their “major reason” for working from home was simply because they prefer it.
Sixty-four percent said working from home has made it easier to balance work and personal life, though about 16 percent said it has made it harder. And yet, about 60 percent said they felt less connected to their colleagues.
Thanks to recent state and federal guidance, coronavirus concerns are no longer the primary factors for business leaders weighing the next steps.
OFFICE-ONLY ‘WON’T FLY’
Employers will need to have a compelling reason to bring people back to the office full time, said Rhoda McVeigh, consulting services director for the Falmouth-based consulting firm KMA Human Resources.
Workers want flexibility, and in what McVeigh said is now a “people-driven economy,” not offering that will have one simple effect: “They’re going to lose a lot of people.”
She cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach and said employers should make decisions based on either individual or team needs.
Just as it’s a seller’s market in real estate, it’s an employee’s market in the professional world, she said, and employers who want to keep their employees will need to offer flexibility and prove their commitment to employee well-being.
As a consultant, McVeigh said the majority of her clients are drafting hybrid work plans.
Even companies that aren’t mandating any specific days in the office and are effectively fully remote have stopped short of defining themselves as such. Instead, they’re keeping offices open and giving staff the opportunity to come in as needed.
“New future, new workplace,” McVeigh said.
There’s a great deal to be said for human interaction, for collaboration or even just the small water cooler or passer-by conversations that happen during the day. It makes sense to want workers back in the office, but there needs to be a reason for it beyond “I just want to see you working,” McVeigh said. “That’s not going to fly.”
The approach will also need to be perceived as fair.
“Can the function be done remotely? If it can, and if they want to, then let them,” she said. “Making exceptions is going to be asking for trouble.”
WORKERS VALUE FLEXIBILITY
Rinck Advertising is operating under the guiding principle: If it can be done remotely, then allow it.
Most employees still haven’t been back to the office since it shut down in March 2020, and if they so choose, they might not do so ever. The agency is allowing employees to decide where they want to work.
It has been effective so far, and most of the roughly 35 employees have chosen to stay remote, enjoying the improved work-life balance that working from home allows.
Katie Greenlaw, of Greene, said working from home actually makes her feel closer with her colleagues, several of whom already worked remotely from Maryland before the pandemic began.
“Where we used to have (out-of-state) team members on a conference call, meeting remotely leveled the playing field for everyone,” said Greenlaw, Rinck’s vice president of public relations and influencer marketing.
CEO Peter Rinck said remote work also allowed him to hire employees across the country. The agency grew by a third during the pandemic.
“People don’t have to work in a 50-mile radius of your building anymore,” Rinck said.
Allowing fully remote work will also help the agency stay competitive in an increasingly tight job market, he added. Greenlaw agrees.
“As we’ve seen from the great reshuffling,” she said, “so many people are interested in remote work that it would have put us at a disadvantage to recruit and retain people” if the firm mandated a return to the office.
Laura McHugh, on the other hand, was ready to return to work at Spinnaker.
“It’s time,” she said. “I think a lot of people are getting back to their pre-COVID lives, getting together with friends again. I don’t see why work wouldn’t fall into the mix.”
Three days on site and two at home is a happy medium, she said. McHugh, client adviser and portfolio manager for the company, has worked at Spinnaker for five years.
“There’s nothing better than being able to take your pet for a walk in the afternoon or prepare your own food at home, but I think hybrid is more appropriate long-term,” she said. “I’m looking forward to being back with my peers and having more time to collaborate.”
Roberts and McHugh both said the social aspect of the office, while nice, can also be distracting. Those two workdays a week at home will be valuable for uninterrupted time.
“I get more work done at home, to be honest,” Roberts said.
Without the time it takes to get ready or run around “trying to be a presentable human,” and a nearly hourlong commute, Roberts said she’s able to start her day earlier.
But she also values the time spent getting to know her co-workers in person. Roberts was hired in May, so she started with Spinnaker fully remote.
The company didn’t have any remote workers before the pandemic, but allowing that flexibility – the “new norm” – will be important from now on, said Lewis, the Spinnaker principal.
A LONG-TERM PLAN
Most businesses aren’t rolling out hybrid work plans as merely a next step on the road back to 2019. By and large, employers said they don’t anticipate ever returning to the traditional, five-days-in-the-office structure. They also emphasized a new focus on making time in the office more meaningful and intentional.
At MEMIC, only about 15 percent of its 385 employees are in the office on a given day, but that’s slated to change April 4.
Starting next month, workers will return to the office three days per week. Days in office will largely be decided on a team-by-team basis.
Days in the building will be more intentional, with a greater focus on creativity, training and career development rather than on meetings that could have been done remotely at home, said Tony Payne, senior vice president of external affairs for the Portland-based workers’ compensation insurance firm.
“(Leadership) has been very clear about the strength being together has,” Payne said. “If we’re going to compete, we have to use every tool available to us, and being together is one of those tools.”
In Bar Harbor, The Jackson Laboratory has taken a similar approach.
The lab never fully closed, but those who were able to work remotely came back to a hybrid model in the fall.
Roughly 30 percent of the lab’s 1,600 staff members in Maine are able to do some form of remote work, said Katy Longley, chief operating officer.
“We don’t see it as a time-limited plan,” Longley said.
Employees work with their managers to determine what works best for them. Like MEMIC, the lab is focused on making in-office time as meaningful as possible.
Baker Newman Noyes, a public accounting firm in Portland, is also emphasizing flexibility.
The firm brought employees back to the office for two days a week starting in June, with the intention of adding more days as the summer and fall progressed.
However, when the virus’s delta and omicron variants hit, their plans screeched to a halt. The office never moved past those two days per week.
Employees are allowed to choose which two days they come in. Dayton Benway, the firm’s managing principal, said they’re generally averaging two or three days per week.
Now that cases are stabilizing again, the firm is reassessing. Still, Benway said it’s not likely that much will change.
“I’ve stopped saying ‘never’ and ‘always’ (but) I expect we will not get back to a five-day in-office expectation in the foreseeable future, if ever,” he said. “We very much understand that the pandemic forever changed how people look at where they work, who they work with, how they work and the value of that time away from an office setting.”
Some companies, such as Preti Flaherty in Portland and Great Works Internet in Biddeford, are still working out the details.
Rachel Lawrence, chief operating officer at Preti Flaherty, said the law firm expects to nail down its plan by the end of the month.
Lawrence didn’t say much about what the next steps might look like other than the company plans to allow more flexibility from now on.
It’s essential to staying competitive, she said.
“We have to meet our employees on the issues that are important to them and understand the market around us,” Lawrence said. “We want folks to feel really good about working here.”
At Great Works Internet, also known as GWI, Kerem Durdag is in no rush to bring people back.
As an internet service provider, the company was always comfortable with staff working remotely. Durdag estimated that before the pandemic, roughly 30 to 40 percent of the workforce was remote.
Durdag, GWI’s president and chief operating officer, hasn’t made any decisions but said that even when the company doors reopen, its roughly 50 employees will not be returning to a full-time in-office schedule. Any re-entry plans will be phased in.
“One-hundred percent (of employees) are very comfortable working remotely, but 100 percent would like to see each other for collaboration, too,” he said. “In that sense, we’re committed to remaining flexible in terms of how people want to work. It’s not going to be edict- or doctrine-driven.”
DOWNTOWNS ARE OPTIMISTIC
As much as he’s looking forward to being back with his fellow MEMIC employees, Payne is also looking forward to once again being able to step out the office door for a quick lunch downtown.
The pandemic, of course, has been a challenge for restaurants, which have weathered shutdowns, occupancy limits, supply chain disruptions and worker shortages, among other challenges.
“I just hope the places I usually haunt are going to be open again,” Payne said. “My good friends at Tic Taco, I’ve missed them. I love their food and I haven’t been there in two years.”
Payne isn’t the only one looking forward to being back downtown – businesses are ready for it, too.
The two-year absence of most office workers has been difficult for Portland’s downtown businesses, said Cary Tyson, director of Portland Downtown.
Mondays and Tuesdays in particular are slower, and many restaurants and shops have opted to close on those days.
“For a lot of our downtown businesses, that coffee or that lunch – or that random purchase of a book – really does add up over time and contribute to that bottom line,” Tyson said.
Like many others, Tyson doesn’t see a future in which workers are back in the office full-time again.
If anything, with more people working from home, he’s anticipating that downtown companies may start rethinking their office footprints. They’ll likely still hold onto some form of an office, he said, but may reconsider some of the large, multi-floor spaces that make up the workplace now.
But this isn’t a doom-and gloom-scenario. Tyson sees it as an opportunity.
“Is some of this space downtown going to be available to turn into housing in the somewhat near future?” he said.
Doing so would require substantial changes, but the downtown real estate market remains strong. Maine desperately needs more – and more affordable – housing, and the downtown area would benefit from having more people, Tyson said.
If more people are living downtown and those people are working from home, those coffee breaks and lunches might return. Living in a population center reduces vehicle dependency, making room for more spending elsewhere.
“I don’t think we’re quite there yet … but it’s an opportunity,” Tyson said.