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Strategies vary as companies plan for a post-pandemic workplace

Tom Farrelly recalls seeing fewer than 10 cars in the parking garage when he showed up for work at the state’s tallest building during the pandemic’s darker days.

“Three times in 12 months have I gotten on the elevator and seen another human being,” said the real estate executive, who came to his 13th-floor office in downtown Manchester most workdays during the pandemic.

A building worker told him that at one point, fewer than 100 workers were coming to their desks in the high-rise City Hall Plaza at 900 Elm St., a building where 575 worked before the pandemic chased most away 13 months ago.

The garage has been filling up in recent weeks as people come back, but it’s still a breeze to find parking on the street.

“You can still pull up in front of most buildings on Elm Street and easily find a parking space versus circling back,” he said.

As more Granite Staters are vaccinated, employers around the state are working on when and how to bring back employees to the workplace.

Flexibility has become the standard.

Fidelity Investments, which employs nearly 6,000 in New Hampshire, shifted more than 90% of its employees to remote work in March 2020. Today, nearly all are remote.

“Our approach for the future is likely for associates to have time working on-site and off-site, and overall they agree with that approach, but would like more specifics on what that looks like, how it will work and what flexibility they’ll have, which is what we are currently working to outline,” said Kirsten Kuykendoll, Fidelity’s head of associate experience.

Fidelity said some workers are returning voluntarily, but the financial services firm doesn’t have a timetable for when most will be back in the office.

“We are more focused on how as opposed to when,” Kuykendoll said.

Bigger hiring net

Shaping tomorrow’s workforce has created opportunities for employers to cast a wider geographic net to hire remote workers in a state with a 3% unemployment rate last month.

“It definitely expands our labor pool, so we can get more talent into our funnel, but it also helps with our diversity, which we’re kind of excited about,” said Jim Rowe, senior director of human resources at Hanover-based Hypertherm.

The company, which manufactures plasma and waterjet cutting systems and software, employs 1,200 at about 10 locations around Hanover and Lebanon. The company needed manufacturing workers to be on-site through the pandemic, but others have been able to work some or all of the time away from the office, according to Rowe, who was hired last year and commutes some days from his Nashua home.

Hypertherm adopted a phased approach to bringing back workers based on COVID-19 transmission rates, “and our Grafton County locations are currently in a phase that has remote-capable associates working from home,” Rowe said.

“As transmission rates drop, we will move to the next phase, which will have associates working in our offices two days a week and then subsequent phases at three days per week and so on.”

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, the state’s largest private employer, said the success of remote working means the health care provider will expand its geographic search for workers.

“In our new COVID-19 environment, we anticipate opportunity to hire talent that we may not have been able to if not for having remote roles,” said an email from two Dartmouth-Hitchcock officials.

“We first started remote work as a measure of safety for our employees, and now it’s become a strategic priority for the long term,” said the email from Aimee Claiborne, chief human resources officer, and Brenda Blair, vice president of Total Rewards, part of human resources.

Like private employers, municipalities also are reviewing what roles could remain remote.

Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland expects about 20 of the city’s 189 full-time employees to work part or all of the time away from the office — jobs predominantly in planning, finance and human resources.

Fewer people traveling to work in Lebanon means reconsidering how much the city will spend on a proposed $2.5 million intersection-improvement project designed to ease traffic near Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

“We want to see how much of the traffic bounces back to see how many lanes we need to put in,” Mulholland said.

No playbook

There is no “cookie-cutter” solution for employers imagining how and where their people will work in the future, according to Kelly Mann, manager of workplace strategy and change management at Cushman & Wakefield, a global commercial real estate firm.

“At the end of the day, management has to be comfortable with how they’re going to lead this new way of working, and you have to be very careful not to create a have-and have-not situation,” Mann said.

“There has to be a transparency in the conversation about the ‘why’ behind that,” so employees ordered to work in the office know why they weren’t extended the option of working remotely, Mann said.

Not everyone is in a hurry to return to the office full time.

Half the workers queried in one survey preferred splitting time between the office and home, 26% would like to work remotely all the time and another 25% chose the office, according to Robert Half, a staffing agency with three offices in New Hampshire.

One in three professionals working from home said they would look for a new job if required to return to the office.

Before the pandemic, Joseline Gonzalez worked at a call center in Bedford for Dartmouth-Hitchcock, but for the past 13 months, she has been answering calls from her Manchester apartment.

She learned recently she won’t be heading back to the office anytime soon. And that is fine with her.

“If I like, I can crawl into bed on my break if I want to take a nap,” Gonzalez, 28, said last week. “It’s the freedom of being home and all the possibilities.”

She still keeps in touch with her team electronically and believes life will be easier when her son returns to school next month. She also is getting $1,000 from her employer to use for home office needs.

Officials at Dartmouth-Hitchcock estimated about 25% of its workforce will remain at least partly remote.

Melinda Walker was told she will continue working from home rather than returning to her desk at Dartmouth-Hitchcock in Bedford.

“I always wanted a work-from-home job,” said Walker, 45, manager of patient access operations. “I think we all adapted pretty good over the last year using technology to our advantage.”

Staying home has given the Derry mom flexibility to help her three kids, ages 7, 12 and 14, with their remote learning when needed.

“I’m ready for them to go back,” she said.

Flexibility as a draw

Mann said workers are considering flexibility as part of their benefits package.

“It’s a talent pool issue, right,” Mann said. “When you’re fighting for that talent already and let’s say you’re a good company, you’re fighting for technology talent and maybe you don’t pay the most but you can offer flexibility, that’s going to be a big win for folks.”

One European-based company in southern New Hampshire sent its logistics work to the Midwest and is willing to spend more to relocate its headquarters to downtown Portsmouth.

“They’re creating the ideal work situation with the hopes that people will want, when they’re in their cool, fun, funky, high energy downtown Portsmouth location, they’re hoping that that will draw more people to coming back and being a more frequent live participant,” said Farrelly, who works at Cushman & Wakefield.

Chip Brown, principal broker at Brown Commercial Realty in Hanover, thinks most businesses are going to operate a physical office.

“People are social, and organizations are social,” Brown said.

“Most core businesses need the person-to-person interaction to function well,” such as popping into people’s offices, he said. “You can’t have that same form of free-flowing action as you do on a call or on Zoom.”

Working at the office

Some businesses’ employees remained mostly at the office during the pandemic.

At Absolute Title, only a handful of 47 employees spread in three offices elected to work remotely. A few even returned after a short stint at home.

But not all its customers elected to set foot in the office, with about 75 closings conducted in the firm’s parking lots.

“We had some buyers and sellers more comfortable staying in their car,” owner Matthew Neuman said. “We would go out to their car and basically pass papers through the windows.”

The firm put up Plexiglass-type barriers in conference rooms and between some desks.

Record-low interest rates meant processing a record $1.2 billion-plus in loans last year, with about 60% of the loans refinancing.

It was the best year in 15 years “by far, not even close,” said Neuman, who plans to expand his Bedford and Concord offices.

In Manchester, the McLane Middleton law firm has about half of its 150 employees working in its offices at City Hall Plaza, up from about 40% earlier in the pandemic.

“We have not set a timetable for bringing employees back,” Managing Director Barry Needleman said. “Hopefully, as the vaccination distribution continues, we can begin to welcome back employees.”

He said some employees have transportation or day care issues.

“We recognize that employees are going to need a lot of flexibility when they return,” he said.

“We are in the process of enhancing our wellness programs to assist colleagues with the emotional and safety concerns that they may have about returning to the office,” Needleman said. “We know that what was considered normal or routine in March of 2020 has changed significantly for many of our colleagues.”

What ‘come back’ means

Milford-based Alene Candles needed many of its employees to show up to make candles, but the company is considering a hybrid model for other workers.

“We are surveying employees to ask who wants to work remote, how often people want to come in, etc.,” Rod Harl, president and CEO, said by email. “We are empowering our managers to offer flexibility.”

The company, which employs 210 full-time workers plus more than 500 seasonal employees in New Hampshire, made more candles in 2020 than the previous year despite being shut down for two months.

At Dartmouth College in Hanover, Provost Joseph Helble and Executive Vice President Rick Mills informed the community by email that they anticipated employees who were working remotely to return to campus around Sept. 1, though some may return sooner.

BAE Systems, a major defense contractor with its New Hampshire operations mainly in Nashua, employs more than 6,000 statewide. About half its workforce went remote to reduce the number of people on-site and to better protect those working there, according to a company spokesperson.

“We are actively working to capture the lessons learned and make recommendations on how we can apply them for the future, which we expect to result in more flexibility in how we work in the future,” a spokesperson said.

Farrelly hears from a lot of people who want to return to the office, but not five days a week.

“I think that there’s an overwhelming amount of people raring to come back,” he said. “I guess we just need to see what ‘come back’ actually means.”