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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]

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