Home Sections Archive by category Modern Office

Modern Office

Modern Office

A New Chapter

By John S. Gannon, Esq.


Last month, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a decision altering the standard used to determine whether employer handbook policies and work rules infringe on employee rights in the workplace. The NLRB will now use an employee-friendly test that asks whether workers could reasonably interpret the policy or rule as one that restricts rights protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), such as discussing wages and working conditions, or forming unions.

Put in plain, non-legalese terms, the decision significantly increases the likelihood that one or more of your handbook policies are unlawful in the eyes of the NLRB. It also applies to all private-sector employers — including those without a union presence. Violations can lead to federal penalties, lawsuits, and more. So now is as good a time as ever to review your existing employee handbooks and work rules in order to ensure compliance.



Over the years, the NLRB has used a medley of tests when reviewing employee-handbook provisions to determine if a violation exists. Traditionally, the test shifts from employee/union-friendly to employer/management-friendly depending on whether the majority of board members are appointed by a Democrat or Republican president.

“Put in plain, non-legalese terms, the decision significantly increases the likelihood that one or more of your handbook policies are unlawful in the eyes of the NLRB. It also applies to all private-sector employers — including those without a union presence.”

For example, in 2015, the ‘Obama board’ issued decisions and guidance suggesting that common and well-accepted work rules on topics like confidentiality and civility in the workplace (like rules prohibiting ‘picking fights’ and ‘insulting’ co-workers) were problematic. Then, in 2017, under the ‘Trump board,’ the NLRB essentially undid this by establishing an employer-friendly standard that “overruled past cases in which the board held that employers violated the NLRA by maintaining rules requiring employees to foster ‘harmonious interactions and relationships’ or to maintain basic standards of civility in the workplace.”


The Work-rules Saga Continues

On Aug. 2, the NLRB issued its latest decision in this long-running saga on how to evaluate whether employee handbook provisions and work rules are unlawful. In a case called Stericycle Inc., the board, which has tilted toward the left under President Biden, adopted a new test to use when workplace rules and policies are challenged on the grounds that they interfere with or restrict employees’ rights to join together and improve terms and conditions of employment. These rights are often referred to as ‘Section 7 rights,’ as they are protected by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.

The Stericycle decision expressly overrules the previous standard set forth by the Trump board in 2017, and (not surprisingly) was decided on a 3-1 basis, with the lone Republican board member (Marvin Kaplan) dissenting.

In Stericycle Inc., the majority held that the prior standard established by the Republican-dominated Trump board permitted employers to adopt overly broad work rules that chill employees’ exercise of their Section 7 rights. Under the new Stericycle standard, employers can maintain workplace rules only if they are narrowly tailored to “advance legitimate and substantial business interests” and minimize the risks of interfering with workers’ Section 7 rights (i.e., the right to act together to improve the workplace).

Similar to the old test under the Obama board, employer rules and policies can (and likely will) be ruled unlawful if the NLRB believes that an employee can reasonably interpret them as restricting their Section 7 rights. These put the following types of policies at risk:

• Restricting employee use of social-media platforms and communication;

• Demanding confidentiality of investigations and other workplace discussions;

• Restricting the use of cameras or recording devices in the workplace;

• Prohibiting negative comments or limiting an employee’s right to criticize the employer’s management, products, or services;

• Promoting civility in the workplace and/or prohibiting insubordination; and

• Restricting use of company communication tools such as email, Zoom, and Teams.

Under the Stericycle decision, an employer policy or rule is presumptively unlawful if an employee could reasonably interpret it to limits Section 7 rights. For example, if an employee reads a work rule requiring confidentiality of investigations as limiting their rights to discuss work-related issues with co-workers, it will likely be viewed as presumptively unlawful. The employer can then rebut that presumption by proving that (1) the work rule advances a legitimate and substantial business interest; and (2) the employer cannot advance that interest with a more narrowly tailored rule.

The first prong of this test does not seem particularly difficult for employers to establish, as most work rules presumably are put in place to advance a business-based interest. However, succeeding on the second prong will not be as simple. How often can it be argued that the goal of a work rule could be accomplished in a narrower fashion?

Consider a rule that prohibits workers from using video devices in the workplace. The business-based justification may be as simple as “we want to protect confidential information about how we do business from competitors.” This seems legitimate, to me, at least. But, moving to the second prong, could this goal be achieved by requiring employees to sign a non-disclosure agreement, or something of the like, that prohibits sharing confidential information or trade secrets in public domains? Probably.

As such, a handbook policy penalizing employees for taking unauthorized videos at work is probably invalid under the current ‘Biden board’ test of work rules.


Takeaways and What’s Next

In light of the new standard set forth by the NLRB in Stericycle Inc., both union and non-union businesses should expect more challenges to their work rules on Section 7 grounds. Employers and human-resources professionals should review their employee handbooks and work rules to make sure policies comply with the new NLRB standard. Businesses are also encouraged to consult with experienced labor and employment counsel, and keep an eye out for future updates.


John Gannon is a partner with the Springfield-based law firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser, specializing in employment law and regularly counseling employers on compliance with state and federal laws, including family and medical leave laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Occupational Health and Safety Act; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Modern Office Special Coverage

Critical Conversations


It’s easy to tell when someone is struggling with asthma, Krista Mazzuca said.

“If I come to work with bad asthma, you see me breathing hard. My supervisor says, ‘hey, Krista, take a minute,’” said Mazzuca, first vice president of Human Resources at PeoplesBank.

But mental distress, she noted, can be tougher to spot.

“It’s important for managers in an organization to understand how mental health impacts their employees. If I’m stressed out, you have to know how to recognize that, too, and say, ‘hey, you look stressed. Maybe take a walk. Maybe take tomorrow off.’”

Shana Hendrikse agrees. As senior advisor at Giombetti Associates, a Wilbraham-based consulting firm that specializes in building high-performance companies, she said employees’ mental wellness is a key factor in that effort, and one more companies are becoming aware of.

Shana Hendrikse

Shana Hendrikse

“While it’s gotten better, I don’t think we’re there yet. There’s more conversation and more awareness from businesses. But there’s work to do.”

“Burnout is a real thing, especially after COVID, and there’s been a definite increase in mental-health issues in the workplace,” she told BusinessWest. “We definitely touch on that a lot in our team-building conversations, our one-on-ones with managers and supervisors, making sure they create a safe space and an environment where you feel comfortable sharing what you’re feeling, which ultimately reduces the stigma around mental-health issues.”

At a time when employers across the country, and across all sectors, are still grappling with a workforce crunch that has made talent recruitment and retention more challenging than ever, many businesses say keeping their workers happy is key. And happiness is, very often, tied to mental wellness and stress reduction — hence, a greater willingness by employers to directly talk about it.

“While it’s gotten better, I don’t think we’re there yet,” Hendrikse said. “There’s more conversation and more awareness from businesses. But there’s work to do.”

One key to that work is what Pam Thornton, director of Strategic HR Services at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, calls “empathetic leadership.”

“We’re in this extreme talent crunch, with not enough people to do the work, and people are stressed; they’re leaving the workforce in droves, retiring early, or leaving a full-time job and taking two part-time jobs. There’s so much pressure, and employees have so many choices.”

In such an environment, she went on, “empathetic leadership is the driving force behind retention. It’s about individualized conversations, understanding where people are. ‘Is there too much work?’ ‘Are you happy here?’ ‘Do you have balance?’ Maybe they can’t focus on work because of what happens at home. We might not have all the answers, but we may be able to make all kinds of accommodations. We need to try. At the end of the day, if we don’t make space for the things they’re asking for, we won’t be able to get our work done.”

Pam Thornton

Pam Thornton

“We might not have all the answers, but we may be able to make all kinds of accommodations. We need to try.”

And that’s the heart of the issue — employee wellness isn’t just good for the employee; it benefits the business, too, and it’s worth investing in for both reasons.

“The stress of the workplace has definitely been exacerbated over the past few years, and that stress is something employers have recognized,” said Joel Doolin, executive vice president of MiraVista Behavioral Health Center in Holyoke and its sister facility in Devens, TaraVista. He added that a positive employee experience is directly tied to a positive business outcome, so employers would do well to be open about mental and emotional wellness at work.

“It starts with the culture of an organization and buy-in from the leadership,” he explained. “Mental health is like any other employee factor. If someone has the flu, you make sure they have days off. Well, if they’re overwhelmed, they should have a mental-health day — a sick day like any other sick day. Ten years ago, talking about that was taboo; you just called in sick and did what you had to do. Now people are more open about it. Employees should still have rules and regulations, but days off for mental health are important.”


Help Is on the Way

Mazzuca cited statistics suggesting one in five people struggle with mental illness, but only about a third of them seek help. And that can be a problem at work.

“It’s a real thing, and I think it’s more present now than it’s ever been,” she said. “If you have anxiety or depression, it’s an invisible disability. But people don’t want to miss work.”

That leads to the phenomenon called ‘presenteeism,’ she noted, which connotes people who come to work but aren’t fully invested because of what else they’re dealing with, affecting both their wellness and the company’s productivity. Mental health can also affect physical health, she added, which makes the situation even worse.

There are resources companies can offer, however. At PeoplesBank, she cited a well-attended class on burnout and resilience, robust mental-health coverage in employee health plans, and free subsciptions to online resources like Calm.com, a meditation and mindfulness app, and Care.com, a resource for finding dependent care.

Joel Doolin

Joel Doolin

“If someone has the flu, you make sure they have days off. Well, if they’re overwhelmed, they should have a mental-health day — a sick day like any other sick day.”

“The important thing is, we’re trying to promote well-being,” she said, also noting that the bank has invested in its employee-assistance program (EAP). “We’ve done a lot to get people to use our EAP and give them access to mental-health professionals. The EAP is open to not only them, but their family. It’s also important that people know it’s confidential and free of charge.”

Thornton agreed that EAPs are a valuable tool to help employees with issues that company leadership might not be suited to deal with. “It’s confidential, and it provides a resource for them to connect with someone who can help them.”

Doolin noted that, while EAPs have been around for some time, he sees them getting more attention now. In some sectors, they’ve long been a key resource for employees, Hendrikse added.

“I was in banking for 25 years, and the EAP was always a thing in banking. It was part of the onboarding process,” she said, adding that companies should emphasize such resources up front, during onboarding and even recruitment, because they hold value for plenty of people.

“I don’t think a lot of companies stress that enough in terms of onboarding people. It’s important to have these conversations with people: ‘hey, we have these resources for you. If you’re feeling burned out, if something’s going on at home, here are the resources we have for you.’ It sets the tone, knowing that you’re taking a job where you can be vulnerable about what you’re going through. It reduces stigma.”

After all, Hendrikse added, while employees certainly want good pay, a solid benefits package, and paid time off, they also value a culture that recognizes the damaging effects of stress and the need for work-life balance. “It would make me feel like this company cares about me and my well-being. And I think you might get a lot more engagement from employees when they feel valued and safe. I mean, we’re all human.”

That positive engagement means having conversations with employees and building trust between the leadership and workforce, Thornton said. That might involve surveying employees on what they need and — even more critically — following up. That might mean more scheduling flexibility or mental-health days off, or recognizing when there’s just too much on an employee’s plate.

“Hearing nothing, it’s easy to keep going along and assume we’re doing everything right. You have to get feedback,” she said. “When there’s turnover, sometimes you don’t replace a person, and now there’s more on someone else’s plate. That’s a real thing.

“Without good leaders — not just at the top of the business, but good, empathetic leaders throughout the company — you won’t be successful,” she added. “You have to invest in your leaders.”


Support System

Getting back to her initial asthma analogy, Mazzuca said employees need to feel supported at work when they’re grappling with mental-health issues and stress, whether that means being allowed to take a leave of absence without penalty or being encouraged to access other resources without fear of stigma.

“People are more vulnerable to the negative impacts of stress outside the workplace if they don’t have positive relationships at work,” she said, noting that conversations around these issues — followed, again, by real action — benefit everyone. “It increases retention, and it increases productivity. It’s worth investing in helping them be their best self.”

As long as they’re not abusing the privilege and taking time off every week, Doolin said employees should be able to use paid sick time for legitimate mental-health struggles, and be open about it. And employers need to recognize that it’s tougher than ever to escape the stresses of life — at home or at work.

“Today, we have cellphones and laptops. Twenty-five years ago, you went to work and dealt with work, and then you went home and dealt with home. Now, everything follows you wherever you go. I think it’s important to recognize that and talk about how we can mitigate some of that. Maybe put in a no-email-on-vacation policy to make sure people get the rest they need. I’m a fan of technology, but it can also be a hindrance.

“Being a leader in an organization that works with people that have mental-health situations, it’s important for us to recognize the need for flexibility,” he added. “Even as a hospital, we still have situations where people can work from home — not direct-care staff, but we’ve adapted to that flexibility. We recognize that employees and employers are in it together. In order to be successful, to have great employees, we need to be able to pivot and give them what they need.”

Hendrikse said there’s often a gap between what employers think they’re providing and what employees feel like they’re getting when it comes to resources and benefits, and closing that gap often comes down to simply starting conversations.

“It’s about creating a culture where it’s OK to talk about these things,” she said. “You can have trainings and workshops, provide resources like EAPs, bring in experts. But the supervisor can also have these conversations directly with the team. Make it relatable: ‘hey, this is what I struggle with myself.’ When supervisors are more transparent with their own struggles, when they’re being vulnerable, employees will feel safer sharing.”

There has been an uptick in this vulnerability and openness in organizations since COVID, Hendrikse added, but much more common, even now, is a persistent unwillingness to share certain things with the boss.

“It’s seen as a weakness,” she said. “A lot of places are doing better with that, but I think we still have a ways to go.”

Modern Office Special Coverage

Getting Up Off the Floor

For those in the office furniture and design sector, the past 18 months have been a long and extremely challenging stretch. Looking ahead, while the pandemic has eased to some extent, new challenges and question marks loom. The questions concern everything from how many people will return to the office to whether they will have their own space if and when they return. And the challenges involve everything from long wait times for ordered products to the specter of skyrocketing prices and the impact they will have on business.

Mark Proshan says a combination of factors

Mark Proshan says a combination of factors makes it difficult to project what will come next for this industry.

Mark Proshan says the e-mail found its way into his inbox earlier that morning. It was short and to the point, but it clearly articulated one of the many challenges still facing those in the office furniture and design business.

“‘I’m in the process of closing my office and moving employees to fully remote work,’” wrote the business owner and client that Proshan, president of the West Springfield-based Lexington Group, opted not to name. “‘I have a lot of office furniture I’m looking to sell.”

As he commented on what he was reading, Proshan started with that last bit of news. He said there are a number of business owners and managers looking to unload unneeded office furniture these days. They should know first that there is already a glut, and, second, that the price they have in the back of their mind is not likely to be the price they’re going to get for what they’re looking to sell. “With the massive amounts of furniture now on the market, selling furniture isn’t something that’s going to realize an amazing return on the investment.”

But that’s just a small part of the story now unfolding, said Proshan, noting that, while this particular business owner knows just what he’s doing with his office, many do not.

Indeed, a full 18 months after the term ‘COVID’ entered the lexicon, there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding what will happen at many offices, colleges, hospitals, and other kinds of businesses moving forward. Proshan has his theories, and we’ll get to some of them later, but he and others believe there will certainly be some downsizing, some hybrid work schedules for many employees, and more of the outright closures and conversion to remote working described in that e-mail.

But at the same time, some businesses and institutions that are waking up (for lack of a better phrase) from COVID are ready to advance plans for new furniture and accommodations.

And they are running into strong headwinds in the form of supply shortages, long wait times for desired items, and, almost certainly, higher prices in a nod to the laws of supply and demand — and the skyrocketing cost of shipping items from abroad.

“We can’t get the products out of where we need to get them from,” said Fran Arnold, owner of Holyoke-based Conklin Office Furniture, which, in addition to selling new and used furniture, manufactures its own lines of products overseas and remanufactures used furniture here. “Every manufacturer in the country is seeing huge delays when it comes to delivering furniture.

At Conklin Office, co-owned by Fran and Rosemary Arnold

At Conklin Office, co-owned by Fran and Rosemary Arnold, new challenges include supply-chain issues, soaring shipping costs, and long wait times for ordered products.

“On the import side, we’re running with massive delays in shipping and huge increases in the cost of shipping,” he went on, with some noticeable exasperation in his voice. “Our shipping costs have gone from $3,500 to $5,000 per container all the way to $23,500 per container. That’s a massive increase for freight; it’s now costing us more money to get the stuff here than to manufacture it over there.”

Proshan agreed.

“Because most of the manufacturers have employee shortages and raw-goods shortages, everyone’s lead times have been drastically pushed out,” he noted. “You try to stock up on what you think might make the most sense for when the floodgates open, but you just don’t know, and it’s going to be a difficult situation when people want products from you and manufacturers aren’t able to deliver them to you until much later than your customer is hoping to receive them.”

Overall, while the worst of the storm might be past for those in this sector — that’s might — there is still considerable cloudiness and general uncertainty about the forecast, and challenges ranging from those inventory issues to simply finding people to drive delivery trucks, to a huge merger in the industry between manufacturers Herman Miller and Knoll, which only leads to more question marks.

Indeed, what happens next is anyone’s guess, as BusinessWest learned as it talked with Proshan and Arnold about has transpired and what is likely on the horizon.


Measures on the Table

As he walked and talked with BusinessWest in his huge showroom, Proshan noted that he’s selling a number of items to be used by people working at home, especially chairs — “they want good seating, but they don’t want to spend a lot for it” — and sit/stand desks, because they’re smaller and also because many people want the option of sitting or standing.

Meanwhile, he said he’s also been selling more large conference-room tables — those for 12 to 20 people — than would be considered normal.

When asked why, he gave a quick and definitive “I don’t know, exactly, but we are,” before joking that companies might need bigger tables for all those meetings that will decide what they’re going to do next.

Overall, this interest in large conference-room tables and the possible reasons behind it comprise just one of the many unknowns for this industry. What is known is that the past 18 months have been an extremely difficult time, and the challenges are far from over.

They may just be different challenges.

“Every manufacturer in the country is seeing huge delays when it comes to delivering furniture.”

Looking back, Arnold said Conklin, like all businesses in this sector, saw business evaporate early on during the pandemic as businesses shut down and then hunkered down, with buying new or used office furniture, or redesigning their space, the last thing on their minds.

“We were flying just before COVID, and then we just hit a wall,” he explained, adding that, through a number of efficiency and austerity measures — including a four-day work week for all employees — the company managed to slash expenses to an extent that it was nearly as profitable in 2020 as it was in 2019.

Elaborating, he said that, in hindsight, the timing could not have been better for the company to consolidate operations and move into new facilities on Appleton Street in Holyoke in late 2019.

“We’re able to do more with fewer people,” he explained. “We’re much better organized, and we’re not so spread out. We’re much more efficient.”

Now, as it emerges from those very difficult times, there are new and different challenges to face, including supply-chain issues and a lack of inventory, just as some larger corporations are in a “panic mode,” a phrase he used a few times, to move on from the pandemic themselves.

“These corporations are working our sales teams to the limit,” he explained. “They want numbers, they want to know when things can be delivered … and a lot of the news we have to give them is not good; prices are going up, and deliveries are being postponed.”

Overall, Arnold said, inflation and the skyrocketing cost of shipping product are just starting to impact prices within the industry.

“We’ve just had our first price increase on our imported products; we just couldn’t hold it where it was any longer,” he explained, adding that, as the cost of shipping continues to escalate, more price hikes are likely. “It’s been quite an experience, and I don’t know how it will all play out; it’s a perfect storm that’s developing, and where it will go, I don’t know.”


Looking ahead and projecting what might come next, Proshan said this assignment is difficult because many companies are still very much trying to decide what they’re going to do.

“At the moment, business leaders are trying to figure out what their employees want, and employees are trying to figure out what their employers are going to be expecting,” he explained. “With all of that taking place, not a whole lot has happened yet. People have been talking about business getting back up to speed in the spring, and then the fall, which is not here yet, and then, the first of the year. We still have those mileage markers out there in front of us, so there’s a whole lot more that’s unknown than known.”

Proshan theorizes that many companies will create more space for each employee in efforts to create safer environments, and that, in all likelihood, there will be fewer people working in the office and more in remote settings.

“Every time you have a space that was occupied by three people, that had three work environments, they might cut that back to two to create a bigger gap between people,” he explained. “So now you have a work environment that’s going to be for sale or is going to become surplus; that’s one of the things we’re seeing.

“It’s going to be a difficult situation when people want products from you and manufacturers aren’t able to deliver them to you until much later than your customer is hoping to receive them.”

“And I think that when it gets sorted out as to who’s going back and who’s not, and how often they’re going back,” he went on, “I think a lot of personal space is going to disappear. If you work at home, you’re going to have your own workspace; when you go to the office, you may or may not have your own workspace. It may be a space that’s occupied by someone else on the days you’re not there.”


Bottom Line

Proshan, who does a good bit of sailing when he’s not working, made a number of comparisons between what’s happening in his industry and what transpires on the water.

Specifically, he talked about wind.

“You can’t see wind,” he told BusinessWest. “What people experience as wind is what they see as the result of wind and its impact on objects. When you see wind blowing through the trees, you don’t see the wind, you see the result of the wind. When you’re on a boat and there’s no wind, if you look at the water and see it start to ripple, you know that wind is approaching you, and it can either knock you over or make you go faster, or help you determine which direction to go in.

“It’s almost as if we’re sailing,” he said of the current conditions in his business, “and not able to see the wind in the trees.”

That was Proshan’s way of saying that an industry that has been blown about for the past 18 months, and not in a good way, is still very much in the dark about what will happen next.

The mission, he said, is to be as prepared as possible, even with all those unknowns.

“If you don’t pay attention to the possibilities,” he said in conclusion, “you’re going to be too late.”


George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office

Best of Both Worlds

Michael Galat says Big Y is scheduling employees in a way that balances the company’s needs with their own.

Michael Galat says Big Y is scheduling employees in a way that balances the company’s needs with their own.

Looking over the past year and a half, Lisa Verville isn’t surprised the O’Connell Companies operated smoothly with the vast majority of its team working from home.

“People have stepped up, they did what they needed to do, and work got done,” said Verville, director of Human Resources for the large family of businesses that includes Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, O’Connell Development Group, Appleton Corp., and New England Fertilizer Corp.

“Now, the technical piece of it — if this happened 20 years ago, I can’t imagine it would have worked as well as it did. We didn’t have Zoom back then,” she added. “But we have a very dedicated team. I’m not surprised it worked well.”

Which is why remote work will continue at O’Connell — to a point. Starting last month, employees were required to work on site at least three days a week, and more if they want to.

“We miss everybody,” Verville said. “We have a great culture, and we don’t want to lose that culture. If people are 100% remote, I think there’s a risk of losing that — do people feel connected to their organization if they’re not here, cooperating and collaborating with their team?”

At the same time, “we know we have to balance that with what’s going on with our workers. We want our employees to be happy and feeling as though there’s a balance. That’s our goal.”

Welcome to the new, hybrid workplace, which looks to be a dominant model for employers across myriad industries, at least for the near future.

“People tell us they can do both,” Verville said. “I think it works, and allows for that work-life balance. I think people appreciate the flexibility.”

Big Y has been operating on a hybrid model for its support-center workers since early in the pandemic, said Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services. And that will continue.

“Obviously, our stores are open nights and weekends, and our goal, as always, is to make sure we’re taking care of our store employees and our customers at all times,” he said. “Business needs may be different for different positions. It’s finding the right balance — making sure we’re taking care of customers but also allowing our people the autonomy to work from home.”

That’s the thinking at MassMutual as well, said Sue Cicco, head of Human Resources and Employee Experience. The company’s return-to-office approach will balance flexibility with in-person collaboration, with most employees transitioning to a hybrid model, working some days in the office and some days remotely.

Ross Giombetti

Ross Giombetti

“I could see a lot of businesses and leaders getting impatient and frustrated; they want the old way to come back and expect everything to be great. But that’s not how it works.”

“We will also continue to support fully remote and fully in-office arrangements where it makes sense,” she added. “Importantly, this approach is designed to incorporate employee flexibility, so it will look different across the company, depending on role, function, and business needs.”

With most employees working 100% remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, she explained, “we learned that we can successfully operate in a virtual work environment. That said, we also think there’s value in teams meeting in person to spur creativity, social connection, and collaboration.”

The goal now is to build on the work-life flexibility MassMutual has offered for years, while taking into account employees’ feedback from recent engagement and surveys.

“Similar to how we approach many new situations,” Cicco said, “we’ll assess and evolve our approach as we learn more about what works best for our customers, employees, and company.”


Culture of Caring

Ross Giombetti, president of Giombetti Associates — a leadership institute that helps businesses acquire and develop top talent — said the vast majority of his clients are currently maintaining a hybrid model and anticipate sticking with it for at least a while.

“I think most companies realized that, contrary to the initial concerns they may have had, a lot of people were very productive during the pandemic, working remotely, and it actually went a lot better than they thought,” he told BusinessWest. “So a lot of organizations realized that’s here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.”

At the same time, he added, employers are finding resistance to bringing workers back full-time because remote work has become a habit.

“If you think about how habits are formed and what makes humans comfortable with something, it takes a full 90 days for a new norm or new habit to become part of our routine. Take mask wearing — I would bet most of us took about 90 days to get comfortable and used to wearing a mask.”

Well, many employees stayed home more than five times that long, so the habit has become deeply ingrained, becoming the new norm. Giombetti also noted that many employees told to return to the office, at least part of the time, may be uncomfortable doing so, still fearful of gathering in groups.

Sue Cicco

Sue Cicco

“By making sure our employees have the flexibility to take care of their families, we set off a virtuous cycle where our people are taken care of, and in turn they can take care of their communities, and that extends to how we can take care of our customers.”

In other words, working at home is a hard habit to break, for many reasons. That’s why most businesses are looking at hybrid scheduling as an acceptable option.

“I could see a lot of businesses and leaders getting impatient and frustrated; they want the old way to come back and expect everything to be great,” he said. “But that’s not how it works. A lot of the advice I’m giving people is to be patient with the process, be patient with people returning to work, whether hybrid or fully. When people are back around large groups of people, there will probably be some nervousness, and we need to be understanding of that.”

At Giombetti’s own company in Wilbraham, Fridays are remote days for everyone, and employees can request to work at home any other day they feel they’ll get more done there, with fewer distractions.

“If our team needs that, I encourage it. That’s how we operate,” he said. “I think many organizations understand it’s better to measure results, attitude, and performance than where they’re doing the work from.”

Galat said Big Y’s leadership learned many lessons over the past 17 months.

“One is that we can still be very productive while employees are working from home — there’s an increase in employee productivity when employees are happy. We’ve always considered ourselves a culture of caring, and this [remote work] has helped people balance their personal needs, whether it’s child care, elder care, whatever.

“I also think a big part of productivity is flexibility,” he went on. “Some may log on earlier in the morning, or at times work later at night.”

While working from home saves on travel time and can boost productivity in other ways, he admitted that it’s important that colleagues come in a few days a week to make sure they’re not missing out on the collaborative components of their jobs. Therefore, managers are expected to work on site at least three days a week, and everyone else at least two.

“Again, it depends on the business needs. That’s a very important component of it,” Galat said. “There may be weeks they have to come in every day, and there may be weeks they can work more from home. Each area supervisor works with them to find that balance based on the business needs and what’s going on in their personal life.”

Workers appreciate that kind of consideration, Cicco added. “By making sure our employees have the flexibility to take care of their families, we set off a virtuous cycle where our people are taken care of, and in turn they can take care of their communities, and that extends to how we can take care of our customers.”


Culture of Collaboration

That said, companies see value in making sure their workforce is physically present, at least part of the time,

“We think there’s value in both in-person collaboration and the flexibility created by working remotely,” Cicco said, adding that most MassMutual employees responding to surveys or other outreach preferred the hybrid option.

“We’ve learned that, while we appreciate the increased flexibility of remote work, we also miss the value we get from face-to-face meetings, impromptu conversations, collaboration across work groups, and what we learn when we’re together,” she went on. “Not to mention the social aspects — having lunch, bumping into friends around the building, and catching up over a cup of coffee.”

In addition, “we believe the connection that comes with being face-to-face brings energy, encourages innovative thinking, accelerates learning, and strengthens relationships and community,” Cicco noted. “With this in mind, we will encourage work groups to come together regularly, for the benefit of their work and their team.”

Giombetti said most of his clients offering hybrid work stress the need to be physically present at times — brainstorming and working through critical issues at a staff meeting, for instance. “Some things are best done in a room with other people. And most clients have found their employees are totally comfortable with that.”

The other challenge for companies has to do with culture, camaraderie, and the kind of collaboration that can’t be easily achieved over Zoom.

“A lot of organizations are training specifically on that topic,” he said. “While you’re honoring the flexibility of your teammates and employees, it’s important to make sure you can maintain that great culture you’ve built.”

Galat agreed, noting that, while Zoom and similar tools have their place and have been an important piece of keeping staff connected, some collaborations are more effective in person.

“We’re big on culture here — that’s a very, very important part of it. When you don’t see people at least part of the time, it’s hard to strengthen those relationships. It’s all about relationship building, and that goes back to who we are as an organization, caring about employees. Yes, we’re allowing them to work from home, but building relationships with people over the years when we don’t see them some of the time, that’s difficult.”

At the same time, Big Y has prepared a series of best practices for employees working remotely, including the need to take regular breaks. “Productivity is important getting the job done,” Galat said, “but we also want to make sure people are taking some time away as well.”

Giombetti said remote work has allowed some bad habits to creep back in, including a tendency to multi-task to the detriment of the main task.

“If you’re in the office, in the conference room, having a meeting, most of us know it would be foolish to pick up the phone when someone is talking to us because that’s just rude,” he explained, noting that it happens much more often during a Slack, Teams, or Zoom meeting. “Unfortunately, the last year and a half maybe caused us to retrench a little bit, and the amount of multi-tasking has increased. We have to guard against that.”


Unexpected Absence

Verville remembers the week in March 2020 when O’Connell’s Holyoke headquarters emptied for what most employees thought would be a temporary detour home.

“People did what they needed to do. There was a real commitment there,” she said. “But I personally didn’t think it would last this long. I think most people left the office and said, ‘see you in a couple weeks.’ No one thought it would be this long. And I missed everyone, so it’s great to get back to some sense of normalcy, if you will.”

That new norm seems to be an understanding among employers that their workers value flexibility, but also that the workplace culture will suffer without some face-to-face collaboration.

“It’s a hard balance,” Giombetti said, “but I think organizations that are intentional about it do it best; that’s the recipe for success.”

It could also be a recipe to attract talent at a time when many companies are struggling with hiring and retention, as many potential workers would be more amenable to a hybrid schedule than five days a week away from home.

“It’s about being able to attract and retain the top talent and finding that balance between supporting the stores — providing the tools to get their jobs done — and being accessible so that people say, ‘hey, I can work at home, and they care about me — I can take care of my family’s needs as well,’” Galat said. “It’s all about the workplace culture, and work-life balance is part of it. We want the best of both worlds.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office Special Coverage

Weathering the Storm

Ned Barowsky

Ned Barowsky says flexible leases, as offered in the co-working world, will be more in demand in the future, and rigid, long-term leases less so.

Since launching Click Workspace a decade ago, Mary Yun has seen nothing but growth in one of the region’s first co-working ventures.

That growth led her to abandon her original 1,000-square-foot facility in 2015 and develop a 9,000-square-foot building in downtown Northampton, which, at its peak prior to the pandemic, hosted 80 members and a host of community arts and cultural events.

“That was a good number for us, where we could operate with a full-time member advocate and myself as executive director overseeing all the operations and also working on events,” she said. “We’re mission-driven, bringing in the community through art shows and music; that was my wheelhouse.”

With 80 members, all the private offices and dedicated desks were filled, as was the shared open space, for the most part, while a meeting room holding 24 people was regularly put to use by the community. In short, Click was … well, clicking.

And then COVID-19 arrived.

“We’re finding, now that the vaccine is being distributed and the sun is shining, so to speak, we’re getting a surge of new interest recently as people are starting to feel more comfortable coming back into the world. People are sick of working from home.”

“When the closures happened, we closed down like all businesses, and we still had members supporting us, paying their monthly dues for a while. We had members who were now working remotely from home,” Yun said.

But the erosion began almost immediately.

“We had always maintained a good number of members who had private offices that were being funded by their companies. At their businesses, they were the remote workers,” she went on. “But, because everything was now remote, that benefit went away for a lot of our members, so we lost a handful.”

When Click reopened at the end of May, around 55 members were still supporting the space, paying their dues, even though not everyone was coming in regularly — usually, no more than a dozen at a time through last summer. A few members actually joined during the pandemic — some with their career situations in flux, others who needed a place to work because their homes were suddenly too crowded by partners and kids working and learning remotely.

Mary Yun expects membership to rise to its former high levels

Mary Yun expects membership to rise to its former high levels after the pandemic fades, but it may be a gradual process.

But it wasn’t enough. “Right now, we’re down to less than 30 members, which is a huge drop in revenue,” Yun said. “Right now, our membership is lower than when we first moved into this building almost six years ago.”

The basic concept behind co-working is simple. It’s a workspace where people can share a table or an office; access fast internet service and shared resources like a copier, conference rooms, and audio-visual equipment; and make the kinds of connections that inspire further growth and success.

The pandemic has impacted the model in the short term, but the people operating area co-working spaces believe it’s a model with plenty of potential in the long term, and perhaps even more than before COVID-19.

“Like most businesses, we definitely lost some business,” said Jeff Sauser, who co-owns Greenspace CoWork in downtown Greenfield with Jeremy Goldsher. “No one knew what to expect, and we managed to be as flexible as possible with members; those relationships are important to us. We gave every opportunity to pause membership and make changes.

“We lost a chunk of memberships — not everybody; some stayed on, even though they weren’t coming as often — but we were able to stay afloat and survive,” he went on. “We’re finding, now that the vaccine is being distributed and the sun is shining, so to speak, we’re getting a surge of new interest recently as people are starting to feel more comfortable coming back into the world. People are sick of working from home.”

As a consultant for a Boston-based company that used to have four offices there and now maintains just one, Sauser sees first-hand the way workplaces are evolving — and in a way that may benefit co-working facilities.

“People don’t come into work every day anymore. We expect more people will have more flexible working arrangements with their employees.”

Yun agreed, noting that many of Click’s members left because their kids were learning at home — which is sure to be a temporary situation; in fact, many schools have already invited students back to campus. She believes an increase in membership at Click is inevitable, though it may take some time.

“People are saying, ‘I’m sick of living in the city and running the rat race. I can live where the living is good but keep my big-city job.’ I feel co-working spaces are an early indicator of trends that will benefit towns, especially towns with great, walkable downtowns.”

“I think what’s going to happen is, when kids go back to school in the fall full-time, parents will be like, ‘maybe I can make it work at home,’ and continue to work at home, and in a couple months, they’ll start to get lonely — professionally lonely — and start to come back, which is why they came here in the first place,” she told BusinessWest. “Really, I’m hopeful and optimistic.”

Stroke of Inspiration

Ned Barowsky was certainly optimistic when he launched a franchise of the national co-working company Venture X in Holyoke, right next to the Holyoke Mall.

He’s owned the retail and office complex at 98 Lower Westfield Road for 25 years, and faced a series of vacancies over the past couple of years the departures of Pier One Imports, Kaoud Oriental Rugs, and a series of mattress stores. For six months, two brokers assigned by a large, national real-estate firm had been trying to fill the vacancies, to no avail. That’s when Barowsky was inspired to by the co-working model.

“I had done a couple franchises in the past; I was familiar with franchising, so I started looking at co-working spaces,” he said. “I just knew that everything was being shut down, and when people come back out, they’re not going to go back to these five-year leases, 10-year leases. People aren’t going to do that anymore. They’re going to want flexible plans — ‘I want to be here for a month, three months, six months, a year, and with a smaller footprint.’”

When he started researching a few companies, he was “blown away” by Venture X, which tags itself “the future of workspace.”

“That’s our tagline, but it literally is the future of workspace. It’s flexible — you decide how many of each kind of office you want,” he said, noting that some franchisees opt to emphasize shared space, but his facility includes fewer shared stations and about 65 offices, in several sizes, to house any number of workers. “I wanted more offices, so that’s what I did — I put in more offices.”

Jeremy Goldsher (left) and Jeff Sauser

Jeremy Goldsher (left) and Jeff Sauser say robust co-working spaces can be economic drivers for communities.

Sauser sees the potential, too, in companies downsizing their space and offering more flexible arrangements to workers — partly because of what they learned during the pandemic, when they saw how productive employees could be while working remotely. And that has implications for entire communities.

“I think co-working spaces are very well-positioned to receive those people,” he said. “I’m an urban planner — I’ve been thinking about this stuff long before the pandemic hit. A lot of trends show that, if people can work more flexibly, and make decisions about where they live based on lifestyle and not where the jobs are, people can move where they want to.”

He pointed to surging real-estate sales in Western Mass. and in the suburbs outside large cities like Boston.

“People are saying, ‘I’m sick of living in the city and running the rat race. I can live where the living is good but keep my big-city job,’” Sauser said. “I feel co-working spaces are an early indicator of trends that will benefit towns, especially towns with great, walkable downtowns.”

A lot of towns in Western Mass. offer that already — Greenfield has a walkable downtown, with opportunities to work in a co-working space, so it can be more competitive attracting new residents,” he went on. “I think of it as economic development for communities, not just for businesses like ours.”

Several years ago, Sauser and Goldsher met at a Franklin County Community Development Corp. event and were soon talking about the co-work concept, which Goldsher had seen flourishing while living in New York City. They say members are attracted to co-working for a number of reasons, among them lower prices than traditional office rent, flexible leases, and shared resources ranging from a printer, projector, meeting space, and wi-fi to a kitchen with free tea and coffee.

The pandemic actually revealed new opportunities for co-working spaces, Sauser added, from remote workers who live in rural communities with poor broadband access to college students who needed the space when campuses were closed, to working parents who craved a break from their suddenly bustling house.

“And we were honored to see a lot of members choose to stick with us and extend their membership even when they weren’t using the physical space,” Goldsher added. “Before this, the concept of co-working was a novelty, but we brought an urban concept to a smaller community and showed the model does translate in a different way. Now a lot of other opportunities are presenting themselves.”

Bills, Bills, Bills

Yun had a broader vision as she grew Click — one centered around the arts as an economic driver, with gallery shows, music performances, literary events, and the like, to emphasize Northampton’s cultural heritage while exposing new faces to Click’s eclectic space. That aspect of the complex has been wiped out during the pandemic.

“It’s been a hardship for the people who have been coming in — there’s very little community left right now with so few coming in,” she said. “We’re eking by, but we’re going to make it. I think a lot of it is because we operate as a nonprofit, so we had reserves built up, and we’re dipping into those reserves now.”

PPP loans, a Massachusetts small-business grant, and rent reduction have helped, but the complex will eventually need to boost its membership back up.

“It doesn’t matter whether you have one person here or 50; you have all these fixed expenses,” Yun said. “There may be a little bit of give in the rent, but we have to pull in fiber-optic internet — that’s a huge cost for us, almost $900 a month. All the utilities are fixed. Last summer, I said to myself, we need to be able to sustain ourselves until the summer of 2022 because I felt like that was going to be when the recovery was in full swing for us.”

That timeline seems more accelerated now, but she feels like the return to normalcy will still be a gradual one. “Do all the former members come back? A lot have moved on, and co-working is such that people come and people go all the time.”

The pandemic saw an influx of residents from New York to Western Mass., but many of them have purchased large homes with home offices, so it’s unclear what effect that migration will have on co-working. “It seems daunting, but we’ve been open for over five years here now, and I feel like we’re here to stay. Who knew we’d have a pandemic?”

To counter that still-active pandemic, Click, like every other workspace, has launched a series of safety protocols, from requiring masks when moving about to regular sanitization to pumping in fresh air.

Air quality was a big concern for Barowsky at Venture X as well. “During COVID, I was very cognizant of air-filtration systems. I spent well over $100,000 on seven rooftop units,” he said, in addition to investments in touchless bathrooms, numerous hand-sanitizer stations, and a keyless entry system.

Greenspace takes safety seriously as well, Sauser said. “From a COVID safety standpoint, we follow all the state guidelines and have protocols in place — cleaning, masks, sanitizers.”

Goldsher added that the state’s rules early on made little sense, noting that Greenspace was not designated an essential business, but — unlike Click — stayed open throughout the pandemic anyway because one of the companies it houses was deemed essential, and had to continue using the space.

“While I think we proved that we are a very necessary asset in the community, there’s this strange dichotomy being open for essential business and not being considered an essential business ourselves.”

Here to Stay

But those who own co-working spaces in Western Mass. — other prominent centers include AmherstWorks, 734 Workspace in Longmeadow, and Cubit Coworks in Holyoke, to name just a few — say they are indeed an essential part of the 21st-century economy.

“I think the future of the workplace is very much up in the air. There’s no way to predict what the open concept will look like in five years time, but we have some good ideas,” Goldsher said.

Sauser agreed that the future of the workplace is in flux, but suggested that the office of the future might look much like co-work spaces of today, “where flexibility is the emphasis, in part because office managers and companies dedicate less space to individual employees when employees are not coming in every day.”

Yun added that companies have decisions to make about whether to extend their traditional leases or move toward more flexibility and smaller footprints. That, in turn, could drive the next surge of growth in co-working, and she welcomes more such facilities, because each new complex will raise awareness of the model and its benefits.

“We don’t know how all this will shake out,” she said. “But the more co-working spaces exist, the better.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office

Flexible Thinking, Nimble Action

By Susan Robertson

To survive the pandemic, companies were forced to adapt very quickly to radically new circumstances. Even large organizations — where it’s typically difficult to shift directions quickly — managed to accomplish it. Leaders discovered that, when required, their organization could act much more quickly and nimbly than they normally do.

So, the obvious questions are: what was different? And how can you ‘hardwire’ this flexibility into your organization so it continues to be stronger in the future?


What Was Different?

All humans have a set of cognitive biases, which are mental shortcuts used for problem solving and decision making.

To be clear, cognitive biases are not individual or personal biases. They are a neuroscience phenomenon that all humans share. It’s also important to understand that they operate subconsciously; they affect your thinking in ways that you don’t realize.

You have two different thinking systems, commonly known as system 1 and system 2, sometimes referred to as thinking fast and thinking slow.

System 1 is the intuitive, quick, and easy thinking that we do most of the time. In fact, it accounts for about 98% of our thinking. It doesn’t require a lot of mental effort; we do it easily, quickly, and without having to think about the fact that we’re thinking.

System 2 thinking is deeper thinking, the kind that’s required for complex problem solving and decision making. This deeper thinking requires more effort and energy; it literally uses more calories. Since it’s less energy-efficient, our brain automatically and subconsciously defaults to the easier system-1 thinking whenever it can to save effort.

Cognitive biases result when our brain tries to stay in system-1 thinking, when perhaps it should be in system 2. The outcome is often sub-optimal solutions and/or poor decision making. But we don’t realize we have sub-optimized because all of this has happened subconsciously.

In typical circumstances, several of these cognitive biases conspire to make us perceive that continuing as we are — with only slower, incremental changes — seems like the best decision. It feels familiar, it feels lower risk … it just feels smarter. Choosing to do nothing different is, very often, simply the default. It frequently doesn’t even feel like we made a decision; instead, it feels like we were really smart for not making a potentially risky decision.

But during the pandemic, changing nothing, or changing very slowly, were simply not options. This particular situation was so unique that our brains didn’t have the choice to stay in short-cut system-1 thinking. System-2 thinking was required. Since we consciously realized we must change — quickly — our brains literally started working harder, in system 2, and the normal cognitive biases weren’t a factor.


How Can We Be More Nimble in the Future?

The key to maintaining flexible thinking and nimble behavior is to not allow our brains to fall into the trap of cognitive biases. Obviously, since these are intuitive and subconscious responses, this is not an easy task. But there are proven ways in which we can better manage our brains. Here are a few ways to start.

• Knock Out the Negativity Bias. This is the phenomenon in which negative experiences have a greater impact on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors than positive experiences. So you are much more highly motivated to avoid the negative than you are to seek out positive. The way this manifests in your daily work is that you are much more prone to reject new ideas than to accept them, because rejecting ideas feels like you’re avoiding a potential negative.

Respond to “yes, but…” with “what if…?” This requires a dedicated and conscious mental effort, by everyone on the team, to monitor their own and the team’s response to new ideas. Every time “yes, but…” is uttered, the response needs to be, “what if we could solve for that?” This reframing of the problem into a question will trigger our brains to look for solutions, instead of instantly rejecting the idea.

• Short-circuit the Status-quo Bias. The status-quo bias is a subconscious preference for the current state of affairs. We use ‘current’ as a mental reference point, and any change from that is perceived as a loss. As a result, we frequently overestimate the risk of a change, and dramatically underestimate the risk of business as usual.

When weighing a choice of possible actions, be sure to overtly list “do nothing” as one of the choices, so you are forced to acknowledge it is a choice. Also include “risk” as one of the evaluation criteria, and force the team to list all the possible risks. Then comes the difficult part: remind the team that their subconscious brain is making them perceive the risks of doing nothing to be lower than the reality, so they should multiply the possibility of each of those risks.

• Curtail the Curse of Knowledge. In any subject where we have some expertise, we also have many subconscious assumptions about that subject. Under normal circumstances, this ‘curse of knowledge’ (these latent assumptions) limits our thinking and suppresses our ability to come up with radically new ideas.

Rely on advisors who don’t have the same curse of knowledge. In other words, seek out advice from people outside of your industry. When evaluating ideas or actions, these outsiders won’t have the same blinders that you have, so they will likely have a more clear-eyed view of the benefits and risks.

The bad news is that cognitive biases are always going to be a factor in our problem solving and decision making; they’re hardwired into us. The good news is that, with some dedicated and continuous mental effort, we can mitigate them and become nimbler in the face of change.


Susan Robertson empowers individuals, teams, and organizations to more nimbly adapt to change, by transforming thinking from “why we can’t” to “how might we?” She is a creative thinking expert with more than 20 years of experience coaching Fortune 500 companies. As an instructor on applied creativity at Harvard, she brings a scientific foundation to enhancing human creativity; www.susanrobertson.com

Coronavirus Cover Story Modern Office

The Future of Work

Michael Galat

Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services at Big Y.

When businesses sent employees home in mid-March, many thought it would be for just a few weeks. Instead, as the pandemic lingered, weeks stretched into months, and now, even as companies are allowed to bring their teams back on site, many have not. The reason? Employers say it makes little sense to risk their people’s health if they can do their job just as well at home. But … if they can work effectively at home, why bring them back at all? That’s a conversation many companies are having as they ponder the future of the workplace in the COVID-19 era.

Big Y Foods is one of the region’s largest companies, with more than 11,000 employees throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut. It has also been an essential business throughout the pandemic, so it never shut down.

Many of its employees — those who stock shelves, prepare food, work the cashier lines, and do any number of other tasks — must do their jobs on site, in a specific location. But at Big Y’s 300-employee-strong customer-support center in Springfield, which supports those frontline workers, that wasn’t necessarily the case.

“About 80% of them started working from home once COVID-19 started gaining traction,” said Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services at Big Y. That shift meant setting everyone up with the right equipment if they didn’t have it at home, and also putting together a best-practices guide for working remotely. “Whether people are working remotely or not, they need to have access and be available to support those locations.”

The lesson learned over four months? They did their jobs just fine. And until COVID-19 begins to subside in earnest, Big Y is taking its time bringing employees — at least the ones who don’t have to work in the stores — back to their pre-pandemic workspaces.

“We’re definitely taking our time. We’re at about 30% in the support center now,” Galat said. “Obviously this is peak vacation time, but we are slowly, and I mean slowly, reintegrating people in the support center.”

PeoplesBank is learning similar lessons about what employees can accomplish at home, said Amy Roberts, chief Human Resources officer.

“There’s always a concern, when you don’t have someone on site, because you can’t see what they’re doing. Are they working?” she said. “But we haven’t really missed a beat in terms of productivity levels. Some people like working from home — it works for them — while some people prefer working in the office, and they can’t wait to come back. But for overall productivity and meeting the needs of customers, we haven’t had any concerns.”

Roberts doesn’t see a day, post-pandemic, when the majority of bank employees are still working at home. But functioning so well over the past few months has at least gotten HR leaders talking.

“Is this something we can do on a more permanent basis? We’re still trying to figure out the right blend. But there seems to be some opportunity for flexible work options, and I think we’re going to do that in the future.”

“Is this something we can do on a more permanent basis? We’re still trying to figure out the right blend,” she told BusinessWest. “But there seems to be some opportunity for flexible work options, and I think we’re going to do that in the future.”

Patrick Leary has had those conversations, too. As a partner with MP CPAs, he understands that much of his business is face to face with clients. “But I don’t think we’ll go back to 100% on site.”

Elaborating, he explained that “the model of having everyone show up at 9 o’clock and work all day until 5, then go home, I think it’s really been proven that it doesn’t need to be that way. Yes, we need to have people available, and we can’t have somebody that decides, ‘I want to enjoy my day, so I’ll start the workday at 5 p.m. and work till 1 a.m.’ — although some of the 20-somethings might like that; me, I need to be in bed by 9.”

But while it’s true that employees need to be available to field phone calls and take appointments during core work hours, he went on, it may not be necessary to have everyone working in the same place at the same time.

“I think our ideas about what is a regular workplace have completely changed,” Leary went on, and it wasn’t sending everyone home in March that shifted those ideas; it was how long the stay-at-home trend has lasted.

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank has to balance the benefits of working at home with the interactive employee culture it has cultivated.

“If everyone went home, and two weeks later they were back in the office, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he noted. “But we’ve proven in four months that people can work at home, work efficiently at home, and accept working at home.”

These three companies — a supermarket chain, a bank, and an accounting firm — all have totally different business models and customer needs, yet they’re all saying the same thing when it comes to the workplace of the future, and specifically whether remote work is here to stay: nothing is set in stone, but it’s a conversation worth having.

Shifting on the Fly

Shifting to remote appointments back in March was a smooth process, Leary said, partly because all the clients were working remotely, too.

“That part of it was not overly challenging,” he added. “And we had stress-tested our internal systems about a month earlier as good practice, just to see how we were doing. We did some modifications, so system-wide, we were in good shape. We had been using voice over internet for the phones, so when someone called at the office, it could ring at the house. So we were good there.”

The company did need to work through some quality-control issues, however, especially since the team was being physically separated during the heart of tax-preparation season.

“That, to me, was the biggest challenge,” he said. “Most people are accustomed to doing that in face-to-face settings, but we did it with everyone at home. We developed some protocols for how that would work.”

The firm created a schedule for individuals to come to the office to pick up packages, scan documents, and send them to the right people.

“The model of having everyone show up at 9 o’clock and work all day until 5, then go home, I think it’s really been proven that it doesn’t need to be that way.”

“Then there was the whole PPP thing, working with virtually all our business clients, showing them how to apply for it, and making sure they knew they rules, which were evolving almost daily,” Leary recalled. “We had a core group staying really closely involved and on top of the regulations, and we did a couple of webinars for clients.”

Then there was COVID-19 itself. “We were helping clients through their issues with business being called off — what do they do for cash flow?” he went on. “But the biggest challenge for me was that it all occurred during our busiest time.”

Banking customers were dealing with some of the same issues, as well as their usual needs, and PeoplesBank leaders were quick to make sure employees were set up to work at home.

“In a matter of two weeks, we assigned something like 150 Chromebooks and issued VPN access to all office items,” Roberts said, noting that about 170 people who work in the office were sent home to work. Some, who could not get the access they needed for whatever reason, were paid until the issues were resolved, and they began working from home as well.

These days, the main office is about 25% occupied, with most still working totally from home and others coming into the office one or two days a week. Like Leary, Roberts said discussions have already taken place regarding what the past four months mean for the future of remote work.

“There are definitely limitations, if we’re going to pursue it is a work type,” she said. “We’re going to need technology that ensures full access and takes care of the little things you experience when you’re at home instead of the office, like system slowdowns and delays.”

In short, if PeoplesBank is going to expand remote work in perpetuity — and not just because a pandemic has forced much of the work world home — it needs to the same experience from a work standpoint. “We’ve highlighted things that can be better. But for the most part, it’s been pretty seamless.”

Leary said the current situation has opened his eyes to internet infrastructure needs in the community, especially in places like the hilltowns, which can run into slow speeds and spotty cell service. “If this becomes the new norm, we can’t have someone working in their house who can’t connect to the outside world efficiently.”

Remote Learning

For a company like Big Y — which, between its supermarkets, convenience stores, and gas stations, is a 24/7 operation — flexible work options on the customer-support side make sense, Galat said.

“We’re able to give flexibility to that employee who may have childcare issues, or is caring for an elderly parent, and it allows us to support our stores while minimizing the amount of people who come in here,” he said, which remains an issue with the pandemic still a threat. “So having flexibility of schedule helps their personal lives and also our workplace.”

Patrick Leary

Patrick Leary says a shift to more permanent work-at-home options will require an investment in technology.

Claire D’Amour-Daley, the chain’s vice president of Corporate Communications, agreed. “Some have even felt more productive at home than here. It will certainly be part of the workplace of the future.”

She was especially impressed that the company was able to shift how it did business — not just moving some employees home, but taking steps to protect the ones in the stores — essentially on the fly.

“We’re used to working quickly, but not that quickly,” she said. “The stores were slammed the first few weeks, and this added yet another element of urgency. But we never stopped; we quickly pivoted to serve our stores and our customers in an unprecedented manner.”

“We made it work, and we needed to,” Galat added. “We needed to stay connected more than ever during this time.”

That said, “there are more discussions to be had,” he continued. “Absolutely, some lessons were learned — we’re able to support our locations — but when you look at the company-culture part of it, you lose that social aspect.”

To counter that, remote employees have been conferencing over Zoom three or four times a week, in some departments every day. Meanwhile, they’ve been issued guidance for working efficiently at home, from creating a comfortable, ergonomically correct work area to setting aside time for mind-clearing breaks.

“Eighty to 85% of the feedback has been positive,” Galat said. “People have been able to get their products done. Some have missed the social element, but for others, there’s value in the time saved not commuting in traffic.”

PeoplesBank has long promoted an interactive, employee-centric culture, and that has to be considered when pondering the future of the workplace.

“We rely on that interaction and engagement you get by being in the office together as a group,” Roberts said.

“Making sure we can continue that interactive part of our culture is something I’m really focused on right now. That’s a tricky one. If you have a completely remote workforce, you lose some of those engagement opportunities, and you have to shift some of the ways you engage. We’re not going to let that stop us from pursuing flexibility, but we have to consider the great culture that we have.”

Home or Away?

While employee culture and technology requirements are certainly legitimate topics of discussion, none of the professionals who spoke with BusinessWest expressed much concern about employee accountability and efficiency — “our concerns about people not doing their work dissipated pretty quickly,” D’Amour-Daley said — meaning remote workers may indeed have a broader role in the future.

“It’s been interesting to say the least,” Leary said. “I’ve fallen into a pretty good routine from day one. I’ve tried to make it a regular day: shower, get dressed — not in a suit, but not pajamas — and sit down at my computer. It makes for a more normal routine than saying, ‘I’ll get to work when I get to it.’ And I think most people would feel the same.”

Expanded use of remote work would also open up opportunities for both companies and employees, especially those who want to live in, say, Boston or New York City, he noted. Those individuals could expand their job-search horizons, while Western Mass. could become a more attractive place for businesses to set down roots, taking advantage of the region’s relatively low lease rates while hiring from afar.

All these opportunities can only open up if remote work proves a viable option. And companies of all types are starting to think it is.

“I haven’t had a single client call and say, ‘hey, I was talking to Sally, and I heard a dog barking in the background; it was really distracting,’” Leary said. “I actually think the idea of working from home is good for people. In that time they’d be commuting, maybe they’re exercising or spending more time with their family.

“People do miss the social interaction,” he was quick to add. “Maybe they live alone, or it’s just them and their significant other in the office.”

But the employees of MP CPAs who are back in the office — about half the team — are there by choice, he said, with others choosing to remain at home.

Because it works. And employers like things that work. So, in this era of Zoom and home offices and (sometimes) pajamas, they’re paying attention.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office

Small Steps for Big Wins

By Sarah Rose Stack

Sarah Rose Stack

Sarah Rose Stack

Work-life balance in 2020 has been different, to say the least. And many people have unexpectedly found themselves in a new office … at home. This trend does not seem to be going away. In fact, many businesses plan to extend their work-from-home policies through the end of the year and are considering more permanent work-from-home plans.

If you are working from home, the expectation is that you are working from home. However, if you are not accustomed to this new environment, it can be tricky to perform to your fullest potential while also maintaining work-life balance. You and your employees may need to take additional steps to invest in overall well-being in order to remain effective at work.

Here are some things to think about, focusing on healthy mind, body, and spirit.


Staying focused and on task is key for productivity. Keep your mind clear and focused. To do that:

• Take a Break. Step away from screens occasionally. Don’t forget to give yourself a few minutes throughout the day to recharge in the same way that you would if you were in the office.

• Fully Participate. Nothing will help you enjoy your time off more then a job well done during your time on. Be engaged during meetings. Put your full workday in. Remain committed to your mission and vision while working. Your mind will appreciate the normalcy, you will do better work, and you will find it easier to turn off your work at the end of the day.

• Schedule Tasks, but Set Limits. Stay organized and on task by being clear about how you will spend your time. Schedule appointments with yourself to complete work. Limit tasks based on how much time it would normally take to complete them in the office.

• Set Ground Rules with Your New ‘Colleagues.’ If you are working remotely due to COVID-19, chances are that there are more people hunkered down at home too. To stay productive and avoid frustration, communicate with your family about boundaries so that you minimize interruptions and distractions.

• Set Up Your Home Office. Remember your first day of work, when you brought in a box of favorite things to keep you inspired and productive? Take some time to set up your new dedicated home-office space. Keep your work area organized and separate from your ‘life’ area. Even setting up a simple desk or table in a dedicated space will help you get into work mode when it is time. It can also prevent your work from overrunning your kitchen, living room, bedroom, or all of the above.


Working — and doing everything else — at home can leave us feeling sluggish. Stay energized to feel and do your best.

• Take a Walk. If you’re taking a 10-minute break, don’t waste it scrolling on your phone. Go outside and take a walk. The combination of sunlight, fresh air, change of scenery, and movement can give you an injection of energy to get back at it.

• Stand Up. On a conference call or virtual meeting? Stand up or even walk or pace during the call. The walk can increase your focus, and you can also get some exercise at the same time.

• Try Yoga to Increase Focus. Did you know certain yoga poses may increase focus and concentration? Try yoga in the morning before work, or mid-afternoon to increase your focus and stay active. Poses for focus include tree, eagle, warrior III, half-moon, dancer, extended hand to toe, side plank, crow, and headstand.

• Choose Healthy Snacks and Meals. With a full range of access to unlimited food and snacks, it can be easy to fall off track and overdo it on the junk food. This obviously can lead to fatigue and become problematic if it becomes habitual. Maintaining a healthy diet with good portions will keep you fueled and energized.

• Drink More Water. Keeping hydrated is critical for well-being. Again, with full access to your kitchen, you may be prone to drink more sugary drinks, coffee, or soda than you normally would. Or you may not be taking in as much water as you usually do. Keep a water glass at your desk (but not near electronics) so you can stay hydrated throughout the day.


Acknowledge emotions that are coming up as you navigate a new work situation and then take steps to redirect the narrative.

• Practice Gratitude. Showing appreciation can help you feel more positive emotions. Thank your colleagues when they help you with something. Take a moment to be grateful for the opportunity to work from home right now. Studies show that people who feel and express gratitude generally have a greater level of happiness.

• Go Outside. During social distancing, you can still leave your home to go for a walk or simply enjoy a cup of coffee on the porch. Research has shown that going outside can improve your short-term memory, restore mental energy, relieve stress, improve concentration, and increase your creativity.

• Stay Connected to Colleagues. While you can’t swing by a co-worker’s office to chit-chat, you can take a few minutes each day to connect. Whether it’s a private Facebook group, Teams, or group chat, take some time to check in. Talk. Laugh a little. Share photos, comments, and videos. Motivate each other to do great work together. Staying connected keeps us together while we’re apart.

Healthy Perspective

Small actions that are taken consistently can add up to big results. Focus on the three big rocks and the small wins that can be achieved within them to position yourself for a healthy mind, body, and spirit while working from home … and, for that matter, working from anywhere.

As you and your employees navigate this new work-from-home environment, remember that being productive and healthy is good for business and good for people. Many find that, when they have accomplished their goals during the day, they are able to relax and enjoy their time ‘at home.’ On the contrary, if they have been distracted throughout the day, they may find that nagging feeling of work piling up and following them everywhere.

Create a dedicated space, hours, boundaries, and habits to increase effectiveness and maintain a healthy work/life balance while working from home.

Sarah Rose Stack is marketing and recruiting manager with Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka; (413) 322-3401.

Modern Office Special Coverage

The Shape of Things to Come

Mark Proshan says predicting what’s coming next in his business — office furniture and design — has always been a difficult assignment.

But now … it’s even more of a complicated guessing game.

Indeed, in a sector where the landscape can change quickly and profoundly, and for a number of reasons — from a declining economy to changing tastes — the pandemic has produced an even greater sense of uncertainty about what lies around the bend, said Proshan, president of West Springfield-based Lexington Group.

“For the first time ever, I don’t even pretend to be smart enough to see what’s coming down the road,” he told BusinessWest, noting that this applies to both the short and long term. “We don’t know when bigger places of business will open back up, what their attitude is going to be toward spending money, and what things will look like down the road.”

Tyler Arnold, a principal with Holyoke-based Conklin Office, who spoke with BusinessWest from the company’s office in Northern New Jersey, agreed. He noted there are many variables that will affect decision making at individual companies when it comes to if and when employees return to work, how many return, and how much space they’ll take up when they do return.

“The number-one priority for people right now is to bring back fewer people, spread things out … and then see what happens,” he explained. “They might look at their footprint and say ‘we’ve got 1,000 employees, and we’re occupying 100,000 square feet.’ They may decide to only bring back 500 employees — but does that mean they need 50,000 square feet or 75,000 square feet? I think there will be a lot of that going on.”

But there are some things that are known. It seems certain that the collaborative, open spaces that companies have developed over the past several years will change — perhaps significantly.

Arnold said the old 10-by-10 private offices that dominated the business landscape years ago and are still favored by some banks and law firms won’t make an immediate comeback — they’re very expensive and still somewhat impractical. But there will certainly be a move to create more privacy and shield employees from one another and the public.

Mark Proshan sits at benching sporting a higher divider

Mark Proshan sits at benching sporting a higher divider than models popular just a few months ago. He says these units are among the items now in demand as businesses work to increase privacy in the workplace.

This has been made apparent by the number of calls both companies are taking from business owners and managers looking to adjust their spaces for a pandemic.

That’s especially true in New York City, said Arnold, where many financial-services companies and corporate headquarters had moved to benching to place as many people in as small an area as possible. Now, many of those benches are being outfitted with dividers, or higher dividers, as the case may be.

“Right now, the immediate demand is for adding privacy screens, be that acrylic material or fabric,” Arnold told BusinessWest. “So much that has been built out over the past 10 years has an open plan, open feel to it. What’s the easiest, quickest, least costly way to give people a sense of detachment from the person sitting next to them? It’s some kind of privacy screen.”

“A lot of people are continuing to stay home, and I’m not sure if that will continue to be the case.”

Proshan agreed. “We do have inquiries from people as to how to modify their spaces to make them more private, making walls higher, making plexiglass partitions and glass partitions, where possible,” he noted. “Meanwhile, a lot of people are continuing to stay home, and I’m not sure if that will continue to be the case. If it is the case, the need for higher-end furniture will likely not go hand in hand with staying at home; it may well be the Staples of the world and the Costcos of the world that will be selling those items because people might be paying for it out of their own pocket.”

As for companies bringing people back, the plan of action for many companies is not to put anyone immediately next to or across from someone else, even if there is a screen, said Arnold, adding that many businesses are ramping up slowly and in waves. How big the waves will get remains to seen.

Actually, that’s just one of many things that remain to be seen, as we’ll see as BusinessWest talks with these experts about how the pandemic might reshape the modern office as we know it.

Space Exploration

As he talked with BusinessWest about the physical changes that will come to the modern office in the wake of COVID-19, Proshan said it would probably be easier to do a little show and tell.

With that, he walked to the front lobby of the company’s spacious headquarters on Union Street. There, two workstations are outfitted with what would have to be called pandemic-era features.

Before discussing them, though, Proshan reached for his phone and scrolled to images of what used to be there, because this is where the discussion had to start (see photos, page 24). Before, there were fairly low structures that were wide open. They’ve been replaced by units of similar height topped by plexiglass panels on two sides, with narrow openings in front to keep those behind them safe.

“This is the kind of thing we’ll be seeing — this is the direction we’re going in,” said Proshan, adding that, for the foreseeable future, the focus will be on privacy and keeping people safe. Collaboration? Well, not so much.

Tyler Arnold

Tyler Arnold

“People will see where the economy goes; they’ll want to see how it comes back before they make any big decisions.”

At least not as much face-to-face collaboration, he went on, as he took BusinessWest on a walk to the showroom, where he sat down at benching that sports those higher walls that can’t be seen over and are designed with privacy and protection in mind.

While orders for such products come in, the larger questions looming over the industry concern the longer term. But while contemplating the future, those we spoke with are also coping with the present, which is challenging on many levels.

Indeed, Proshan said a number of projects that were in the pipeline have been paused as companies and institutions try to absorb what has happened and what it all means moving forward. He mentioned a $1.2 million library project at one of the area colleges and several other initiatives that have been put on hold because the plans that were blueprinted months ago may no longer be viable in the COVID-19 world.

“When you think about what may change when people go into a public space like that, you can certainly understand how and why these institutions might want to pause,” he said. “We have lots of repurchased and paid-for inventory that, because the colleges and universities are shut down, we can’t even get in to deliver this product.

“And the policy for a lot of these places is that they can’t pay for product until it’s delivered and installed,” he went on. “But, unfortunately, my manufacturers insist on getting paid once the product is received by me — so you can see the dilemma when you’re talking about a large volume of merchandise.”

There are other challenges to contend with as well, such as reopening their own offices, which were ‘essential’ in some cases — Lexington earned that designation in West Springfield because it delivers to healthcare providers — and also dealing with various employment issues, and trying to serve customers in remote fashion, a somewhat difficult task when many consumers like to see, touch, and kick the tires on the products they’re contemplating.

Arnold, like Proshan, said the phones essentially stopped ringing during the month of March. Then commenced a period of speculation and webinars about when offices would reopen and how. And then, things got busy again as companies started gathering information and proposals for those protective shields and dividers for benches, with a decent percentage of those proposals turning into orders.

The new workstations

The new workstations in the lobby at Lexington Group contrast sharply with what existed before, and speak volumes about current efforts to keep workers and visitors safe and increase privacy.

What concerns Arnold at this point is what happens when this ‘bubble,’ as he called it, is over and companies, now getting comfortable as employees slowly return to the office, contemplate their future needs, and their footprint.

Indeed, his company is currently working on projects involving leases that were signed months ago. The question is, will new leases be signed?

“I think that, when we get to the middle of the summer, there will be a pretty good slowdown at that point,” he said. “People will see where the economy goes; they’ll want to see how it comes back before they make any big decisions.”

There are already strong signs that some companies will not go back to their former offices, and if they do, they’ll probably do it gradually, with many seeking smaller footprints for fewer employees, which means less office furniture to be sold, said those we spoke with.

Arnold said he’s seeing a lot of this in New York, which is still very much in lockdown mode.

“Initially, people couldn’t wait to get back to work,” he noted. “But at this point, many corporations are taking their time and making decisions. The mentality is that, ‘we’re turning a profit, everyone’s working remotely, everybody’s safe; until we’re really comfortable that we can put them in an environment where we can minimize risk and people can focus on what they do, we’re in no rush to return to the office.’”

Mass transit certainly plays a big role in what’s happening — or not — with people returning to the workplace, he went on, adding quickly that, in many markets, and with businesses across many sectors, the question concerning such returns is increasingly ‘if,’ not ‘when,’ and also ‘how many will return?’

Whether this changes or not in the short or long term is yet another of those questions that are difficult to answer at this juncture.

Again, about the only thing that’s relatively certain is that the past will become prologue when it comes to privacy and how the office might look and feel moving forward.

“Ten years ago, everyone had tall walls, lots of privacy — people had their own space,” said Proshan. “‘Collaboration’ became the buzzword the last few years, and the walls came down, and shared space became the big thing. And while I think people will still have the need to collaborate, I think they’re going to be doing it in a much more enclosed environment.”

Bottom Line

Returning to the place where they started this discussion, Proshan and Arnold said that, while some things are known at this juncture, many more are not. And speculation might not be a fruitful exercise at this point.

“I don’t think there are whole lot of crystal-ball gazers who really know what’s going to shake out from all this,” Proshan said. “No one really knows.”

Arnold concurred. While the focus for now is on privacy and spreading people out, he noted, the landscape may be altered again. “All this can change on a dime if there’s good news about a vaccine or something like that. For now, everyone’s planning like this a year or so off.”

A year seems a long way off in a business where predicting the future is difficult — and has now become much more so.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office Special Coverage

Views from a Distance

In the middle of March, employees of companies across Massachusetts — and many other regions of the U.S. — suddenly began working at home. In some cases, it was a matter of setting up a team of four or five people in their home offices.

Then there’s MassMutual, which suddenly had to do that for 7,500 employees.

“We communicated the transition on a Thursday, and by Monday, we had gone from about 20% of our workforce being remote to more than 95%,” said Susan Cicco, MassMutual’s head of Human Resources & Employee Experience. “On top of the need for that speed and agility, this particular situation created unique challenges in that employees are working remotely while, in many cases, fulfilling many additional roles — as employees, caregivers, and even teachers.”

But the experiment — if one can call it that, since the government was forcing the company’s hand — has been largely successful, to the point where, with the COVID-19 pandemic still a threat, MassMutual has told its employees to keep working remotely, at least into September.

“We decided to share with employees that we would start returning to the office no earlier than the beginning of September as we continue to focus on their health and safety, as well as allow them to be able to plan family and life commitments amidst continued uncertainty around things like childcare and camps,” Cicco told BusinessWest. “I’m not sure anything particularly equates for the scale and magnitude of this crisis. That said, we relied on and built upon our strong cultural foundation and focus on flexibility, balance, and well-being.”

“This particular situation created unique challenges in that employees are working remotely while, in many cases, fulfilling many additional roles — as employees, caregivers, and even teachers.”

Which brings up a question many companies of all sizes are likely asking — once the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, what have we learned about the potential of remote work in the future? And how many employees do we really need under one roof?

“I am sure that just about every business is going to be impacted both positively and negatively by this COVID-19 pandemic,” said Delcie Bean, CEO of Paragus IT. “My sincere hope is that the negative impacts are short-term and the positive impacts are long-term. In terms of those positive impacts, I think the most obvious is that many businesses learned that is it possible to conduct business remotely.”

Elaborating, he noted, “I know many companies that, ahead of the pandemic, said it wouldn’t work for them, but when push came to shove and they were forced into it, they found that it actually did work better than they could have imagined. That said, I know many businesses are finding that their technology is not well-suited for a predominately remote workforce, and therefore if they wish to make those changes permanent, they will need to make further investments in their technology platforms.”

The big takeaway, however, is that it’s possible, and the technology Bean mentions is widely available. But other questions need to be answered as well.

Lives in the Balance

One deals, quite simply, with employees’ mindset, Cicco said.

“Our colleagues have been amazingly resilient and committed through all this, and a major focus has been on ensuring we are keeping a pulse on employee well-being — physical and emotional — to provide the relevant support and resources,” she noted. “We’ve also been working to communicate continuously as things evolved — both when we had answers and, as importantly, when we didn’t.”

They learned that employees’ biggest stressor was the ability to effectively balance their work and personal lives, whether that’s caring for elderly loved ones, helping children with school, or taking time for themselves while still maintaining work commitments.

Susan Cicco

Susan Cicco says the biggest stressor for those working from home has been balancing their work and their personal lives, whether that’s caring for an elderly loved one or helping children with school.

In response, the company rolled out additional tools and resources for employees. In addition to existing benefits, time off, and leave policies, employees could access up to 80 hours of additional paid time off related to COVID-19.

“This time is not limited to those who are sick or taking care of kids or loved ones, although those circumstances apply,” Cicco said. “The intent is really to help everyone work through personal challenges that come up in dealing with the pandemic.”

To promote wellness in the home, MassMutual launched online fitness classes, webinars dedicated to dealing with stress, meditation programs, as well as virtual yoga, stretch breaks, and more.

It also expanded its Employee Assistance Program, which offers free sessions with counselors to help people through a range of needs, from managing anxiety and stress to juggling the demands of parenting, to grieving the passing of a loved one. 

“And, working with our eight Business Resource Groups, we’ve continued our commitment to diversity and inclusion,” Cicco continued, “providing a safe space for employees to share what’s on their minds and connect through online conversations on how different segments of society are impacted by the pandemic.”

If companies decide they can manage employees’ needs remotely and see no reduction in efficiency, they might indeed move in that direction permanently, at least for some workers, Bean said.

“The impact of this, or the ripple effect, is what is most interesting,” he told BusinessWest. “In talking to clients, peers, and friends, I know companies that will forever reduce their physical office space — focusing more on meeting rooms and less on offices, with the philosophy that the office is somewhere we come to collaborate or meet up, but when we are working independently, we do so from home. Changes like that will have all kinds of effects on traffic, real estate, even the carbon footprint of an organization.”

However, at the same time, businesses are starting to realize that the technology required to make this work, and to make it work securely, is different than the tech they have been investing in for the past 10 years, he explained.

“Platforms like Microsoft 365 become essential, but not just for e-mail; it is my opinion that, during this pandemic, while we were all running around applying for PPP loans and trying to learn Zoom, somewhere over in a corner, the concept of having a file server died a quick and quiet death,” he explained. “Businesses will need to move to platforms that are much more device-agnostic, where control, management, and data are decentralized and largely migrated to the cloud, and where collaboration is dramatically enhanced through tools like Microsoft Teams.”

Expanding those tools will need to be accompanied by enhanced cybersecurity at home, Bean added.

Best of Both Worlds

Taking the broad view, Bean said the potential clearly exists for more remote work and home-based employees.

“In the end, everything that is going to happen was going to happen anyway,” he noted. “However, five years was just shaved off of the schedule that was otherwise going to play out, dramatically accelerating that process.”

After all, he added, the core value of technology today is that it moves quickly — often before people are ready.

“It’s hard for anyone to truly know the future when still in the midst of something unprecedented like this,” Cicco added. “I have no doubt that this forced work-from-home experience has validated the potential of flexibility and how productive an organization can be working remotely, while, at the same time, reinforcing the importance of people coming together in the same space to achieve common goals.”

So maybe there’s room for both models.

“I am certain the learnings from all this will undoubtedly move us forward in providing the best of both worlds,” she said, “supporting employees working from home when it makes sense for them and their work, along with continuing to foster the right work environment that safely draws people together to collaborate and innovate.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office

They’re Not Sitting Still

Mark Proshan

When the Lexington Group was launched in the waning days of the 1980s, the office was in many ways a different place than it is today. Spaces are more open, people can now stand at their desks, and the ‘world of sitting’ has evolved in ways that might not have been imagined years ago. As it celebrates 30 years in operation, the Lexington Group embraces change, but really embraces what hasn’t changed — the basic fundamentals of serving customers.

It’s been not quite 30 years since the collapsing Monarch Insurance Co. handed employee Mark Proshan an additional assignment — find a buyer for roughly $3.5 million in office furniture it no longer needed — one that ended with him becoming that buyer.

With that acquisition, he founded the Lexington Group, which, now as then, operates out of former manufacturing space in the old Gilbarco complex on Union Street in West Springfield, selling and repairing new and used office furniture.

As he talked with BusinessWest about those 30 years, Proshan noted two things that might seem obvious. The first is that they’ve gone by very quickly. The second is that they have been marked by constant and sometimes profound change.

Indeed, Proshan now regularly attends ergonomics conferences — there weren’t many, if any, of those in 1989. He sells sit-stand desks and something called the Magis Spun chair (it’s large, orange, looks more like a sculpture than a chair, and, yes, it rocks and spins; it’s popular in college dorm lounges). And today, rather than browse the showroom (although some still do that), many customers come in with a cell phone and show Proshan a picture of what they want. They weren’t doing that in 1989, either.

But what’s far more significant to him — not that these changes are not noteworthy — is what hasn’t changed.

Mark Proshan says there have been many changes in the inventory on the showroom floor over the past 30 years, but what’s more important is what hasn’t changed — the fundamentals of business.

“The fundamentals of doing business have never changed, in my opinion,” he told BusinessWest. “The technology and the gadgetry and the wizardry of doing business have changed, but the need to listen, establish relationships, understand, and guide someone to what would be a good solution for them — those don’t change, and that’s what we’ve always done.”

This focus on listening, guiding, and relationship building has enabled Lexington Group to enjoy consistent growth over the years, to the point where it now occupies roughly 165,000 square feet, more than eight times the amount it struggled to fill with inventory when it first opened, and employs 30 people full-time, as opposed to the two part-timers Proshan started with.

Change, as noted, has been a constant when it comes to everything from products to how people shop to the height of cubicle walls (they were 70 inches on average, and now they’re typically 48 to 54). Meanwhile, the percentage of used furniture sold compared to new, which was roughly 60-40, is now the exact opposite, and probably closer to 20-80 as customer demands change.

The client list has changed and grown as well, said Proshan, adding that it includes many of the region’s colleges and universities, hundreds of businesses large and small, and a growing number of entrepreneurs launching new ventures.

These are just some of the things the company is celebrating as it marks this important milestone, with the official anniversary date coming in December.

It will celebrate in unique style well before that, though, with an event that’s been staged in most other markets before, but not this one, to the best of Proshan’s knowledge.

We’re talking about chair hockey.

Yes, this is hockey played in chairs — specifically Aeron Chairs manufactured by Herman Miller, a company that has been helping to stage such competitions across the country and around the world. In fact, the phrase often used is Aeron hockey.

Set for Oct. 2 at Lexington’s facilities — the center aisle in the main showroom is 30 feet wide, ample enough for such a purpose — this event will feature top collegiate teams squaring off, with the winner moving on to play a delegation from the Springfield Thunderbirds. A contingent from American International College, which last spring sent a team deep into the NCAA tournament, has signed on, as has UMass Amherst, which went all the way to the championship game last spring (won by Minnesota-Duluth) to participate as well.

“The technology and the gadgetry and the wizardry of doing business have changed, but the need to listen, establish relationships, understand, and guide someone to what would be a good solution for them — those don’t change, and that’s what we’ve always done.”

Proceeds — and Proshan is hoping to raise $5,000 to $7,000 — will go to the Foundation for TJO Animals.

Funds will be raised by selling Aeron chairs to be used in the tournament to participating companies (at an amount well below sticker price). Companies get their name on the back of the chair for the tournament, and when it’s over, they get to keep the chair.

Ultimately, Proshan is hoping this becomes an annual event, and he has ambitions to take it to a larger venue (the MassMutual Center, perhaps) and involve dozens of area businesses in the competition.

“We’re excited about this because a lot of people do walks, a lot of people do runs, and a lot of people do golf tournaments, but this has never been done before,” he said, adding that this year’s hockey competition doubles (or triples) as an anniversary celebration and networking event for the region.

And it’s an appropriate way to mark the company’s milestone because it represents something new, different, and forward-looking, qualities the company has strived to embody from the very beginning.

Chair Man

As he talked about his business and his industry, Proshan acknowledged what many probably knew already: office furniture is not exactly rocket science.

But it is certainly more than filling a warehouse with desks, chairs, file cabinets, and credenzas and waiting, as he noted, for people to come in, bring their phones out, and show pictures of what they want. This is, indeed, a customer-service-focused business, even if the customer might not fully grasp this at the beginning.

“With office furniture, people will often come in thinking that they know what they want,” he said. “But when you question them as to why, they start to look at things differently.”

To get his point across, Proshan summoned one of the myriad anecdotes he’s collected over three decades as a business owner.

Mark Proshan, seen here with his dog and frequent work companion, Beckett, says the company will celebrate 30 years with an Aeron hockey competition.

“A guy came in a few years ago, and he wanted a very traditional, bank-like-looking leather chair to sit at his desk in,” Proshan recalled. “It had all of the looks of old-school banking and power, and that’s what he wanted. And when I talked with him, he said he was also having trouble with his back.

“I told him this chair would do nothing to help with any physical ailments he was experiencing, and also told him I understood what he was going for in terms of a look,” he went on. “But I told him he needed to weigh that against the benefits of some of the technological advancements that have come out in the world of sitting.”

Fast-forwarding a little, Proshan said he showed the customer an Aeron chair, and the response was “absolutely not — this is not what I have in mind.” He then enticed him to sit in one. When the customer left the showroom, he took one of the chairs with him.

That story provides a simple yet effective tutorial in how this business is carried out, or should be carried out.

“It’s that kind of guiding people to what may be a more favorable outcome that they may not have been aware of when they came in that still takes place,” he said. “And that’s really the key to success in this business.”

Meanwhile, that story also provides more evidence of how things have changed.

Exhibit A is that phrase Proshan used above — ‘the world of sitting.’ It has changed considerably in 30 years, and even in the past few years. And, as noted with that reference to the sit-stand desks now populating the workplace (Proshan has one himself), people are doing less of it.

But when they do sit … well, there are options, more of them than some might imagine.

Like the Magis Spun chair, made by Herman Miller and described in marketing materials as “a fun and functional chair that lets you rock side to side or spin around.” And like the Berdi Perchiching sit-stand stool, made by Ergonomic Solutions. As the name suggests, it’s designed for use with sit-stand desks, and, further, it’s designed to enable people to exercise their core while sitting and working.

Proshan, who also has one of these, explains, with insight gathered at one of those ergonomics conferences he now attends:

“The experts say that not only should we stand, but we should be constantly engaging our hips and our core,” he said, referring to the now-universally accepted opinion that people need to sit less. “And I have a chair with a bottom that moves so that you constantly engage the hips and your core and are more active than if you were just standing.”

As for the aforementioned height of cubicle walls, and the more-open nature of today’s offices, a topic of considerable import in this business, Proshan won’t predict anything, but he said he’s heard anecdotally that they may be soon be rising again.

“Things seem to cycle, and there’s a question about how long it will be before the walls go back up and people want their private and individual spaces again,” he told BusinessWest. “And that’s good news if you’re in this industry, because then you’ll have an opportunity to provide product in that new design mode.”

He added that it’s not his job to predict what will come, but to be ready for it, and to help customers be ready for it. And that’s another thing that hasn’t changed since he put a sign over his door.

Bottom Line

Returning to the question of what has changed and what hasn’t in 30 years, Proshan said his office provides ample evidence of the former, between his desk and his ergonomically correct chair.

As for the latter, he goes back to his comments about the fundamentals of business — and his in particular.

“The basics of office furniture haven’t changed that much in a very long time,” he said. “There’s a place to sit, a place to stand, and a place to collaborate. It’s not that dynamic.

“It’s still about the fundamentals — paying attention to who your customers are and what they’re asking you to do, and being there when they need you to be there,” he went on. “Those are the things that are constants, and they’re as important now as they were back then.”

A sharp focus on those fundamentals has helped Lexington Group grow and thrive through three decades of change to the so-called ‘modern office,’ and this is what will carry it through the next chapters in its intriguing history.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office

The Value of Internships

By Brittany Bird

People are often aware of the numerous benefits for students who participate in an internship while pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree, but the benefits to you as an employer of offering an internship program are not to be overlooked.

Interns are similar to entry-level employees who are likely students and are hired for a specific period of time. Interns may be paid or unpaid, though paid internships typically produce better candidates. Students are generally eager to get their hands dirty and get real, hands-on experience so that they can put into practice what they’ve been learning in their classes.

Brittany Bird

What’s more, students putting in the effort to seek internship opportunities tend to be motivated, aspiring professionals who are willing to work hard to show their value to a business in the field of their major and desired career. These young go-getters can offer fresh perspectives, new ideas, and valuable feedback. As interns are most often still in school while working with your business, they are able to provide insight into new technology and trends to participate in the continuous improvement of your company.

The feedback they provide from their experience with you can also help to better the work environment and position your business to attract other young graduates like themselves.

Providing internship opportunities to local students showcases that your business supports the community and is interested in the potential of the younger generations. Internships support students as part of the growing workforce by giving them work experience and a better understanding of their field of choice and their own skill set.

This is a great way for local businesses and firms to secure young talent in Western Mass. as well. Indeed, your company has the chance to try out new talent before hiring them as a full-time employee. Internships allow you as an employer to gauge the work ethic of the student and see how he or she fits with your company and vision.

Recruiting for these positions also increases brand awareness among students, across local university campuses, and beyond. People become more familiar with your company name and what you represent as a result of your recruiting presence. Additionally, interns themselves act as quasi-recruiters as they tell friends, family, and classmates about their internship experience and inform them of other positions available with your company.

Internships allow young professionals to become familiar with your company and its culture and mission. Scouting out interns is like proactively recruiting for future full-time positions. Internships are a time to evaluate the intern in a lower-risk setting than bringing someone on full-time allows. Also, interns can typically do the same work as a new hire, but for a lower pay rate.

Retention Rate as of 1 year of Employment:

Internship with your company: 70.6%
External internship experience: 65.8%
No internship experience: 46.3%
(NACE 2016)

Internships also provide the chance for more seasoned staff to improve their management, mentoring, and leadership skills by training the new students on board. Having internships during your busiest times of year puts them through the ringer and tries their abilities to keep up and help out even in the craziest of circumstances while providing relief to other associates from the less important or less involved projects.

Internships not only allow a smoother transition into a career for the student, but also for your business. Instead of hiring someone you have to train from scratch, you now have an entry-level employee who has spent time with your organization and will require significantly less, if any, training. You will already to know their strengths and how they work with the team.

When they come on full-time, you have a much better understanding of their abilities and qualifications and can bring them on and keep your business operating smoothly. And getting employees who are a better fit through internships means better retention. Studies conducted by the NACE have shown that, at one year (see table on page 30) and at five years, retention rates are higher for those employees who started with a business through an internship program. Even if there are no full-time positions currently available, the line of communication is there and can be kept open for when future opportunities arise or when the student graduates and is looking for a career.

Internship programs that are well-designed and well-run will attract bright, young talent that can be a great addition to your team and part of your strategy for achieving the goals of growing your business by increasing productivity, efficiency, and profitability. Recruiters can look to university career centers to contact personnel who can lead them in the direction of clubs relevant to your business’ field or inform them of dates of meet-and-greet events or career fairs. Often, businesses can also put postings on universities’ websites or flyers and applications in the universities’ career-counseling offices.

In short, the time, money, and effort put into an internship program usually provide a big payoff in the long run as well as providing direct benefits to your company’s short-term goals in the present.

Brittany Bird is an audit associate with the Holyoke-based public accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C. She began her career at MBK as an intern and recently celebrated her first anniversary as a full-time audit associate; (413) 322-3502; [email protected]

Modern Office

Loosening Up

For decades, dress codes in business environments were simple — suits or jackets, ties, dresses, nylons. But there’s been a shift in recent years, at companies both large and small, toward a more casual dress policy that projects professionalism through slightly more casual wear, a trend often summed up in the phrase ‘dress appropriately.’ The result, proponents say, are more comfortable — and, hence, happier — workers, which is something any company wants.

It was only supposed to be a summer-long experiment, Christine Phillips said.

“Up until the summer of 2016, it was pretty much shirts, suits, and ties for men, and dresses, jackets, and nylons for women,” said Phillips, first vice president of Human Resources at PeoplesBank, of her company’s dress code. “The expectation was a very professional dress environment. But in some of our employee surveys, the concept of a more casual dress code kept coming up.”

There was some precedent, even in the traditionally buttoned-up world of finance; that was the year JPMorgan Chase made waves on Wall Street by making ‘business casual’ its official dress code. Other large corporations have done the same, following the lead of Silicon Valley and the tech sector, which have long been known for more casual dress.

“When people feel more comfortable in their work environment, when they can reflect their personality more, they feel good about themselves and feel good about their workplace. It’s been extremely well-received by all our associates.”

So, PeoplesBank leaders decided on a half-measure — loosening the policy for one summer.

“We took it down a notch — guys didn’t have to wear ties, women didn’t have to wear nylons. We relaxed on some of the more professional aspects — instead of a jacket and tie, just a dress shirt was fine; even a golf shirt was OK. For women, it could be more summer dresses, or open-toed shoes. In a way, we listened to what employees were asking us to consider and decided to use the summer as a test to see how things went.”

The result? “It went really well. People were excited about the fact that they could take the dress code down a little.”

That wasn’t too surprising, Phillips said. Loosening dress codes has been a hot topic for a long time at HR roundtables she’s attended, and other banks have waded into that water. At the start of 2017, PeoplesBank made it permanent as well, writing a less formal dress code — the bank calls it ‘professional casual’ — into policy year-round.

“We approached this as a workplace benefit,” she told BusinessWest. “When people feel more comfortable in their work environment, when they can reflect their personality more, they feel good about themselves and feel good about their workplace. It’s been extremely well-received by all our associates.”

MassMutual arrived at the point slightly earlier. After years of publishing a policy of specific do’s and don’ts, in the spring of 2015, the corporation boiled its dress code down to two words that have often been used in today’s work world: ‘dress appropriately.’

“This was an effort to reflect the more collaborative, innovative, and open culture that was building at the company, as well as simply trusting our employees and providing them with more empowerment and accountability,” said Susan Cicco, MassMutual’s head of Human Resources & Employee Experience.

Christine Phillips (second from left) with fellow PeoplesBank employees

Christine Phillips (second from left) with fellow PeoplesBank employees Anthony Polo, Joseph Zazzaro, and Joseph Fimognari, all dressed in ‘professional casual’ attire.

“What someone wears is very personal, and we want all of our employees to be comfortable and to bring their whole selves to work,” she explained. “We also want employees to have the flexibility to express their own individuality while trusting them to exercise good judgment.”

While the way employees are expected to dress often depends on what they’re doing that day — a client meeting for instance, might require a more formal look than an afternoon behind a desk — both companies are simply reflecting a broader move in the work world away from suits, ties, and dresses. The reasons are myriad, but they all come back to employee satisfaction, and how that affects the entire workplace culture in a positive way.

Decisions, Decisions

Once an employer shakes free of the idea that looking good always means formal dress, it can be freeing to simply trust that workers will make the right decisions with what they wear, Cicco said.

“It’s about placing more trust and accountability in our employees to manage their personal brand and reputation, and in our managers to set expectations and provide guidance for what’s considered appropriate,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s made a notable difference — life just feels a little bit easier.”

Still, for professionals accustomed to formal dress, the new guidelines can complicate matters, too, said Will Brideau, owner of menswear store Jackson & Connor in Northampton.

“What someone wears is very personal, and we want all of our employees to be comfortable and to bring their whole selves to work. We also want employees to have the flexibility to express their own individuality while trusting them to exercise good judgment.”

“We’ve seen people coming in saying, ‘I don’t have to wear a tie to work anymore; the office is really dressing down lately. They’re saying I don’t need a sport coat, just a nice button-down shirt, just dress appropriately for clients. How do I put an outfit together?’” he explained. “To a large extent, a suit and tie is a uniform, but now there’s a lot more flexibility, where they need to put together a semi-casual outfit — a business-appropriate outfit that feels good and looks good.”

While matching dress pants or a suit with a dress shirt might have come easy, he went on, exploring a wider range of “middle-of-the-road pants” — not too dressy, but not too casual — can be trickier for some.

“People are playing around and have a lot more options, and that absolutely requires more from us in terms of directing people to find outfits that will really split the difference and present them as being professional, but not overdone,” he said. “It’s interesting for us watching all of that change, seeing people shift into a more casual workplace style, based on who they’re interacting with on a daily basis.”

Frankly, Brideau went on, he enjoys the challenge of helping customers craft outfits by pulling together separate items — a shirt, dress pants, maybe a vest — they may struggle to assemble themselves after years in suits and ties.

Will Brideau

Will Brideau says he enjoys helping men who are used to suits and ties assemble more casual outfits for work.

“We’re doing more piecing together of separate items to make a creative presentation, which is fun for us. We love doing that stuff,” he said. “And it gives guys more range for creativity and to be playful with the things they’re wearing.”

Still, playful has its limits, Phillips said.

“One thing that was important to us — and we talked about this before we did it — was that, in dealing with our customers, our communities, even each other, there’s an expectation of how we should look, and we have to maintain that. It doesn’t mean we have to stay in suits and ties, but we still have to respect the institution maintain a level of professionalism, even though it’s a little more casual.”

For example, “if we have a community event that requires us to dress up, or a client meeting or business meeting that requires us to dress up, that’s written into the policy. And it absolutely has not been an issue.”

There are a few garments that are still off-limits at the bank, however, from tight-fitting clothing to jeans and T-shirt.

“Jeans are not in our future,” she said. “That’s not something we feel is aligned with our brand, with how we present ourselves. But we feel the professional casual is totally aligned with our brand.”

Culture Shift

Cicco noted that MassMutual’s dress code is just one of a number of ways the company continues to evolve its overall culture.  Other areas of focus include a stronger commitment to diversity and inclusion, modernizing its benefits and leave policies, having a continuous improvement and learning mindset, and realizing small things are big things. The dress code falls firmly into that latter category.

From left, Peoples-Bank’s Caitlyn Powers, Linda Parlengas, and Aaron Sundberg

From left, Peoples-Bank’s Caitlyn Powers, Linda Parlengas, and Aaron Sundberg enjoy the company’s less-formal dress code.

“When this new policy was introduced, our guidance to employees was simply to consider their daily schedule, who they were meeting with, and what was appropriate. That’s it,” she explained. “We also generally suggest to our employees that, if there’s any doubt, don’t wear it. This has worked out really well. As you walk the halls of MassMutual on a typical day, you can feel the more relaxed atmosphere.”

Oddly enough, Brideau said, he’s still selling plenty of suits and ties; in fact, neckties were his number-three seller by category in 2018, up from number four in 2017. He has an idea why: there will always be a need for formal wear, even if it’s on the decline in the workplace.

“We’re selling more neckties, more bowties, more dress pants,” he said. “I think, perhaps, because they’re not as necessary for work, when you need them, you really need them. More people are saying, ‘I never wear suits for work, and now I have to go to a wedding, or a memorial service comes up suddenly, and it gives them an opportunity to get a suit. You never need a suit until you need a suit.”

Increasingly, companies are saying they don’t need suits, or dresses, or any staples of the traditional, formal dress codes of decades past. Phillips says that’s a positive thing.

“I would encourage companies, if they’re thinking about doing this, to have good communication with their associates about it. We said, ‘we hear you, we know this is a benefit to you, and if we’re able to offer this to you, we have expectations how you’ll respect the policy and follow it.’ And now, it’s so rare we have concerns about the dress code.”

While some may point to loosening dress codes as a Millennial-driven trend, she added, workers of all generations seem to appreciate it.

“People who have grown up in banking, and all they’ve known is a professional look, they’re excited the bank could accommodate a look of professionalism but not require them to wear a suit and tie every day,” she said. “They’re able to project professionalism in a slightly more casual dress code.

“People were so excited we were doing it for the summer — that was just a ‘wow’ moment — then when we announced we could move to a year-round policy of professional casual, that really excited people,” she went on. “It also sends a message of trust; instead of saying, ‘it’s always been this way,’ we listened, and we felt this was something we can accommodate in our work environment.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office Sections

Playing by the Rules

John Gannon

John Gannon says putting a policy in writing isn’t enough — an employer then needs to follow it — but it’s a first step in showing a company takes workplace law and ethics seriously.

Most companies, especially larger ones, have employee handbooks that detail everything from vacation time to reasons for termination. Yet, too many are content to draft a handbook and shelve it for years, never reviewing it for changes in the regulatory landscape or confusing or contradictory language. In the ever-changing world of employment law, those are mistakes that can prove costly in more ways than one.

An employee handbook isn’t a contract, nor is it a legally binding document. But in a legal proceeding, it helps to have one.

Take, for instance, the case of an employee suing a company for allowing a culture of sexual harassment — a particularly timely example.

“In court, the first thing the judge will ask is to see the company’s policy,” said John Gannon, partner with Skoler, Abbott & Presser. “If your response is ‘we don’t have one,’ that suggests the employer doesn’t care about harassment and discrimination in the workplace. And that’s really getting off on the wrong foot in the event you’re sued for harassment or discrimination.”

The #MeToo revolution has certainly sent HR departments scrambling to make sure their policies on that issue are up-to-date, clear, and enforced. But if they’re smart, said the attorneys BusinessWest spoke with, they’re also regularly reviewing all sorts of policies that govern workplace rules and expectations — from disciplinary procedures to time off — and, hopefully, including them in an employee handbook.

“Every company that has employees should have a handbook,” said Daniel Carr, an associate with Royal, P.C. in Northampton. “But we use the term ‘handbook’ loosely; there’s no requirement that they have to be bound in a single document. It could mean whatever collection of policies you have, as long as it’s applied to all employees.”

Even if the employee signs a statement that he has read and understands the handbook, that doesn’t create contractual rights, Carr explained, noting that Massachusetts is, after all, an at-will state when it comes to hiring and firing, and an employee can be terminated for any reason that is not explicitly illegal, such as discrimination.

“I can’t tell you how many cases we’ve seen where the employee claims his termination was a violation of his contract. When asked, ‘what contract?’ they argue the employee handbook is a contract. It’s not.”

Gannon agreed. “One of the nice thigns about a handbook is that you can reaffirm the principle that everyone is an at-will employee,” he explained. “That’s why it’s really important, if you’re going to have a handbook, it should make it clear this is not a binding contract, your employment is at-will, and we can change the terms of the handbook and your employment relationship at any time with or without notice.”

So, if it’s not a contract, what is a handbook, and why should employers have one — and take it seriously?

“A handbook is a collection of policies, an ever-living document that can be changed at any time by an employer with or without notice,” said Mary Kennedy, partner with Bulkley Richardson in Springfield. “The purpose of a handbook is to give information to employees about expectations at work.”

Employers use the policies in an employee handbook as a sort of roadmap to both the treatment of employees and, conversely, expectations for their behavior. They protect themselves from lawsuits, such as harassment claims, wrongful termination claims, and discrimination claims. Employee handbooks generally contain a code of conduct for employees that sets guidelines around appropriate behavior for the individual workplace.

Mary Kennedy says the first goal of a handbook is to lay out clear expectations for workplace behavior.

Mary Kennedy says the first goal of a handbook is to lay out clear expectations for workplace behavior.

Under Massachusetts law, for companies with at least six employees, part of that collection of expectations must be policies reflecting the state’s own guidelines governing sexual harassment, accommodations for pregnant workers, sick leave, and other issues — many of which have changed recently.

Other contents should typically include policies governing discipline, rules of behavior, when and how to take time off, sick-time guidelines, how much vacation and personal time employees get, when they are paid, and what health benefits are available and how to access them.

The contents of any handbook vary from industry to industry, Gannon noted. For instance, the time an employee clocks in may be more important on the manufacturing floor than in an office setting, while safety guidelines for construction workers will be different than those for accountants.

“It’s an inexact science, and obviously no handbook is foolproof, and you can’t account for every possible contingency,” Carr said. “There may be at times you have to deviate from it. Certainly, you don’t want to be hemming yourself in to something you can live up to. As an employer in an at-will state, you have the right to set the policies. The handbook is more about setting expectations than setting hard and fast rules.”

Law and Order

The benefits of having a handbook fall into two buckets, Gannon said: The legal obligations governed by state and federal employment law, and basic HR practices that aren’t necessarily required by the law.

For the latter, written policies must make it clear to the employee what the employer’s expectations are.

“If you do need to discipline an employee, if you need to write them up or suspend them, you never want an employee to turn around and say, ‘wait a minute, I didn’t know I was going to get written up if I was absent more than three times in a month.’ Or, ‘I didn’t know it was a violation of your company policy to raise my voice at a meeting’ — whatever the case may be. A handbook sets expectations.”

It also provides guidelines to managers so they can treat employees fairly and consistently, he added. If the policy is clear, it can be applied to everyone across the board. If not, one supervisor may write someone up for a violation, while another supervisor doesn’t. That leads to inconsistency and, sometimes, hot water in court.

“Inconsistent application of your rules can lead to a lot of legal problems if the employee challenges the reason for his or her reason for separation from employment,” Gannon said, adding that the actual enforcement of the rules is more important than what a handbook says, “but if you don’t have, at minimum, a written policy, you have a big risk of inconsistent enforcement of your work rules.”

Kennedy said having clear policies in the handbook is the first step when defending a claim of wrongful termination in court.

“If you have a no-show policy where, after three violations, the employee is terminated, and it’s in writing and the employee was told it applies to all employees, and the employer can show it was uniformly applied to all employees, then the employer has a better shot at defending itself.

“For example, if a bank teller continually makes mistakes on the line and keeps coming up short, that’s certainly not beneficial for the employer,” she explained, so a written policy outlining the consequences of coming up short multiple times would be reasonable. “Whereas, if the bank said, ‘we don’t like people with red hair,’ well, that’s different.”

Supervisors and managers, Gannon said, typically appreciate a hard-and-fast policy because it’s something they can fall back on. He recalls one client whose employee showed up to work intoxicated, and at first, his supervisor didn’t know what to do. “Fortunately, they had a policy that made it clear, if you detect someone is under the influence, this is what you should do. It helped the supervisor navigate what his options were. Without that, they’re left wondering what to do.”

Communicating the policy to employees is just as important, Kennedy said, whether it’s a physical document passed out, with the employee signing an acknowledgement of receipt, or an electronic document distributed through the company intranet, or, for a larger business, explaining new policies in a meeting and making a list of who attended. “You certainly want to give it out when onboarding people, and then when there are any changes in policy.”

Even progressive discipline can be altered if the employer can prove the action is reasonable, Carr said — again, going back to the at-will concept. “If the handbook says a first violation is a verbal warning, the second is a written warning, third is probation, and fourth is termination, you have the right to revise that if someone commits a terminable offense the first time out.”

Trouble Spots

With all the protections a handbook may provide, Gannon said, some pitfalls do exist. One is trying to put everything in a handbook.

“The more words you have in the handbook, the less likely an employee is going to read it all,” he noted. “Sometimes I’ll see one that’s 120 pages long. I’m not sure any handbook needs to be that long.”

A smarter option, he said, is to include a short, two-paragraph summary of each policy, directing the employers to ask a particular person, maybe someone in human resources, if they need a more detailed explanation.

“Another mistake is not getting it reviewed enough,” he added. “It’s great to have a handbook — most employers do — but sometimes they get stale. You don’t want to have a policy that’s outdated, or you don’t want a handbook that misstates the law, because there are often changes in the law.”

For example, on April 1, Massachusetts employers will be required to have a policy that adheres to the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. “You need to review your handbook — it doesn’t necessarily have to be annually, but I would say every two or three years — just to make sure you’re not missing anything and there haven’t been changes in the law that would require rewording a policy.”

In a union shop, Kennedy said, employers want to make sure the handbook gels with the collective bargaining agreement, but even in a non-union shop, certain written policies may run into conflict with rulings from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). A few years ago, several companies made news by terminating workers for complaining about their job on social media — and took their cases to court, where they won.

“Social media has become the equivalent of the so-called water cooler,” Carr said, noting that the NLRB has long protected the rights of employees to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment, even in a public forum. However, the composition of the board has changed under President Trump and may be less willing to side with employees in all such matters.

“A few years ago, handbook provisions that restricted employees’ right to discuss terms and conditions of employment were considered overbroad — that was all the rage for awhile,” Gannon said. “New administration has scaled some of that back. With all the ebbs and flows in the world of employment law, you need to make sure the handbook stays up to date with those changes.”

Kennedy agreed. “Employment law changes on a regular basis, so handbook policies should be reviewed on a regular basis, to make sure they contain up-to-date language.”

Still, amid all the talk of violations and firings, Gannon said, the greatest value of a handbook is in its power to prevent some of those incidents in the first place.

“If an employee knows what can potentially lead to discipline, I think the employee is less likely to engage in that behavior,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s one of the really nice things about a handbook — it sets out what your expectations are. The goal of discipline is not to create a path that justifies termination. The goal of discipline is to correct behavior so that somebody can stay with the company for a long time and be a valued contributor to the group.”

To that end, he continued, “if you do need to discipline, it’s easier to explain why when you can point to handbook and say, ‘look, this is company policy, and you violated it. Sorry, but I have to write you up.’”

Turn the Page

That said, a handbook also helps with a company’s defense is they are sued, Gannon noted.

“If an employee claims they were fired because of a protected characteristic, it’s the employer’s burden to demonstrate to a judge or jury that, no, this is the real reason this person was fired. It’s nice to be able to point to a policy in a handbook that makes it clear this is why the employer took a particular action, that it wasn’t an arbitrary decision one supervisor just came up with. The company considered this particular issue, went to the extent of drafting a handbook putting this policy in place and having the employee sign off on it, and there’s an expectation the policy is going to be followed.”

Carr, who told BusinessWest he has drafted or reviewed “many, many handbooks,” emphasized, however, that a good policy holds up in court only if the employer actually enforces that policy uniformly and consistently.

“Otherwise, it’s just empty rhetoric. Sexual harassment is a perfect example, and a timely one,” he said.

Elaborating, he said virtually every company has an anti-sexual-harassment policy, and one of the tenets of sexual-harassment law is the question of whether an employer knew about, or should have known about, the alleged violations. “If the employee can show the employer was not diligent about enforcing their own policies, it creates the impression they dropped the ball and should have known.”

It’s a lesson many companies continue to learn the hard way.

Simply put, Kennedy said, “what’s bad about having a handbook is if you don’t follow it.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office Sections

Getting Ahead at Work

By Susan Bellows

You went to college and did well. You got an entry-level job and moved up in the company. Yet, for some reason, your advancement has plateaued.
You’re not getting the respect, recognition, and rewards your hard work deserves. What are you doing wrong, and what can you do to turn the situation around?

Let’s Start with the Don’ts

• Don’t complain, gossip, or blame others. All of these behaviors devalue you.

• Don’t make up an answer if you don’t know it. Instead, say something like, “let me get back to you with the most accurate information.” This will avoid jeopardizing your long-term credibility.

• Don’t bring your personal problems to the office.

• Don’t be afraid to ask for more details on a project you’ve been assigned. The president of a bank once said to me, “I worry if they don’t come back and ask questions.”

• Don’t try to hide mistakes. Own up to them and learn from them. You’ll earn more respect from others when you take ownership.

• Don’t be a know-it-all. A little humility goes a long way in building rapport with your colleagues.

Now for the Do’s:

• Behave positively and professionally both inside and outside the company. This includes the Christmas party, networking events, and posting on social media. You’re always being evaluated. Inappropriate pictures or statements made on social media can and will be used against you.

• Have a can-do attitude. Be proactive about saying ‘yes’ to new opportunities and challenges. Your willingness to step up will make you more valuable to the company and enhance your reputation as a team player.

• Build mutually beneficial relationships with vendors, colleagues, department heads, and your boss. Some of the best job referrals come from vendors. An adversarial relationship with a department head could easily sabotage your ability to get your job done.

• Be proactive about your career development. Invest in things like additional training and technology. These actions will increase your value as an employee. They will also make you a more marketable candidate for jobs inside and outside your company.

• Continue learning once you get a job. Go to other departments that involve the work you do, such as marketing if you’re in sales, and ask questions that’ll help you understand their challenges. Read about your industry. Join outside professional groups to learn more about your field and to build a network of peers.

• Learn communication skills to build rapport with others. Dale Carnegie’s classic book How to Win Friends & Influence People is a good place to start. Anything you can do to understand yourself and others will be valuable at work and in your personal life.

• Listen attentively and take notes, if appropriate, when gathering information. Ask for clarification if needed. Nobody wants to spend time explaining something and then realize the listener was just nodding, but not retaining the details.

• Offer fact-based solutions, not just your opinion, when making suggestions for improvements in a process.

• Contribute constructively at meetings and listen to what others have to say. It’s important to understand the perspective of others. The only way this is possible is to be receptive and listen.

• Avoid challenging, questioning, and criticizing how things are done when you’re new. Later, learn to say these things in a way that doesn’t alienate others. Try using softening statements, such as “could I ask you something that might be sensitive?” or “you probably already know this, but…”

• Volunteer for high-visibility projects when you believe you’ll be able to contribute. Doing this exposes you to the attention of upper management, who may later offer you a position that leverages the talents they observe you demonstrate.

• Be aware of what you say and how you say it. Your tone of voice can enhance or destroy the message you want to deliver. Avoid asking a question starting with “why.” Folks get defensive when they hear this word. It’s preferable to say something like, “Tell me more about…” in a soft, non-confrontational tone of voice.

• Be prepared for inevitable change. This includes changes in ownership of the company, the economy, business competitors, co-workers, and your boss. Plan for change and be ready for it.

This is lot to think about. But being strategic about getting ahead is a little like starting a new job. It’s hard at the beginning, and then it becomes second nature. In the long run, it’s well worth the effort.

Susan Bellows is a business consultant specializing in empowering middle-management women to attain the recognition, respect, and rewards they deserve; (413) 566-3934; [email protected]

Modern Office Sections

More Than a Desk

Mark Proshan at a sit-stand desk

Mark Proshan at a sit-stand desk, one of hundreds of display pieces in Lexington Group’s 165,000-square-foot warehouse.

In the 28 years Mark Proshan has been in the furniture-sales and office-design business, he has seen plenty of change, from a greater emphasis on open, collaborative spaces to more challenging timetable demands from clients. Through it all, though, he continues to cultivate a business philosophy built on relationships and trust — even at a time when many clients are more interested in speed and cost.

Mark Proshan says he can count on one hand the number of contracts he’s drawn up over the years. He’d rather do business with a handshake.

“Relationships in this business are important,” he said. “The more you talk about it, the more cliché it sounds, but the notion that somebody can count on you when you promise to deliver something still means something, and our customers value the notion that we don’t promise things we can’t deliver.”

Proshan, owner of Lexington Group, which specializes in sales of new and refurbished office furniture as well as interior-design solutions, said he’s always been willing to lose money if it meant keeping a commitment he made to a customer.

“It’s fundamentally more important for that person to know I did everything conceivably possible to do what it was I said I would do. The lion’s share of new business comes from referrals from other people, and if that’s the way you market yourself, you’re only as good as the last job you did. If you don’t do what you said you’d do, your ability to gain a referral based on past work will dry up very quickly.”

These philosophies are important in many businesses, but they’re especially relevant to someone who launched his company 28 years ago and has seen so many other facets of the business — from the products customers are looking for to the timetables they expect — change so much.

“You need to adjust to what’s happening, to stay current,” Proshan said, and part of that is understanding clients’ shifting demands.

“We used to have people come in here with blueprints for a project six to nine months in advance, and they’d want to talk about their plans for a new space and everything that goes along with that, from carpeting to lighting to furniture and walls,” he told BusinessWest. “Now, we’re seeing younger people who show you a couple of pictures on their phone — ‘this is what I’m looking for’ — and if you can’t give it to them right away, they’re gone in the blink of an eye. It requires a whole different way of trying to figure out how to keep them engaged.”

Part of that is maintaining a deep inventory of new and pre-owned items on site in Lexington’s 165,000-square-foot showroom on Union Street in West Springfield. “That way, they can walk around and very quickly take a look and say, ‘yeah, that works; that doesn’t work.’ All the decisions are made very differently than in the past.”

Mark Proshan’s team raised $55,000 this year in the Great Mass Getaway fund-raising bike ride.

A long-time supporter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Mark Proshan’s team raised $55,000 this year in the Bike MS: Cape Cod Getaway fund-raising bike ride.

Proshan also has access to networks across the country, so a quick check of the Internet brings plenty more options for customers looking to change over an office, classroom, or retail space.

Lexington Group provides services from sales, installation, and delivery to space planning, office design, and reconfiguring work, and many of its 25-strong workforce have built up plenty of experience in the field. “We tend to mentor people into the business slowly, and once they’re here, they tend to stick around for the long haul. I’ve got a handful of people who have been here since the late ’80s and early ’90s.”

For this issue’s focus on the modern office, Proshan explains how that idea — and the means by which companies hope to achieve it — have evolved.

Wide Reach

Lexington Group, which counts Herman Miller as its major line of new furniture but deals in many secondary lines as well, has the ability to work across the country, if transportation costs aren’t prohibitive. “But transportation costs have risen significantly,” Proshan said, “and it’s becoming more difficult, so we focus on Chicago to Massachusetts.”

When he started the company, the mix of sales was about 60% pre-owned to 40% new, but it has reversed and is now 80% new and 20% pre-owned.

“There is so much inexpensive furniture available. Everything has become really commoditized and disposable, and people would rather not spend the time and energy doing the research to piece together all the pre-owned pieces when it comes to large projects,” he explained. “They would rather just sit down, point and click, and move on to whatever comes next.”

The secondary-education market has long been an especially fertile niche for Lexington Group. “We typically have at least one or two trucks at one of the major colleges every day, whether it be UMass Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke, or somewhere else,” he said, noting that he also works with institutions in Worcester, Fitchburg, and the Boston area. Other clients run the gamut from moderately sized insurance companies in Western Mass. to Fortune 500 firms across the Northeast.

Across all these industries, certain trends have become ubiquitous.

“The big words now are still collaborative space and shared space,” Proshan said. “Walls have come down, and other walls that used to have paint and wall coverings are now erasable, so people can share ideas on them.”

But there are challenges to opening up offices in this way, such as the occasional need for privacy for certain types of work, or when meeting clients.

“People enjoy the togetherness and collaboration possible with all the open space, but they also often wish they had their old cubicles back. So the secret, I think, is to try to find the balance between that open, collaborative space and giving people a place they can go to get some privacy.”

Ergonomics remains a hot topic as well, he added, from chairs designed for better support to desks that raise up with the touch of a button. “Sit-stand desks encourage people to stand for a good part of their day because, well, you should. Healthcare professionals will tell you we sit too much.”

Most changes in office design are being driven by the younger generations and how they prefer to work, he said, but he also understands that the basic elements of his business — quality products and relationship-based service — remain constants.

Lexington Group’s West Springfield warehouse

Lexington Group’s West Springfield warehouse gives a good indication of the range of new and refurbished items it sells.

“A desk is still a desk; a chair is still a chair, even though they’ve been tweaked a little bit over the years,” he said. “And there are only so many things you can do to a cube.”

Other challenges include more remote employees working from home, the rise of online retail and how it has impacted local businesses, and, quite simply, business owners who prioritize the bottom line over all else when shopping for furniture.

“They don’t care as much about design; they don’t care as much about structural integrity; they don’t care as much about relationships,” Proshan said. “When the focus is simply on price, they’re really not looking for what other value we can bring to the table; they’re simply looking for how inexpensively they can get the job done.”

Face to Face

For Proshan, that’s not a satisfying way to do business.

“We have companies that we’ve had long-standing relationships with, that still realize the value of picking up the phone, knowing we understand their needs, and can come in and, without a whole lot of fluff, conceptualize what needs to get done in a timely, cost-effective fashion.”

He said it was more common years ago for companies to have employees specifically focused on furniture and supply purchases and short- and long-term office planning, but that’s no longer the case.

“Nobody plans anymore. We’ve become so used to customers saying, ‘I want this now, and if you can’t get it for me, this guy can.’ That’s the mentality of the marketplace — as soon as you need something, somebody will be there to provide it for you, and if not, you can go to the Internet and shop.”

Still, he went on, “even though attention spans have changed, and people want instant gratification, I find it’s really valuable to be able to look somebody in the eye and shake hands and agree upon what needs to be done, and for them to feel confident that I’m going to do what I promised I would do, and they’re not going to be unpleasantly surprised when the deadline comes.”

That emphasis on relationships informs the company’s civic involvement, particularly Proshan’s 21 years of involvement in the Bike MS: Cape Cod Getaway, an annual, 175-mile bike ride from Boston to Provincetown that raises money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Last year, the team he has captained for 15 years raised $55,000.

Back at work, though, his focus is where it has been for 28 years: helping companies improve their environment through better furniture and interior design.

“At the end of the day, it’s about more than selling furniture,” he said. “Those relationships make the whole experience much more enjoyable in ways that don’t have anything to do with money. When it’s about more than selling something, it’s much more fulfilling.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office Sections

Fraud in the Workplace

By Christine Devin, CPA

Have you ever said these words: “I trust her; she would never steal from the company,” or “he is so honest, he would never do that.”

A small-business owner I recently spoke with said those same words. The owner was busy with the daily operations of her cash-lucrative business. The business had less than 10 employees, including a few service employees and a bookkeeper. The business owner had outstanding relationships with all of the employees. She even referred to them as family. Business was booming. What could possibly go wrong?

The owner confidently handed over her financial information for annual review and preparation of the company’s tax return to a hired professional. She was sure that her hard work looked impressive on paper. After all, she worked countless hours to make it all happen. Little did she know that the words she spoke earlier would haunt her. She could not have been more wrong.

During the annual review of the financial statements, some disbursements were flagged as unusual or suspect. The professional contacted the owner to investigate these payments. After further review, it was discovered that the bookkeeper was writing checks for personal expenses out of the company’s checking account by forging the owner’s signature. This was devastating news.

Fraud in the workplace is a serious topic and should be considered in any size business. What is fraud? Who is likely to commit fraud and what can be done to prevent or detect fraud? These are all great questions that this small-business owner wished she had addressed long before she ever hired her first employee.

What is fraud? Fraud is a broad term often used to describe when someone intentionally cheats another out of money or property for personal gain and then conceals it. In a business environment, fraud can occur by theft, misappropriation of assets, or financial-statement fraud. Some common fraud schemes are check forging (theft of cash), skimming (accounts receivable), dummy vendors (accounts payable), ghost employees (payroll), and falsifying records (financial statement). Whatever the scheme, are you prepared in your business to eliminate the possibility of fraud?

Who is likely to commit fraud? Most employees are honest when hired. However, you may on occasion hire a person that intentionally wants to get the job just to steal from you.

The ‘fraud triangle,’ originated by American sociologist Donald Cressey, created the framework to describe the reasoning by an employee to commit fraud. The fraud triangle describes the three stages an individual goes through when contemplating fraud. These are personal pressure or financial need, opportunity, and their ability to rationalize the crime. Per Cressey, once all these stages are met, even your most honest and trusted employee can commit fraud.

In the example above, the bookkeeper had a need (a drug addiction which was later revealed in court), the means (her direct access to the checks and the ability to reconcile), and rationalization of the crime (she thought she deserved more of the profit). All stages of the fraud triangle are important and should be considered in your risk assessment.

Of the three stages, we are going to focus on the second stage, opportunity. If there is no opportunity, the employee cannot commit fraud regardless of what they think, how they feel, or what they are going through personally.

When seeking to eliminate the opportunity for fraud, one of the best places to start is the transaction cycle. Take the time to walk through each transaction process, from start to finish. During the walkthrough, identify key points in the process where review, approval, or dual controls should be present to eliminate sole control over the function.

Consider this example: an accounts-payable clerk sets up new vendors, vouchers invoices, and processes checks for the company each week. The same clerk also reconciles the activity at the end of the month and posts all necessary reconciling journal entries. She even offers to mail the checks, as it is on her way home.

In this example, there is clear lack of segregation of duties. The clerk has too much control, and ‘opportunity’ exists. If the other two stages of Cressey’s framework — a financial need and rationalization — were present, then it would be possible for fraud to occur. Taking the time to evaluate processes such as these will help greatly in eliminating the risk of fraud.

There are a number of other steps that a business can take to prevent or detect fraud. They include:

• Conducting background checks on new hires;

• Implementing dual controls over assets such as cash and inventory;

• Separating key functions such as check preparer and check signer;

• Reconciling all accounts to the general ledger each month;

• Requiring approval of all time sheets by a supervisor;

• Requiring mandatory vacation for payroll or other key personnel;

• Establishing budgets and projections to benchmark to financial results;

• Rotating duties of accounts payable and accounts receivable (this process can also achieve cross-training needs);

• Verifying new vendor information, including tax ID address and phone number;

• Conducting internal audits;

• Establishing formal policies and procedures, including code of ethics;

• Setting up an employee hotline; and

• Disciplining for violation of established policies.

If a company has fewer employees, like the owner in the first example, then direct review and monitoring will serve as mitigating controls to prevent and detect fraud. Luckily, the owner had a detection control in place (she had someone else look at her records). However, even with the help of a third party, there is no guarantee that fraud will be detected, if it exists. So what else could have been done?

The owner could have had the bank statements mailed directly to her home address for review before handing off to the bookkeeper. Just opening the statement sends a clear message. In our original example, it was later discovered that the bookkeeper forged checks for more than a year. A simple review of the monthly bank statement by the owner would have uncovered the fraud much sooner, just by noticing the signature on the check images were not her own.

The time it would take to perform these steps would be far less than the time the owner spent investigating the records and pursuing the prosecution of the employee.

In the end, it takes time to review processes and procedures, identify key controls, and implement safeguards where needed. I can assure you, it is time well-spent. If you don’t have the time or resources to conduct a review of your business processes, you can call a professional to assist you.

This small-business owner changed the way she conducts business so this never happens again. Will you?

Christine Devin, CPA is a senior associate with the Holyoke-based public accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 322-3480; [email protected]

Modern Office Sections

Move Along

Mike Morin says sales of adjustable sit-stand desks are soaring

Mike Morin says sales of adjustable sit-stand desks are soaring as employers discover their health and wellness benefits.

It’s no secret that workers who struggle to stay healthy and fit can cost employers in myriad ways, from absenteeism to lowered productivity. That’s why more forward-thinking companies are launching wellness initiatives aimed at boosting their staff’s health and — by extension — their morale and job satisfaction. While they can take many forms, these efforts often start with a simple goal: get moving.

Attention, desk jockeys stuck at uncomfortable workstations: Mike Morin feels your pain.

“I’ve had jobs before where you get hired, go to the office and sit down at the computer, and you realize, geez, this is not how I naturally work,” said Morin, marketing and communications coordinator at Conklin Office Furniture in Holyoke. “I’ve had that moment where you step back and realize you’ve been hunched over the desk, staring at a computer screen for two hours.”

Many employers, however, are giving desk workers some relief by installing adjustable sit-stand desks, so employees have the option of working on their feet, which can improve blood flow, reduce tiredness, and avoid the long-term drawbacks of being largely sedentary for eight hours a day.

“People are definitely more concerned about health nowadays, in general and in the workplace,” Morin said. “We offer a sit-stand, height-adjustable desk, and sales are going through the roof with those. People are spending more time at the office — not just at their workplace, but at the home office as well. And they want desks they can stand at.”

One selling point, he said, is giving employees a choice, convincing employers they don’t have to go with a one-size-fits-all mentality. Sit-stand desks can often be incorporated right alongside traditional desks and tables, and can be designed to match the existing décor and furniture in the office.

Lisa Bowler says Baystate takes a holistic approach to employee wellness, as reflected by its wide range of programs to that end.

Lisa Bowler says Baystate takes a holistic approach to employee wellness, as reflected by its wide range of programs to that end.

It’s one way employers are taking a harder look at workplace wellness, incorporating not just equipment, but programs and incentives to keep their workers healthy, reduce absenteeism, and, in theory, lower costs in the long term.

Lisa Bowler, manager of Wellness and WorkLife at Baystate Health, says her employer has offered a raft of wellness benefits for many years, and sit-stand desks are an option many workers have chosen — but emphasized that they’re a very small part of the equation in a system where 60% of employees are clinical staff who are on their feet all day, not behind desks.

“It’s such a vast array of roles and types of jobs … the challenge is, how do we deliver wellness programs that make the most sense?” Bowler noted. “We offer a whole host of programs — a great variety — and we provide those resources to support our employees’ health and well-being because we know, in many ways, that contributes to a healthy organizational culture and also makes for a great place to work.”

Lisa Verville would agree. As Human Resources director for the O’Connell Companies in Holyoke, she has overseen a formal wellness committee launched two years ago that partners with Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) to offer wellness-related apps, challenges, and incentive progams where not only employees, but their spouses can earn money for reaching activity and fitness goals. Employees are also reimbursed up to 75% for annual gym memberships.

The O’Connell Companies have always had a culture of caring about their employees,” Verville said. “This is another facet of that — making employees aware of things they can do and listening to what they want, and trying to provide resources that make the healthy choice the easy choice.”

Culture of Health

Mary Ellen Shea, Marketing manager at O’Connell, told BusinessWest that wellness efforts at the firm stretch back well before the formal committee. “There’s always been a culture of health,” she said, “but now I feel it’s been ramped up.”

SEE: List of Office Furniture Dealers in the Area

Employees earn points through the BCBS partnership for walking, hydration, and nutrition challenges, as well as completing online workshops, scheduling wellness visits, and other tasks.

“It encourages a holistic approach,” Verville said, noting that employees were surveyed on the types of programs they wanted to see. “It’s actually been a lot of fun. We also had our health fair last November, and it was fun to see people from all our companies get together. We provided incentives — gift cards, gift baskets — to get people to come, and we had a great turnout, and got a lot of good feedback; we’re looking forward to doing it again this year, with hopefully an even bigger event.”

While many employees try to participate in many wellness activities, one challenge for O’Connell is that it’s a geographically dispersed company, with several affiliate companies spread across the Valley. “So it’s hard to get everyone to participate in a lunch and learn, with so many employees out in the field,” she went on. “But the committee has representatives from every subsidiary, we get direct feedback on what works and what doesn’t work. Not every program is tailored to the same group; we try to offer a lot of variety while still focusing on what the needs and interests are.”

This fall, it will be easier to bring employees together for wellness activities when O’Connell moves into a newly built headquarters on Kelly Way in Holyoke, consolidating more of its operations under one roof. The project allows the company to incorporate wellness initiatives right into the building design.

“We have a great opportunity there,” Verville said. “When we move, the plan is to install, for those who want them, the adjustable workstations. We’re also thinking about walking paths and things of that nature, a fitness room with equipment in it, and there will be an area dedicated to the wellness seminars.

“It’ll bring more people together,” she went on. “The new building will provide a lot of new opportunities, and having more employees in one location will help encourage more collaboration and cohesiveness, and get more people involved.”

Bowler said Baystate has built a similar emphasis on wellness into its operations, which are even more spread out than O’Connell’s.

Lisa Verville

Lisa Verville says employees at the O’Connell Companies have taken enthusiastically to the wellness programs launched two years ago.

“We would define a culture of health as a work environment where our employees have the resources and tools and support that empowers them and motivates them to take steps to benefit their health,” she said. “We’ve evolved the program over the years, and we think it’s important to view health holistically. Programs are designed in such a way to help our team members learn how to make healthy lifestyle choices and help them manage their responsibilities at work and at home.”

The effort includes access to a WebMD portal that provides not only health information but access to fitness challenges. In addition, “we have walking clubs, mindfulness classes, two or three educational webinars each month, confidential counseling for employees and family members, Weight Watchers memberships free of charge, and a whole host of resources for parents,” Bowler said, not to mention smoke-free facilities since 2007.

Rising Tide

Many of the initiatives at Baystate and O’Connell mesh with the top workplace-wellness trends recently outlined by the Corporate Health & Wellness Assoc. These include:

• Lifestyle management, which may include cholesterol screenings, flu shots, sleep-management programs, and incentives (like gift cards or insurance-premium discounts) for participating in corporate wellness programs;

• Weight-loss programs, from yoga and Zumba classes on site to gym and Weight Watchers memberships, to offering healthy sbacks in the office;

• Redesigned workspaces, which include standing or treadmill desks, ergonomic chairs and headsets, and FitBit trainers and pedometers;

• Smoking bans in the office and accompanying smoking-cessation programs to help employees kick the habit for good; and

• Stress-management programs, including meditation instruction and guidance in everything from personal finance to parenting.

And programs don’t have to be tied to specific company initiatives, Shea said. “Usually twice a day, team members or employees meet in the lobby, go out, and walk together around the block.”

She and Verville said wellness programs conceivably lower costs for companies by reducing absenteeism — or presenteeism, where tired or ailing employees show up but are far from productive.

“We certainly have seen that,” Bowler added, noting that Baystate has won recognition from national business groups for its wellness policies. “Employees who regularly participate are more engaged, healthier, and more productive. Beyond that, having these programs available is the right thing to do. As an organization, we’ve taken the view that achieving a culture of health is not something that occurs overnight. We are in this for the long term and are committed to it.”

From talking to Conklin’s clients, Morin can tell interest is rising.

“Nowadays, people are obsessed with health, and for good reasons,” he said. “People are paying more attention to what they’re eating, so it’s natural they’re noticing how much time they’re sitting at a desk each day. Studies have come out claiming that sitting down for long periods of time is as unhealthy as smoking.”

That’s why he’s gratified that employers are increasingly tailoring office design to individual worker needs through flexible workstations. “In the past, offices were set up a certain way, but not everyone works like that. There’s a new focus in ergonomics where it’s more customizable.”

Bowler said companies of any size can make changes to improve employees’ health, and some — from walking clubs to lunch-and-learn sessions — don’t take much financial investment. “But to really get that return and change the culture, there needs to be a comprehensive approach.”

And it’s happening more and more, she told BusinessWest. “The concept of worker wellness has been around a long time. It just seems to be gaining more energy and visibility the last several years.”

And it can begin with something as simple as standing up.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office Sections

Progressive Environment

Cooley Dickinson Health Care is no stranger to environmental awareness, recently earning the Greenhealth Partner for Change award from Practice Greenhealth for the fifth consecutive year.

Practice Greenhealth is the nation’s leading healthcare community dedicated to transforming healthcare worldwide so that it reduces its environmental footprint and becomes a community anchor for sustainability and a leader in the global movement for environmental health and justice.

The Partner for Change award is one of the organization’s Environmental Excellence Awards given each year to honor outstanding environmental achievements in the healthcare sector. The award recognizes healthcare facilities that continuously improve and expand upon their mercury-elimination, waste-reduction, recycling, and source-reduction programs. At minimum, facilities applying for this award must be recycling 15% of their total waste, have reduced regulated medical waste, are well along the way to mercury elimination, and have developed other successful pollution-prevention programs in many different areas.

Among Cooley Dickinson’s recent environmentally friendly practices, it has recycled 65 tons, or 85%, of the construction waste during the construction of the Comprehensive Breast Center at Cooley Dickinson Hospital; replaced kitchen dishwashers, saving 50% of water and energy use; arranged contracts for 3,500 kwh of solar power under a 20-year agreement, which is 30% of CDH’s annual usage; and replaced and upgrade lighting to LED technology in 15,000 square feet of the CDH property.

“Cooley Dickinson’s employees take pride in our sustainability efforts to lessen our impact on the environment and look forward to working with Practice Greenhealth to continue this work across the country.”

“As a Practice Greenhealth Partner for Change Award winner, Cooley Dickinson is committed to improving the health of our patients, staff, and community as a whole,” said Anthony Scibelli, vice president, Operations and chief administrative officer. “Cooley Dickinson’s employees take pride in our sustainability efforts to lessen our impact on the environment and look forward to working with Practice Greenhealth to continue this work across the country.”

Practice Greenhealth recently released its eighth annual Sustainability Benchmark Report, analyzing data from leading hospitals and health systems across the country, giving a snapshot of trends in environmental performance and sustainability in energy, water, toxics, food, and other categories. Among the findings:

• While U.S. hospitals emit an estimated 8% of the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions, in the last three years, the percentage of facilities that have a written plan to address climate-change mitigation has nearly doubled. Also, the percentage of facilities that generate or purchase renewable energy has increased by 81%.

• Hospitals in the U.S. produce more than 4.67 million tons of waste each year. But in the last two years, the percentage of facilities that have taken measures to reduce the generation of pharmaceutical waste has grown by 11%. Leading hospitals are routinely achieving a 30% recycling rate — more than double the early EPA goal of 15%.

• More hospitals are purchasing products with safer chemicals. In 2016, the percentage of hospitals prioritizing furniture and medical furnishings free of halogenated flame retardants, formaldehyde, perfluorinated compounds, and PVC (vinyl) more than doubled from the previous year. A total of 78% of hospitals have chemical or purchasing policies that identify specific chemicals of concern to human health and the environment, with 79% purchasing certified green cleaning chemicals and 30% indicating they have programs in place to purchase furniture or furnishings that avoid chemicals of concern.

• Currently, U.S. hospitals use more than 7% of the nation’s commercial water supply. However, in the last three years, the percentage of facilities that benchmark water usage has doubled. During that time, there’s also been a 36% increase in the percentage of facilities that have a written plan to reduce water use over time with specific goals and a timeline. However, only 17% of hospitals reported any water-reduction projects in 2015.

“Our annual Sustainability Benchmark Report allows us to share how the nation’s leading hospitals are making progress year after year to improve health and reduce environmental impact while delivering strong financial return,” said Cecilia DeLoach Lynn, director of Sector Performance and Recognition for Practice Greenhealth. “We are proud to see more hospitals than ever appointing sustainability leaders to oversee environmental performance.”

Modern Office Sections

Exercise in Problem Solving

The managing partners at ECG, from left, Joe Kessler, Susan Lachowski, and Patrick Carley.

The managing partners at ECG, from left, Joe Kessler, Susan Lachowski, and Patrick Carley.

A quarter-century ago, Joe Kessler and Patrick Carley were working together to create cutting-edge solutions to problems with workplace injuries at East Longmeadow-based Hasbro (now Cartamundi). Later, after Carley left a position in academia, the two continued to collaborate on projects to identify and resolve issues in a wide array of workplaces. Today, with third managing partner Susan Lachowski, they are taking these efforts to a higher plane with a venture called Ergonomic Collaboration Group, a name that speaks volumes about what this company does — and how it does it.

When Shaun McConkey arrived at South Deerfield-based Pelican Products as director of operations a year ago, he found a company on the move.

As we reported back in May, this enterprise, long known for making hard-plastic cases for commercial, government, and military applications, was successfully diversifying into everything from coolers to suitcases to backpacks.

But amid all these green lights, McConkey saw a red flag. It took the form of a mounting number of soft-tissue injuries resulting from the processes (especially the literal heavy lifting) required to manufacture such products.

Desiring to ward off such injuries, he knew he would need some help, and also knew just who to call — meaning this wasn’t exactly a phone number he had to search to find.

That’s because he’d called it more than a few times before. Indeed, McConkey, Joe Kessler, and Patrick Carley go back a ways. The three were at Hasbro’s (now Cartamundi’s) sprawling manufacturing facility in East Longmeadow in the early ’90s. McConkey was director of manufacturing, Kessler was the in-house ergonomist, and Carley, a practicing physical therapist, joined him when the company decided to establish a physical-therapy clinic inside the plant to respond to the growing number of musculoskeletal-related injuries, now referred to as musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs.

Shaun McConkey

Shaun McConkey, currently director of operations at Pelican Products, has called on the team at ECG on many occasions during his career in manufacturing.

Fast-forwarding a little, Carley left the clinic at Hasbro in 1996 to take a full-time faculty position at American International College. But the two continued to work together — often with Carley’s students — on projects to improve work processes and reduce the potential risks for MSDs.

One of their collaborative efforts was at the U.S. Tsubaki Automotive, LLC timing-chain-manufacturing facility in Chicopee, where McConkey, who was by then with that company as operations manager, sought their help with reducing and perhaps eliminating the threat of injuries related to the cleaning of a machine known as a ‘nut former.’

Their involvement led to the creation of a chest-resting bench — one we’ll hear much more about later — that speaks volumes about how a venture now known as Ergonomic Collaboration Group (ECG), LLC goes about its work.

It takes a scientific approach, said Dan Oliveira, environmental health and safety specialist at U.S. Tsubaki, one that engages employees in every step of the process and therefore achieves a critical volume of buy-in.

“They involved employees and helped them facilitate this change,” he explained. “That’s better than simply making a change and saying, ‘this is the way we’re doing things now.’ You’re having employees understand why that change is being made.”

The team at ECG, which now includes a third managing partner — Susan Lachowski, one of Carley’s students, who possesses a PhD in exercise physiology — intends to use this approach to extend its business portfolio well beyond Hasbro and Shaun McConkey’s career ladder.

And it is already moving strongly in that direction, adding clients ranging from the postal service to Merrill Lynch; from Hamilton Sundstrand to Riverside Industries.

Such growth is partly explained by the fact that ECG offers the right services at the right time — when employers, faced with ever-advancing technology and the ever-rising cost of doing business, want to fully exploit the former while perhaps reducing the latter, especially workers’ compensation costs.

For this issue and its focus on the modern office, BusinessWest talked with the team at ECG, as well as with some of those they’ve worked with and for, to identify potential problems and orchestrate solutions. You might call their endeavors in the field — as well as current efforts to grow their business — works in progress.

Stretching — the Truth

Kessler calls it simply the ‘blinking program,’ and no, it’s not what you might think.

Just as one’s eyes blink to keep them lubricated, the body’s muscles should blink to keep them from becoming stressed, or injured, he noted. But while eye blinking is mostly a reflex, or semi-automatic action, muscle blinking is not; it must be orchestrated, if you will.

Hence that word ‘program,’ which in this case refers to a regimen of movements designed just over a decade ago for employees at Hasbro while Kessler was still there and collaborating with Carley and some of his students on various projects.

The ‘chest rest’

The ‘chest rest’ at U.S. Tsubaki’s timing chain plant in Chicopee is an example of ECG working with a client to solve a potential problem.

“If you stretch five minutes before your shift starts and then don’t stretch for the rest of the day, how effective can that be?” Kessler asked. “So we instituted a ‘blink’ program; we designed a whole series of stretches that the employees could do discreetly, like when the line came down for a minute or if they were going to their break area.

“These were simple things, like shrugging the shoulders,” he went on, “just to stretch your muscles out and give them a break and let them breathe. The point was to do this several times a day, and we did it for the entire factory.”

Together, Kessler and Carley initiated a number of programs and initiatives for the game maker, many of them worthy of the descriptive phrase ‘state-of-the-art.’ That includes the physical-therapy clinic itself.

“We put it right inside the plant — if people got hurt, they went to medical, they were cleared and sent to physical therapy, which was right on the factory floor,” Carley said of the facility, established in 1991. “It was pretty forward-thinking stuff.”

And there was more of that to come, he went on, adding that he and Kessler were eventually assigned to the same committee at Hasbro that was charged not only with treating people after they were injured, but with developing strategies to keep them from getting injured in the first place.

“The committee tasked us with going out to the different work areas and try to determine what it was about the work process, the machine, or whatever it might be, to reduce exposure to injury,” he explained, adding that most problems were, contrary to popular belief, not with the back, but with upper extremities and arms.

“People were putting those packages of little green houses in boxes something like 4,000 times a day,” he told BusinessWest, before being corrected by Kessler, who said the number was probably closer to 15,000.

To reduce those injuries, the company, working on the advice of Kessler, Carley, and those they were working with, changed work processes (to reduce how far one would have to reach, for example), adjusted machines, instituted work rotations when needed, and, in some cases, changed or instituted policies, such as the limits placed on how many pounds employees would lift at a given time.

The initiatives at Hasbro would eventually yield accolades from OSHA , specifically, its Voluntary Protection Program (the company’s ergonomic program became the best practice in 2005). And in many ways, they laid the groundwork for the business that would become ECG.

“One thing led to another — we took some of the things we learned at Hasbro and applied them at Hamilton Sundstrand or at the post office, for example,” said Carley. “Other companies were calling us, and we started getting into office ergonomics.”

ECG-LogoOne of the companies that called was the Springfield office of Merrill Lynch, which was having some issues with new information technology.

“They changed over to flat screens, and when they put those screens up, they left the keyboards over here,” he said, using his hands to show there was some distance between the two. “And they were wondering why people’s necks were hurting them. They said, ‘you need to help us figure this out.’”

Documented success with helping a host of clients figure things out has been a key ingredient in the company’s efforts to grow its portfolio, he went on, citing U.S. Tsubaki’s chest-resting bench as a perfect example.

Body of Evidence

Bringing this seemingly simple piece of equipment to reality — meaning everything from its design to its implementation — came about through a scientific, or academic (but also collaborative) approach that enabled the employees who would be using it to play a huge role in its development.

Kessler calls it “engineering a problem out.”

It all begins with observation, interviews with employees, and other steps to pinpoint problems and also problems in the making — in every sense of that phrase. Then comes the work to devise a solution. As Oliveira mentioned, employees were front and center during that step as well.

Backing up a bit, he said employees were previously required to bend over these machines, unsupported, for long stretches as they cleaned them, presenting a risk for back injuries. Also, as they bent over, they were supporting themselves by putting one hand on an oily surface, presenting the possibility of acute injury.

“ECG enabled us to be proactive about this, rather than reactive,” he said, “and say, ‘there’s the potential for injury here, and we want to resolve it before anything happens.’”

The chest-resting bench not only reduces the threat to back injury, but it also improves productivity, said Carley, adding that Tsubaki now plans to put it into use worldwide.

But while responding to problems related to workplace injuries with engineering solutions is a big piece of ECG’s workload, keeping employees healthy, limber, and thus more out of harm’s way is also part of the equation, and it will only grow in significance in the future, said Carley.

And the addition of Lachowski, who focuses on using exercise science to improve work efficiency and safety, effectively “closes the circle,” as he put it, and enables ECG to provide a comprehensive roster of services, including prevention.

“My focus is on proper biomechanics and keeping the employee healthy through physical activity,” she explained. “If we can do that, we can reduce the threat of injury.”

As an example, she noted how ECG helped Riverside Industries — which provides services including life-skill development, rehabilitation, and employment options to adults living with developmental disabilities — to attain a grant from the Mass. Department of Industrial Accidents. It is being used for safety training for all employees involved in client handling, transfers, and transportation.

The program includes progressive stretching and exercising, in addition to a ‘train-the-trainer’ program to continue the safety efforts, she went on, adding that such efforts are critical to creating a culture focused on safety.

At Pelican, a train-the-trainer initiative will be part of a comprehensive response that is still in the formative stage, said Kessler, adding that stretching and exercise programs will likely be accompanied by changes in production processes to reduce exposure to injury.

In many ways, work at the Pelican plant illustrates the full range of ECG’s services and its efforts to customize solutions for clients.

“We have an educational approach to every project that we do, and we tailor each project to the company itself, because one size doesn’t fit all,” said Lachowski. “We really want to educate the workers, as well as the companies, and give them the tools to continue on after we’ve left.

“Our approach isn’t to go in and say, ‘this is the way to do it; you should it our way,’” she went on. “Many people don’t respond to that. That’s why we observe and ask questions, and do a comprehensive educational piece, so they’re in the driver’s seat.”

Looking ahead and toward where this company might go — in terms of what he anticipates will be controlled growth, but also specific assignments — Carley said the modern office and modern manufacturing facility are laden with potential ergonomic issues and potential problems.

Indeed, at a time when many professionals work with not one computer screen in front of them, but two or even three, attention must be paid to everything from where they’re positioned to their height off the desk.

And that’s just one small example of the importance of ergonomics today, said Kessler, noting that, as more individuals spend eight, 10, or 12 hours a day at a desk, attention must be paid to how they’re doing all that work and how it might impact everything from their vision to their back — to their productivity.

Which brings him back to that notion of ‘muscle blinking’ he described, a concept that encompasses everything from stretching before and during work to getting up and walking around, to perhaps not sitting at all and instead investing in a standing desk.

“When people are healthier, productivity is better, quality is better — if you’re sitting on a line and not feeling well, how good is the product? — it’s all interwined,” said Kessler in summing things up.

Limber Yard

As he talked about ECG, its reason for being, and its enormous potential as an entrepreneurial venture, Kessler summoned some numbers that put matters in perspective in a manner all business owners and managers could appreciate.

“There’s a rule of thumb out there that we used to use … if you have a $140,000 shoulder operation, and you’re a self-insured company, you have to sell 10 times that amount in product to make that up, because all that comes off your bottom line,” he said. “The most important thing is keeping people healthy, obviously, but by doing so, companies can save themselves a lot of money.”

Those numbers, and that reality, speak to why there is ever-increasing attention being paid to workplace wellness, if you will, and the broad realm of ergonomics.

And they also explain why the future appears extremely bright for a venture that has problem solving in the modern office down to a science — literally.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office Sections

Tearing Down the Walls

The team at Aegis Energy Services

The team at Aegis Energy Services gathers together — something they’re used to in a workplace that encourages constant collaboration.

As Joe Hickson welcomed BusinessWest to Aegis Energy Services in Holyoke, he didn’t want to be the only one talking. So he called eight other team members to a large, oval table to pick their brains on the topic of modern office design.

“It’s how we do things here,” said Hickson, the company’s vice president of marketing and sales — a collaborative gesture that reflected the very topics he wanted to talk about. Take, for example, the office’s layout, with workstations bunched closely together in an open, high-ceilinged room in Open Square, the converted mill complex along Holyoke’s canals. What’s missing? Cubicles, walled-off desks, and private offices.

“I come from an era when everything was cubed and you shut your doors. I thought that was the way you do business,” Hickson said. “I don’t believe that way anymore. I believe an open office situation builds the team, and it builds an understanding of the people you’re working for and working with — as individuals and people, instead of just producers. We bounce a lot of things off each other. It’s a very informal office.”

It’s a setup that other Aegis employees respond to positively.

“I like this better,” said Michele Cummings, marketing and sales coordinator. “I’d worked in an office where the cubicles were eight feet tall, and when we had issues within our department that needed to be resolved, we were shouting over the cubicles. The president of the company came over to our department and said, ‘stop.’ He wanted silence; that’s why we had eight-foot cubicles. It was not a very friendly environment. I prefer this a thousand times over.”

Kaley Curtis, business development representative, agreed, noting that a workplace staffed by workers from both older and younger generations is an opportunity to learn from each other — with Gen-Xers and Boomers offering experience, and Millennials offering enthusiasm and a fresh way at looking at problems — and to pick each other up on a stressful day. An old-fashioned layout, she said, can hinder that.

Ross Giombetti, president of Giombetti Associates in Hampden, is a veteran of workplace change, consulting with businesses of all kinds on issues of leadership and culture. He says companies that are serious about attracting and retaining top young talent need to understand and even embrace the generational shifts in what workers want — from schedule flexibility to more interaction. Increasingly, they’re doing so.

“Collaborative workspaces are extremely important today, with an open, flowing floor plan with shared space. It’s very important for a lot of organizations to move in that direction,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s just coming from the younger generation. It’s coming from organizations that understand the benefits of working with each other and finding synergies. It’s being driven not only by young professionals who want to feel involved and have input in everything, but also by the business dynamic.”


Ross giombetti

Ross giombetti

Collaborative workspaces are extremely important today, with an open, flowing floor plan with shared space. It’s very important for a lot of organizations to move in that direction.”


These shifts are nothing new in the work world; in a recent article detailing the top eight trends in office design, Fast Company listed multi-purpose workspaces, designated lounge areas, and community tables — all speaking to the need for collaboration — as three of them. Business owners, both nationally and locally, are paying attention.

Seeking a Vibe

When Paragus Strategic IT outgrew its former headquarters in Hadley a few years ago, CEO Delcie Bean saw a move as an opportunity to craft a workspace that reflected his vision for the company — the ‘Paragus vibe,’ as he’s often put it. So as he sought a new location — eventually building on a plot a mile east on Route 9 — he approached the challenge of office design with a few philosophies in mind.

Design elements like a game area and funky wall décor

Design elements like a game area and funky wall décor help Paragus create the type of workplace environment fostered by innovators like Las Vegas-based Zappos.

For example, “we started looking at what the barriers can be to collaboration and communication, and one of them is, simply, walls and offices and hallways and doors. So we got rid of those.”

The idea was for employees to work within “high-fiving distance,” where it’s easy — encouraged, even — to jump into a conversation by simply rolling a chair over. “Our customers might think they’re working with one person on the phone, but in most cases it’s two or even three people. IT is such a wide field, and there’s so much to know, that no employee can know everything. If we want to provide efficient service to customers, we have to increase collaboration.”

Bean said Millennials value the idea of working together to achieve results, but Paragus throws in an element of equality as well. “We want everyone to feel like an important piece and that no one plays a more important role than anyone else. So everyone’s desk is the same size, and nobody has a private office. We’re all playing a valuable role in the company.”

Of course, sometimes privacy and quiet are important — on certain phone calls or one-on-one client meetings, for instance — which is why Paragus also features a number of small breakout rooms outfitted with a phone, desk, and whiteboard.

Nothing in the Paragus design was easy or obvious, Bean said, adding that it took three years to find a new home, build a structure, and move in, which was frustrating on one level, but on another allowed the company to tweak its ideas.

“We wouldn’t have gotten it right if we’d built the first version of this building. This is, like, version nine. That’s the advantage of taking three years. When we thought, ‘maybe this isn’t the right way to go,’ instead of tearing down walls, we just went through more blueprints.”

Bean said he was inspired by companies like Las Vegas-based Zappos, known for its funky vibe and employee-centric culture, when he added touches like a lounge, with TVs, video games, and four beers on tap; creative light fixtures and colorful carpet tiles; and the universal arming of the workforce with Nerf guns, meaning a pitched battle could break out at any time.

“We have a value here called ‘fostering fun,’” he said. “It helps people enjoy their work and not take themselves too seriously. Our work mandates that we’re careful and professional. Our customers are demanding and expect a lot of us, and we deliver in a professional and timely way. But the more fun they’re having, the better they are at doing their jobs. Zappos proved if you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of your customers.”

Aegis might not break out in volleys of foam bullets, but its open concept is still worlds away from traditional offices. For some, it’s been a slow transition.

“I hated it when I first got here,” said Dan Burke, director of national business development, who came from a workplace where the old cubicle-barrier structure reigned. “I got used to it and learned to appreciate it, but it did take a lot of time. I was used to a cubicle and privacy and making calls and doing my own thing. But this definitely fosters more of a team environment. It seems like there’s a lot fewer inter-office problems.”

Burke and Hickson both said they can step into the hallway to make a private phone call if they need to. But other team members said they value their workplace’s lack of privacy for its opportunities to grow and learn.

“I think the open office allows for top performers to influence people who may not be doing as well,” said Josh Velten, business development representative. “In a closed-off room, everyone keeps to themselves, and there’s probably less of a possibility for improvement.”

Change Agents

Workplace trends, especially those driven by Millennials, certainly don’t stop with a floor plan, Giombetti told BusinessWest. For instance, because they value work-life balance, they’re increasingly asking for, and getting, opportunities to work flexible hours, rather than the traditional, hard-and-fast, 8-to-5 shift. “That doesn’t work anymore, nor should it work. Organizations today should be more concerned with achieving goals than how many hours you’re on the job.”

Millennials are also keenly interested in mapping out a defined career path, with clear goals and milestones to hit along the way, he noted; they’re not satisfied with simply working hard and hoping to be promoted someday. And many have a strong need for recognition by their superiors — with raises and promotions, of course, but with other, less formal pats on the back as well. So, while building a more collaborative office is important in many businesses, it’s only one element in a wave of generational change.

“A lot of businesses embrace that — they know innovative means new, it means change, and if we don’t evolve and change, we die,” Giombetti said. “Some people are comfortable being challenged, and they embrace it, and other people don’t like it — they don’t like their authority being challenged; they don’t want something they’ve been doing for 30 years to be picked apart. But you have to be willing to have it picked apart. There may be a better way to do it.”

That said, not all change is necessarily good, he went on. But employers and employees must be willing to explore the unexplored together, and to communicate their needs. And, often, that process is helped along by a physical office design that fosters easy give and take.

Frank Luvera, a combined heat and power specialist with Aegis, agreed.

“We’re able to learn from each other,” said Luvera, a Millennial himself. “Every day is an opportunity to learn. Being new to it all, there’s a lot to learn, and you’re not able to do that if you’re closed off all day, not knowing what’s going on around you.”

Hickson said year-to-date sales have been up 116% in the new office, and that has to do with quality people, but also the ability to work together in a bright, airy space — it used to be a dance studio — where everyone is encouraged to keep the lines of communication open.

“Everyone here has an equal voice in this business,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s another advantage of an open office if it’s done right.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office Sections
The 5 C’s to Recruit, Engage, and Retain Quality Staff

The war for talent is over, and talent has won. Over the past 20 to 30 years, technology and globalization have dramatically changed the way we work. However, very little has changed in how we hire and manage staff — which has led to low employee engagement and productivity and high employee turnover.

Instead of doing the routine, tactical, and predicable work of yesteryear, the Social Age requires us to be more strategic, creative, and innovative — more solutions-oriented. Yet, for the most part, we are still hiring for skills and experience and using the same levers we have used for decades (if not centuries) to motivate and manage staff.

We must evolve our business practices to remain competitive in our digitally connected, globally oriented economy.  

With any evolutionary process, a guide or roadmap proves invaluable. When your company decides to take the leap and join the Social Age, there are 5 C’s to adhere to so you can maximize employment efficiency and effectiveness, retain your staff, and ensure that your employees are fully engaged on a daily basis.

Correct Hiring

We must start this evolution by hiring the right people — without them, efforts to engage and retain staff become moot. The Industrial Age paradigm emphasized hiring for skills and experience. But skills can be taught, and in today’s rapidly changing world, experience is far less important than agility and the ability to learn and adapt.

To not only survive, but thrive in the Social Age, companies need to hire for both culture fit and competencies — those innate abilities that can’t be taught but will make someone successful in the workplace.

Proper interviewing technique is essential to guaranteeing you get the right hire. Unlike the stock market, when it comes to potential job candidates, past performance is indicative of future results. The majority of interview questions have to be answered with past examples of how the candidate actually dealt with real-world scenarios.

Classify and Manage Appropriately

Even when you do everything right during the hiring process, you may still be surprised once the employee comes on board. Team dynamics or changing personal circumstances can affect individual behavior and performance.

You must continually keep your finger on the pulse of your staff — a daunting task to many managers who either try to devote equal time and energy across the board, or spend time with the wrong people.

Employees typically come in three ‘flavors’: critical people, squeaky wheels, and the fat middle. Most managers end up spending most of their time trying to grease their squeaky wheels, which perpetuates poor performance or behavior. Counterintuitively, by devoting the majority of your attention to your critical people, you will bolster the productivity of the whole team. Squeaky wheels? Train, motivate, or move them on. Quickly.

Compensate Fairly

Many companies diligently strive to create attractive incentive programs in an effort to engage and retain staff. Unfortunately, these efforts actually may be counterproductive to accomplishing these goals.

Studies have suggested that rewards can narrow our focus, innovation, creativity, strategic thinking, and problem solving — the very things needed from a Social Age workforce. Higher pay does not necessarily equal higher productivity. Managers should set their salary benchmark at or a little above market rate for individual functions.

Even more importantly, managers should ensure that employees feel they are being adequately compensated for the work they do, and this can only be accomplished by speaking to them about the issue directly.

Currencies of Choice

Once your staff feels well-paid, real productivity and engagement can be unlocked by tapping into your their internal motivators, or currencies of choice. What your staff really needs to be fulfilled, and to go the extra mile, is to:

• Work for someone they trust and respect in a company they support;

• Be appreciated and have their voice and opinions respected;

• Have a firm career path that allows them to grow and develop;

• Realize their underlying motivators; and

• Be able to do what they do best every day.

By understanding and acknowledging your team’s individual currencies of choice, you can help keep them engaged and decrease turnover.

How do you recognize which currencies of choice will motivate your staff? By talking to them. Unfortunately, many managers don’t talk to their staff enough, or don’t know what to talk about or how to structure their conversations.

Communicate with FOCUS

FOCUS is an acronym that describes the best practices in leadership communication. Communication between staff and managers should revolve around:

• Feedback. Ensure your team is updated on company information, initiatives, and new hires. Give praise when it is due, and maintain an open door for their questions, concerns, or comments.

• Objectives. The heart of sterling performance management is structuring specific and measurable job objectives and holding staff accountable for achieving them.

• Career Development. Many studies list career development as a main factor that employees gauge to determine whether to stay with their current employer or seek a new position elsewhere.

• Underlying Motivators. What does your staff need to go the extra mile, and how do they respond to motivational techniques and rewards?

• Strengths. According to the Gallup Organization, those innate abilities that make them unique and good at what they do is the number-one predictor of success.

Bottom Line

The process of changing the way you hire and manage your staff may appear daunting at first, but experience shows that, by taking it step-by-step, you can make significant changes quickly. The result will be a lifetime of more engaged, happier, and more productive staff, as well as more free time, less stress, and higher job satisfaction for yourself and your team.

Are you up for the challenge?

Kim Seeling Smith is an international human-resources expert and author of the forthcoming book Mind Reading for Managers: 5 FOCUSed Conversations for Greater Employee Engagement and Productivity. With her expansive knowledge of human-capital practices in today’s market, Seeling Smith helps companies build healthy work environments and increase employee engagement and productivity in our digitally connected, globally oriented world; igniteglobal.com

Modern Office Sections
Employees Want to Feel That They’re Making a Difference


Creating a positive workplace culture is extremely important to cultivating a productive and profitable company. The quality of work we do depends on the quality of our workplace culture. When the environment we work in is positive, we become more engaged and committed employees.

By definition, workplace culture is a pattern of behaviors that are supported by a management system over time. Harnessing the power of positive reinforcement is the quickest and most efficient way to a better workplace culture.

The first step in creating a more positive workplace culture is recognizing that your current culture is not where you want it to be. It can be difficult to define your culture — almost like nailing Jell-O to a wall — because it is made up of many small behaviors. But it starts at the top with company leaders. The way they act and behave will be mirrored by employees. So if you want to change the behavior of your employees, start by changing the behavior of your leaders.

Leaders can start doing this by listening to their employees and understanding what motivates them. Get to know them, ask them their opinions, and share yours in return. I think the most powerful things that bosses can do are communicate, be transparent, and tell people where the ship is headed. Bosses should be asking questions like, “what are we doing that we could be doing better? What’s broken, and how can we fix it?” Ask those questions, listen to the employees, and, most importantly, empower the employees to go fix the problems.

Research tells us that that, more than money, employees want to feel like they are making a difference at work and getting recognized by their boss for making that difference.

As employees, we want the ability to do things, to change things. So often, employees’ ideas are not listened to or acted upon. It is the boss’s responsibility to provide the money, time, and resources for employees to complete tasks and make improvements, and then to celebrate and recognize those people for their contributions.

Now, this goes against many traditional management styles — the command-in-control, my-way-or-the-highway mindsets of old. The majority of bosses do what I call ‘leave alone/zap’ management. Simply put, it means that we leave employees alone and say nothing when they do something right, but we are quick to ‘zap,’ or punish, them when they make a mistake.

This kind of aggressive management style might get the job done temporarily, but it doesn’t create an environment where employees will take initiative to do things when their supervisor isn’t watching. And it will not produce the highest-performing culture possible.

Rosabeth Moss-Kanter, a professor at the Harvard Business School and an author of numerous books on business-management techniques, said, “compensation is a right; recognition is a gift.” In other words, paychecks get people to show up at work. But getting more from people than just average performance requires you as a leader to provide additional coaching and feedback when people demonstrate the behaviors that drive results in your company.

Bosses who think they don’t need to tell their employees they are doing a good job are not fully engaging them. It doesn’t cost you any money to tell somebody they did a great job. Believe it or not, saying ‘thank you’ for doing a good job is a much more powerful motivator than a paycheck.

Bosses should give employees immediate, sincere feedback when they demonstrate desired behaviors. That way, employees will be more likely to repeat those behaviors in the future. That’s the power of positive reinforcement. If you don’t do that, then you won’t get those extra behaviors.

For four decades, my company has designed and implemented behavior-based systems and approaches that bring continual improvement with positive reinforcement. In my work as a business consultant, I have built more than 1,000 recognition programs for companies including DuPont, Coca-Cola, and Ford. They recognized that their work environments could be better and sought help and ways to fix it.

What I’ve learned from helping so many companies is that, without positive reinforcement, you are getting less performance from your team than you could be, and your workplace culture will suffer. It’s only a matter of time before some other company does it better and leaves you in the dust, taking your good employees with them.

In my workshops, I frequently ask bosses, “is culture change fast or slow?” Most people think it’s slow, but in reality, you can change culture in one day, if you know how. Culture change is as simple as changing the behavior of the leadership team. By inverting the leadership structure and delegating responsibility to employees, culture can shift dramatically and quickly. Move too slow, and employees might think you are not taking their ideas and suggestions seriously. But, like going on a diet, culture change is something you must continue to work at day in and day out.

So there you have it. When a workplace culture is positive and happy, the employees are happy, and they work harder to make their clients happy. The end result will be that profitability will increase and turnover will decrease.

But remember: creating a positive work culture starts at the top. If you want a positive team, you must be a positive leader. And the best leaders are those who truly harness the power of positive reinforcement to create high-performing teams who do the right thing even when leaders aren’t watching.

Bill Sims Jr. is President of the Bill Sims Co. Inc. For nearly 40 years, Sims has created behavior-based recognition programs that have helped large and small firms to deliver positive reinforcement to inspire better performance from employees and increase bottom-line profits. A sought-after speaker, he has delivered leadership workshops and keynote speeches around the globe, and has built more than 1,000 positive-reinforcement systems at firms including DuPont, Siemens VDO, Coca-Cola, and Disney; www.greenbeanbook.com; www.greenbeanleadership.com

Modern Office Sections
Understand That Your Staff Is Your Best Publicity Asset


Throughout the business landscape, countless days and hours are spent on the hiring process — rifling through résumés, conducting phone and in-person interviews, and vetting potential hires — and for good reason. Company payroll budgets only contain so much flexibility for new employees, and selecting the correct individual to fill an open position involves much more than just ensuring their competence in the role; your new employee is also joining the best weapon in your company-wide publicity arsenal: your staff.

Your selection of staff should go beyond just the tangible skills they bring to the office and their ability to complete projects and achieve goals during the workday — it should also include their talent for recruiting and driving business when the day is done as well. Your salaried or commission-based employees — present and future — should recognize the value of out-of-office networking skills and practices, as even simple interactions after hours or on the weekends could potentially engage new customers or clients.

It is for that reason that you, as a manager or business owner, should consider the people you employ an essential component to any of your publicity efforts, because they are often your establishment’s first impression and top recruiting asset once the lights go out for the evening.

There are multiple best practices for instilling a sense of off-the-clock commitment in your present and future employees, and utilizing them to foster a sense of organizational pride will work wonders in your efforts to bolster your company image. Online, in person, and over the phone, your staff should recognize their value away from the office.

The Social Ovation

Incalculable business relationships are now created and nurtured in the social-media stratosphere, and acuity in this area can be an accurate barometer for real-world success. Along with your business’ online presence and activity, your employees can boost your impact in the social-media arena by broadcasting company-wide or individual accomplishments from their personal profiles. This can be as simple as a sharing a blog post that a staff member is particularly proud of or that garnered an extensive degree of attention, or actively promoting any sponsored events or appearances.

Client or customer bases can be developed through your employees’ relationships, especially if they are sufficiently pleased with their individual contributions and the level of work coming out of your office to show it off. Regularly recognize and applaud their performance in the office, and they may be compelled to share it outside the office — chiefly on their social-media platforms. A fulfilled employee is an employee that enthusiastically wants to share your achievements.

Word of mouth is often the most powerful form of promotion or advertising, and your staff can be the premier vehicle for this type of reputation enhancement.

The Business Card Is Timeless

There is no action in the business world more common than the time-honored tradition of exchanging business cards. Even with a shift toward Internet centricity and networking, every executive should always have a business card on hand, which should contain their array of online links and contact information.

Employers should encourage their staff to keep a few cards at the ready. Any chance interaction outside the workplace can quickly shift into a professional conversation, and a casual swap of business cards Saturday night may result in a new product order or contract Monday morning. Many things will change in the business environment, but the business card is a timeless object that will remain a fundamental networking component.

Maintaining a Convention Game Face

Regardless of your primary field or industry, chances are you will send out staff representatives to attend a conference or convention on your company’s behalf at some point. Effectively working a booth is an imperative skill that your employees need to possess to ensure that you receive a tangible return on your sponsorship investment.

Part of making an appearance at a corporate convention a fruitful one is the overall demeanor from inside the booth. Your employees should understand the value of simple, conversational engagement with those who stop by. Not everyone will want to secure your services, but they should all be treated as such. A smile and a simple greeting to passersby can be the easiest route to increased booth traffic and solid sales leads at the event’s conclusion.

E-mail Etiquette Has No Day Off

With the culture of connectedness that was ushered in by the widespread adoption of laptops, tablets, and smartphones, your salaried employees are now within reach at all hours of the day, every day of the week.

When receiving work-related e-mails or text correspondence while away from the office, your staff should remain acutely aware that in-house etiquette still applies, and not allow themselves to slip into casual text-speak or a tone they may utilize on their day off. Improper e-mail decorum is an immediate strike against company credibility, so make sure you instill in your workforce the importance of proper electronic communication.

Bottom Line

Your product or service is only as good as the people you have onboard. When your employees and associates realize and appreciate their value to your operation and the role they play in actively promoting your business, the more cognizant they become of their actions when they leave the workplace. When you impress upon your staff their importance to the company and their influence on overall accomplishments, you create a workplace culture of collective input and shared success.

When your employees realize their fundamental position in your business, they ardently become an extension of your publicity undertakings, and make a point to contribute even when they are away from the workplace. n

Russell Trahan is president of PR/PR, a boutique public-relations agency specializing in positioning clients in front of their target audience in print and online. PR/PR represents experts of all kinds who are seeking national exposure for their business or organization.

Modern Office Sections
How to Build a Culture of Ethics Inside Your Company


Roger, a good friend and an ethical individual, was at a business conference recently with a co-worker, Sam, who decided to take a few of his subordinates out for an evening of entertainment — that is, entertainment not sanctioned by the company. The next day, as Sam was preparing to submit his receipts for his expense report, Roger noticed that he was submitting the receipts for his prior night’s activities. More importantly, Roger noticed that Sam’s description on the receipts was inaccurate. Sam flat-out lied on his expense report.
Roger wondered what would be the ethical thing to do. On one hand, he could ignore what he saw and just let it pass, rationalizing that it was not his business. Or he could confront Sam and encourage him to reconsider his choice, suggesting that following the ethics policy of his company would create better consequences. Or, lastly, Roger could comply with the company’s guidelines and report the ethical lapse.
The question isn’t what did Roger do. The question to consider is, what would you do?
If you chose the third option — the one that is expected as part of compliance with most organizational ethics guidelines — you would be labeled a ‘whistleblower.’ Who wants to be called that? Snitch, tattletale, and other negative words from childhood come to mind when someone is called a whistleblower. Yet, if your company or association is committed to creating a culture of ethical behavior, the term ‘whistleblower’ is the number-one key to ethical success.

How Can That Be?
Statistics indicate that, 42% of the time, someone tipping off an employer about an ethical lapse or potential fraud is the number-one way companies maintain ethics and prevent fraud. Amazing as it may seem, internal staff is the best police system for maintaining ethical behavior.
Most are amazed that it is that high; all too often, we want to look the other way, or are afraid to confront those committing ethical blunders. It’s easy to understand the hesitancy; many of us are afraid to rock the boat. Often, what we fail to realize is that the person committing an ethical blunder is putting the company in danger. So, how do we create a culture of ethical actions? Here are five ways to start.

1. Recognize that unethical choices never start large. The ‘unethical continuum’ is a natural progression of what many call a slippery slope of human action. This progression allows small infractions to go unnoticed or unreported until the day people or companies are in the midst of a full-fledged ethics disaster. Sam didn’t intend to act unethically; he felt that he was doing the right thing by treating his subordinates to something beyond the norm at the company function. His challenge was figuring out who would be responsible for the expense. The challenge with his ethical choice was a common problem: rationalization.

2. Understand the three components of human behavior that lead to ethical lapses. When a human makes a choice, any choice, there are typically three components that come together that allow a choice to be made and move forward: need, opportunity, and rationalization. While, as employers, we have little control over an individual’s need, we do have some level of control over the opportunity to make ethical choices and how one might rationalize behavior.

3. Be clear about what ethical behavior looks like. Large companies have clearly drafted ethics and compliance policies that employees are expected to understand and follow. The smaller the company, the less likely there will be a clearly written ethics policy. But large or small, the challenge for all companies is communication about what is acceptable and unacceptable. Creating an ethics policy and training it effectively are keys to exposing rationalization and improving ethical behavior within an organization.

4. Train, train, train! Let’s be honest: most ethics training is boring. It centers on the rules and never gets to the heart of what motivates human behavior. And, frankly, if we don’t understand what starts folks on that slippery slope downward into the unethical realm, then we miss the opportunity to change behavior before it is too late. Effective training should move beyond just what’s included in the ethics and compliance policy and delve into why people make unethical choices, what can be done to prevent unethical choices, and what motivates our behavior. Telling someone what to do is far less effective than helping them see the value in consistently making ethical choices.

5. Encourage accountability. What keeps people between the ethical lines is shared accountability. We are our brother’s keeper. If one is to be kept within the ethical lines, then we must have not only the roadsigns (ethics policy), but the practical means to correct behavior. As stated earlier, 42% of the time, ethical blunders are reported by co-workers or those who witness the issue. And while the term ‘whistleblower’ sometimes carries a negative connotation, the reality is that someone who cares enough to call ‘foul’ on unethical actions is the most valuable ethics asset an organization has.

When in Doubt, Do the Right Thing
Ethical missteps are all the same; they will eventually lead to a negative outcome. Little infractions that go undetected or unreported often lead to larger infractions until unethical becomes illegal. Perhaps we should reframe or replace the word ‘whistleblower’ with ‘ethical partner.’
One thing is certain: ethical choices are empowered choices, and that is certainly one critical component of business success.

Chuck Gallagher is the president of the Ethics Resource Group and an international expert in business ethics. He provides training, presentations, and consultations with associations and companies on ethics and creating ethical cultures; [email protected]

Modern Office Sections
Managing Different Generations Takes Insight, Sensitivity

Meredith Wise

Meredith Wise says understanding how employees from different generations are motivated and communicate is one key to managing a diverse workforce.

Staff meeting or e-mail?
It’s a simple question, but when posed to employees from different generations, it can turn into a thorny issue in the modern office.
Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, recalled talking to an older manager, from the Baby Boom generation, who was confounded by the casual way Gen-Xers preferred to have dialogue.
“He said, ‘I really don’t feel like I’m doing an effective job of managing, and I’m not giving them the respect they need, if I just send an e-mail or text. I want to sit down and talk with them, but that’s not what that person wants,’” she explained. “It’s hard when you have these differences.”
The opposite is also true, Wise added. “When a younger manager comes in and tries to manage Baby Boomers, they want that face time, they want to sit down and talk, but the Gen-Xer just wants to shoot off messages — ‘you’re doing a great job, Joe, thanks,’ or ‘Joe, I need you to correct this report’ — and the Baby Boomers think that’s not appropriate. It really works both ways.”
Differences in the work styles and priorities of each generation pose a number of challenges for managers. For instance, Generation X workers have come through the ranks with a desire for independence and flexibility not nearly as prevalent among their forebears.
But not every office is equipped to handle flex time, said Joe Ascioti, president of Reliable Temps; a good example is the many manufacturing companies he counts among his clientele.
“It has to work for both the employer and the employee,” he said. “There has to be flexibility from both sides. There seems to be a little, ‘why can’t you do that?’ from employees, when, in some cases, you can’t be flexible.”
In this issue, BusinessWest discusses the characteristics (and, in some cases, stereotypes) that define the four generations now in the workplace, and why their differences can be frustrating to align under one roof.

Connect Four
Though every generation is comprised of individuals with very specific traits, certain characteristics have come to define each group in the workplace. According to the American Management Assoc., they include the following.
The Silent Generation (born between 1925 and 1946), also known as the Traditionalists, has produced perhaps the most loyal and highly dedicated workers, as well as the most risk-averse. Their values were shaped by the Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar boom years. They are committed to teamwork and collaboration, and value interpersonal communications skills.
Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964) are the first generation to actively declare a higher priority for work over personal life. They generally distrust authority and large systems. Their values were shaped primarily by a rise in civil rights activism, Vietnam, and inflation. They are more optimistic and open to change than the prior generation, but they also have a reputation for pursuing personal gratification first.
Members of Generation X (1965 to 1980), often considered the ‘slacker’ generation, tend to question authority figures and are responsible for creating the work/life balance concept, valuing personal time away from work more highly than climbing the career ladder. They possesses strong technical skills and are more independent than prior generations. They also tend to be very adaptive to job instability in the shrinking job market.
Millennials, or Generation Y (born after 1980), comprise the first global-centric generation, having come of age during the rapid growth of the Internet and an increase in global terrorism. They are among the most resilient in navigating change while deepening their appreciation for diversity and inclusion. They’re the most educated generation of workers today, as well as the most team-centric, having been raised by parents who carefully programmed much of their lives with sports, music, and recreational activities. They’ve inherited their Boomer parents’ desire to work hard and set goals, but can also appear more demanding — some would say entitled — than previous generations.
Work styles can vary wildly between these groups, particularly when it comes to collaboration, Wise explained. “Millennials in particular work very well in team settings; they’re very good at attacking problems on a team basis. When a group of them need to work together on something, they do a great job of assigning roles as a team and turning out a great project.”
She added, however, that these personal differences shouldn’t obscure some basic managerial keys that apply to all employees.
“There are some things that cut across all generations — the basics of managing and motivating people, things like showing respect for them, listening to their suggestions and thoughts, and making them feel valued by the organization,” Wise said.
But even those basics can be tweaked depending on one’s office culture. Take, for example, the issue of motivation.
The Silents have always desired personal acknowledgment and compensation for a job well done, and value tangible symbols of loyalty, commitment, and service, Wise explained. Many have spent their entire careers with one company.
Boomers, on the other hand, are more likely to crave public acknowledgement and career advancement for their accomplishments. They also want to feel like they’re making a difference in their workplace or industry. Gen X, however, represents a shift in priorities from the previous two generations.
“The Gen-Xers are kind of caught in the middle, and really, one of the key motivators for them is that they want more free time,” Wise said. “Instead of climbing up the ladder for more money, they want more flexibility in their work schedule.” They also value autonomy at work, and will trade compensation for independence, schedule flexibility, and time off.
Millennials, like their Boomer parents, also crave public recognition of their achievements, but they’re far more likely to accept that praise as a group, she explained.
“The Baby Boomer wants to be singled out — ‘Joe, you did a wonderful job. Thank you; here’s your reward’ — while Gen-Xers and especially Gen-Ys are more likely to be on teams and are perfectly happy hearing, ‘you guys did great,’” Wise said.

Building an Image
Millennials, however, still battle the perception that they’re entitled to achieve their goals — which bumps up against the reality that many are leaving college unable to procure jobs in their chosen fields (see story, page 26), leading to widespread disillusionment.
“It’s a mentality of, ‘you’ll pay me, then I’ll do this,’” Ascioti said. “Wait a minute here — that’s not the way it works. I offer you a salary, you accept it, and you come in and show me what you can do.”
Setting out unrealistic demands makes it difficult to match career seekers with available jobs, he said.
“I’ve heard this from employers we service and some friends who own businesses — everyone they run into says, ‘you guys must have tons of people’” applying for jobs, Ascioti said.
“Now, we do have a good supply of applicants. But a person comes in, fills out an application, we interview them, go through the whole thing with them — what shift, what area — then we call them at home and say, ‘Jimmy, we have this job at XYZ client; it’s second shift, and it pays X an hour. The company is looking to hire you on a permanent basis; once your contract with us is up, they are looking to hire you.’ And there’s a pause on the phone, and the person says, ‘no, I’ll stay on unemployment.’
“It’s starting to affect our business,” he continued. “People sense that there’s this unending expansion of unemployment. It’s a very interesting phenomenon, and I hear it from a lot of people. You say to them, ‘this may not be perfect right now,’ but they’re waiting for that perfect job.”
In the workplace, however — particularly in a job they find fulfilling — Millennials have also built a reputation for working hard, multitasking effortlessly, and keeping their options open. They crave opportunities to broaden their skills, which managers can use to their mutual advantage, Wise said.
“With Millennials, it’s ‘let’s give you opportunities to train in this area, to send you to this program to enhance your skills and capabilities.’ They’re looking for new opportunities to grow and develop,” she explained.
And, of course, sometimes they don’t have the time or patience to talk about their progress outside of a quick e-mail.
“Baby Boomers want you to sit down and listen to them, to let them expound and give you their thoughts,” Wise said. “They want to have face-to-face conversations, but Gen-Xers and Millennials want to do something quickly. When they want face time, they want it very focused, very quick, and they would just as often have you do it electronically.”
That sometimes makes Baby Boomers, especially those not as savvy with the high-tech world, uncomfortable. “To manage that way can feel very weird and just not as effective for them,” she said.
Which is why that simple question — staff meeting or e-mail? — is actually not that simple at all.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office Sections
Social Media Poses Opportunities and Traps for Employers

Mark Adams

Mark Adams says some companies are starting to realize that barring all social-media use can be counterproductive.

Business owners and managers are increasingly realizing that social media is here to stay, but it’s not easy to craft workplace policies for social networking that are effective and enforceable. The challenges arise in three sticky areas: personal online activity during work time, companies controlling their own Internet presence, and employees badmouthing their employer through social-media channels after work hours. The answers don’t come easy in any of these cases, but popular opinion — and legal precedent — are beginning to crystallize.


As director of HR Services for the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, Mark Adams deals with some 800 area companies. And one aspect of the modern workplace has been particularly confounding for them.
“In some of the discussions I’ve had with companies, when social media comes up, there are some very strong viewpoints on it,” said Adams. “Some say they don’t want it in the workplace at all, that they abhor it in the workplace. They figure it’s a drain on productivity and can create a disturbance.”
But companies that see social media as more of a nuisance than a tool are missing an opportunity, said Christine Pilch Mancini, social media strategist, speaker, and trainer with Grow My Company.
“We’re in a world of emerging technology, and social media is a tool to get work done these days,” she said. “It allows quicker collaboration with other people to solve problems, and it allows people to share ideas.”
But it also poses a conundrum for employers who don’t want their workers distracted by online chatter during work hours — and who, in many cases, have instituted policies curbing its use, or blocked sites like Facebook and Twitter outright.
In the age of Web-enabled smartphones, Pilch said, that’s simply misguided. “Quite frankly, companies that are trying to block social media are sticking their heads in the sand, because every employee is holding the Internet in their pocket.”
So what’s an employer to do?
“Some companies use social media as a positive tool, or they acknowledge its existence and are providing some meaningful use of it,” Adams said. “For example, employees can use it on their own time — break times, what have you. In that respect, it’s akin to what some companies do with e-mail; they’re not going to bar all personal e-mail.”
Pilch Mancini and Adams are hardly alone in their assessment of the social-media paradigm at work; in fact, others go so far as to argue that tweets and status updates actually contribute to a healthy work environment, although most U.S. employers have yet to see it that way.
Socialcast, a microblogging platform, surveyed 1,400 chief information officers at U.S. companies and found that only 10% of those employers allow unlimited social networking on work time. Another 19% allow access for business purposes only, while 54% do not allow employees to use social networks for any reason while at work.
However, according to a University of Melbourne study, employees who engage in ‘workplace Internet leisure browsing’ — such as watching videos and keeping up to date with friends — while at work are 9% more productive than those who don’t.
The reasons touch on the benefits of a satisfied and de-stressed workforce, but Pilch said there are morale issues involved as well. “If you’re blocking social media, you’re telling employees you’re not treating them like adults and respecting them enough to know how to delegate their time and still get their work done.
“This is how people communicate,” she continued. “Employers allow personal phone calls at work. Every child has to be able to talk to their parents; people need to be able to talk to their family members. Husbands and wives communicate on the phone every day.”
Social media, she said, “is another means of communication, and if you slam that shut, employees will default to the other Internet in their pocket. Would you rather someone checked their computer screen once in a while for instant messages, or checked their Facebook or Twitter account, or had their nose in their cellphone all day? Because that’s what you’re going to have” by barring social media at work completely.

Honing the Message
That’s not the only new ground employers are navigating when it comes to social media. Completely different issues swirl about how a company presents itself on social-media platforms, and who controls the message.
“As far as corporate use of it, for marketing purposes, where we see companies getting into problems is consistency of substance and who is going to post things up on a company’s Facebook profile,” Adams said.
“Is it going to be centralized or decentralized? And if it’s going to be decentralized, does the content still have to be vetted, or left up to the individuals? Are there standards on how to craft those messages? There are a lot of companies that craft policies that don’t get into all those details,” he explained, while other businesses might have little if any consistency about how those policies are enforced.
Joshua-Michéle Ross, vice president of consulting firm O’Reilly Radar, writes in Forbes magazine that social media is an opportunity for savvy businesses, but employees shouldn’t be sent in without training.
“Begin from a position of trust,” he writes. “While there are possible negatives involved in having employees on the social Web, most employees have common sense. Begin with a set of possibilities first (increasing awareness, improving customer service, gaining customer insight, and so on), then draw up a list of worst-case scenarios (badmouthing the company, inappropriate language, leaking intellectual property, to name a few).”
Among the guidelines Ross suggests are: listen before jumping into a conversation; be upfront about your relationship to the company; show your personality (“you weren’t hired to be an automaton”); respond to ideas, not people; know your facts and cite sources; own up to mistakes; and never say anything online you wouldn’t say to someone’s face or in the presence of others.
In general, Ross concludes, companies should “encourage employees to use social tools to engage and interact with one another and with customers. In all likelihood they are already using the social Web. The difference is that currently they are using these tools without any guidance.”

Letter of the Law
Often, however, it’s employers who need guidance on social-media use, particularly when the law becomes involved.
“The National Labor Relations Board has said that, when employees converse among one another in a social-media context, that can be protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act,” Adams said. “We’ve seen a number of cases where companies have taken adverse action on people for discussions in a social-media context; that can be unlawful.”
Indeed, the NLRB has dealt with a number of cases over the past year alone in which employees were fired for badmouthing their employers through social-media channels away from work — and has come down fairly consistently in favor of the employee.

Meghan Sullivan

Meghan Sullivan says employers need to tread carefully when crafting a social-media policy and enforce it consistently.

“An employee’s speech is usually protected as long as it’s not publicly disgracing the employer,” said Meghan Sullivan, an attorney with Sullivan, Hayes & Quinn in Springfield. But even that description can be stretched, she said, noting that a recent case involved a worker using some fairly salty language to insult his boss — but, because it was posted in the context of some specific workplace complaints (how the company applies certain tax withholdings), the NLRB determined it to be protected speech.
“Employers definitely need to be careful,” Sullivan said. “The board has been looking very closely at employers’ policies and insisting that they be designed in such a way that they don’t restrict employees from talking with each other about the workplace, or determining whether the policy may be so overly broad that somebody thinks they’re not supposed to talk about the workplace.”
In one example, a hospital established a social-media policy forbidding employees from posting “anything confidential.” The hospital intended only to protect confidential patient data under the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, but employees were confused by the language and thought they couldn’t discuss anything work-related online. “You’ve got to be more specific than that,” Sullivan said.
When a complaint arises from an employee alleging unfair treatment in a social-media situation, she continued, “the first thing the board’s going to look at is your policy, and whether it infringes on employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act to engage in protected speech.”
And if workers are allowed to badmouth their bosses online, it’s even more difficult to regulate employees simply naming or neutrally discussing their employer — although some businesses have tried.
“Some companies I’ve worked with have tried to regulate mentioning the company employees work for on their own personal pages,” Adams said, “but more and more, they’re realizing that they’re hard-pressed to enforce those standards aggressively.
“It’s an area where technology is ahead of what the law cases are,” he added. “Technology is evolving at such an extraordinary pace that we always have to catch up to it.”

Bottom Line
It seems as if social media is here for the long haul, said those we spoke with, and employers are better off understanding its dynamics and channeling their employees’ energies than cutting off something that is becoming as ubiquitous as e-mail.
“If your employees are using Facebook at work, they are also likely checking work e-mail after dinner or at odd hours of the day. Don’t ask them to give up the former if you expect them to continue the latter,” Ross writes. “If you have good performance measurements, playing the ‘lost productivity’ card is a canard.”
Pilch Mancini agrees. “If you really are concerned about social media sapping the productivity of your employees,” she said, “maybe you need to take a good, hard look at who you have working for you. There are plenty of other temptations to take you away from your work, and good employees know how to delegate their time.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]