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Coronavirus Cover Story

Battle Fatigue

Meyers Brothers Kalicka

Employees at Meyers Brothers Kalicka crowd around a food truck offering gourmet grilled cheese, one of many initiatives on the part of the company to help boost morale during the pandemic — and a long, difficult tax season.

The food truck from the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House pulled into the north parking lot of the PeoplesBank building in Holyoke around 2 p.m. on Oct. 15.

By 2:30, a large number of employees from the accounting and tax-planning firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka had gathered to enjoy gourmet grilled cheese, tomato soup, hard cider, and some pumpkin beers, and to play a little cornhole.

The occasion? The last day of filing for those who sought extensions on their tax returns, and thus another milestone during what has been labeled by those in the accounting realm as the ‘never-ending tax season of 2020.’

But in many ways, the grilled cheese, trimmings, and camaraderie were part of what has become a multi-pronged effort at MBK to help employees cope with all the stress and strain — the battle fatigue, if you will — of what has been the most trying year anyone can remember.

And the company is certainly not alone in this mindset.

Indeed, businesses and nonprofits large and small have been addressing this matter of fatigue and helping employees cope with stress in ways that range from loosened dress codes to those food trucks; from pumpkin-decorating competitions to the ‘concert T-shirt day’ — no explanation needed — staged by MBK.

“There’s a lot of stress, and initially, people were trying to do everything and be 100% in everything, and I think most are now acknowledging that this is not realistic or sustainable.”

Overall, business owners and managers are recognizing that their valued employees — the ones who remain after many others have been furloughed or laid off — are tired, worried about the future, ‘Zoomed out’ (another phrase you hear a lot these days), unable or unwilling to take paid time off, and unable or unwilling to leave work behind when they leave work — whether they’re at the office or at home, said Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE).

And they’re responding, as she is responding herself (EANE has 22 people on its payroll), with policies, formal and informal, and action plans focused on providing some stress relief and perhaps a sense of normalcy in a year when some companies and agencies are offering ‘mental-health days’ in the office instead of at home.

“Our team is feeling it,” said Wise, using ‘it’ to refer to the sum of the stress incurred at work and at home. “We’re having a difficult year here, and everyone is pushing for the numbers and pushing for the registrations and pushing to connect with our members and provide the best service. And then, at home, it’s not like they’re going home and then relaxing and getting away from the pressures and having time to rest and refuel. They’re going home, whether they’re working remotely or working at the office, and they’ve got all the stuff in their personal life.”

Elaborating, she said this collective ‘stuff’ constitutes everything from fear of contracting the virus to negativity on the nightly news, to the inability to do the things they want to do and go to places they want to go.

Add it all up, and it’s exhausting and often overwhelming, she said, adding that, as an employer, she considers it her responsibility to help valued employees cope with all this.

Amy Roberts, senior vice president and chief Human Resources officer at PeoplesBank, agreed. She told BusinessWest that the focus for businesses over the past few months has shifted from dealing with an emergency — getting everyone home and making sure they’re safe — and setting up people to work from home if needed, to coping with this fatigue that has settled in.

MP CPAs in Springfield

The dress code has been thrown away at MP CPAs in Springfield, one of many steps taken to help employees feel more comfortable in the office during these uncertain times.

“One of the things we’ve tried to do through the whole situation is be flexible and creative in working with each person as their own needs evolve,” she explained. “You have parents who have kids in school or at home, or a combination of both, and then you have employees with significant others who are exposed or working in situations that put them in potential harm. There’s a lot of stress, and initially, people were trying to do everything and be 100% in everything, and I think most are now acknowledging that this is not realistic or sustainable.”

“We don’t meet with people in the office generally — we’ve closed our doors. So as long as you’re looking good from the waist up on Zoom meetings, it doesn’t really matter what else you’re wearing.”

As companies continue to find ways to assist employees, they acknowledge that, as the pandemic continues, fall turns to winter, the holidays and all the additional stress they bring on approach, and the days get shorter and darker, these efforts will have to continue and probably expand.

 

Forever in Blue Jeans

Doug Theobald says MP CPAs, the Springfield-based accounting firm, has long had a casual-Friday policy, and it has become quite popular.

These days, though, every day is casual as the company tries to make employees feel happier and more comfortable during this stressful time. And allow them to dress like their colleagues, who are working at home.

“We’ve thrown our dress code out — people have been in shorts and sweats since we came back in May,” Theobald, a principal and president of the company, explained. “We’ve always been business casual, and one of my biggest concerns was that people would be nervous coming back to the office; we wanted to make it as comfortable an environment as possible. We don’t meet with people in the office generally — we’ve closed our doors. So as long as you’re looking good from the waist up on Zoom meetings, it doesn’t really matter what else you’re wearing.

“That’s probably been the most beneficial thing we’ve done,” he went on. “If we get back to a new normal at some point, that might be my biggest hurdle — putting business casual back in place once client meetings start again.”

Meagan Tetreault, standing outside Big Y

Meagan Tetreault, standing outside Big Y’s West Springfield store, says the company has taken an individualized approach to helping its thousands of employees cope with the stress and strain of the pandemic.

In some ways, this new dress code, or lack of one, is merely an extension of strategies put in place before the pandemic, aimed at creating a more appealing workplace at a time when attracting and retaining employees, especially in this sector, was becoming increasingly difficult as the job market tightened.

But it’s also part of a broad effort to help employees cope with all that 2020 is throwing at them, including that never-ending tax season, which will soon give way to the next tax season.

“My team is wiped,” Theobald said on Oct. 15 — again, the last day for those who sought extensions, and there were many in that category this year. “They work hard, and we are the one firm in this area that has a really, really busy fall season; it’s almost busier than April.”

He was planning to close the office down for a few days and give his team a break, another attempt to help them get rest and recreation in a year when there has been much less of both.

“There’s so much stress going on in this world right now, we’re just trying to make it as stress-free in the office as we can,” Theobold went on, noting that efforts ranging from the new dress code to flexible hours; from bringing food into the office more often (even if people can’t eat together) to delivering care packages (mostly snacks) to those working remotely, are efforts that will have to continue as the pandemic wears on.

“A lot of places are scaling back on these kinds of things for various reasons, and I don’t think it’s the time to do that. I think it’s time to put a little more gas on the fire because you don’t want to lose engagement or enthusiasm with your organization.”

Wise agreed, noting that, between work and home, many employees simply don’t seem to be able to get a break from the pressure and stress.

This leads to lack of sleep and even more mental and physical fatigue, she said, adding that matters are compounded by the fact that traditional vacations have become far more difficult to undertake. Indeed, trips to Disney World, cruises to Europe, weeks on the Cape, and even visits to relatives in other states have become daunting, if not impossible, because of the pandemic.

As a result, people are vacationing at home, which is good for the region and its tourism venues — the ones that are open, anyway; Six Flags, the Big E, and many others have not been — but the time off is, in many cases, not as relaxing and therapeutic. Meanwhile, with technology and the pandemic both being what they are, time off is usually not time off from many work stresses.

As a result, Wise and others in positions of leadership are strongly encouraging employees to completely unplug when they are taking a day or a week off.

“We try to encourage people to take their time off and to completely disconnect from the office,” she said. “We’re requiring people, when they’re taking a day off or a half-day off or a week off, to put an ‘out-of-office’ message on all of their devices. And that message should say that they will not be responding to e-mails. I don’t necessarily want to cut off people’s access, but we’re saying, ‘put that out-of-office message on, and don’t respond to anything.’ I can’t stop you from checking, but don’t respond.”

Roberts agreed, and said PeoplesBank has been pushing its workers to use their paid time off.

“When there’s nowhere to go, people are inclined to say, ‘I’ll just work,’” she said. “But over the summer, we were encouraging, and in some ways pushing, people to just take a staycation and unplug from work.”

 

Stressing Some Points

Roberts told BusinessWest it was only a few months into the pandemic when upper management at PeoplesBank recognized that fatigue was becoming an issue and needed to be addressed.

“We’ve had some pretty deliberate management conversations where our president, Tom Senecal, has said to team managers, ‘make sure you’re paying attention to the fatigue factor and that you’re communicating with people in a way that they know you understand that this is a very unique and evolving situation.’

“While we want obviously to meet the needs of the customers and do everything we need to do as a business, we recognize that there’s another side to this,” she went on. “Just acknowledging this and having that conversation with managers gives them that awareness and pushes them in a direction where they’re taking a more flexible approach with their people.”

Meagan Tetreault, senior Employee Services field manager for Big Y Foods, agreed. She told BusinessWest that, as an essential retail business, the company has obviously been open for customers and focused on their safety. But it has been focused on employees and their various needs as well — everything from steps taken to keep them safe to flexibility with schedules to enable them to successfully balance work and life.

“Our first priority was making sure we’re putting in place different protocols to make sure that the environment is as safe and secure as possible — from sanitizing and cleaning to plastic barriers to maintaining that social distance,” she explained. “And at certain points, we limited our staff to maintain that social distancing; in retail, it’s natural that you have to have that interaction with the public, and that can be scary. How do you support them through that? It starts with safety and wellness, and promoting that wellness.”

But, as noted, support has come in many different forms, she noted, including efforts to help the company’s 12,000 employees manage the pandemic. And as she talked about it, Tetreault stressed the need to address each employee individually and, when possible, customize a response.

“We found that it comes down to each individual employee’s needs and wants, and our store teams are a big part of that,” she said. “Our employee-services representatives are in each store to assist with employee needs, identifying opportunities and having some of those individual conversations to find out what works for that particular individual.”

Elaborating, she said the company amended its attendance policies; established something called ‘COVID leave,’ which enabled employees to take time off without losing their status; and created more flexibility for workers.

“Our store hours are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., but we have people who come in and work overnight shifts as well,” she explained. “And we’re able to work with employees to find a schedule and position them to support their individual needs, be it childcare or even wishing to limit contact with customers.”

 

COVID Coping

Overall, while morale is an issue some companies address at least some of the time, it has become more of a front-burner topic during the pandemic, out of necessity, said those we spoke with.

“We’re seeing morale dip a bit; people are trying to put a good face on it, but it’s becoming harder and harder to do that,” Wise told BusinessWest. “So we’re trying to find things we can be doing to raise morale.”

Such efforts include e-mails on Wednesday reminding people that they can almost see Friday, and other e-mails on Friday telling people to turn their computers off at 4:30, go home, and not think about work over the weekend, or even watch the news.

PeoplesBank conducted its annual Employee Fest this year, but it was decidedly different, with many of the activities carried out remotely.

PeoplesBank conducted its annual Employee Fest this year, but it was decidedly different, with many of the activities carried out remotely.

Region-wide, morale-building efforts run the gamut from food and games to team-building exercises, either in person or the remote variety.

At PeoplesBank, the week-long event known as Employee Fest was staged as always, but it did look and feel different, said Roberts, noting that many activities were carried out remotely, with gifts delivered to all employees, whether they were working at the office, in one of the branches, or remotely.

At MBK, morale-building has been a year-long priority, said Sarah Rose Stack, Marketing & Recruiting manager, adding that it comes in several forms, from so-called social-media holidays, where people post pictures of pets, children, or travel destinations; to the concert T-shirt day, flip-flops day, and alma-mater day; to food trucks, which have come on several occasions.

The company has traditionally done such things, and it has long had what’s been called the ‘Fun Committee,’ which arranged an axe-throwing competition and visit to a brewery last year, for example. This year, the activities are different, but there are more of them, with good reason.

“A lot of places are scaling back on these kinds of things for various reasons, and I don’t think it’s the time to do that,” she noted. “I think it’s time to put a little more gas on the fire because you don’t want to lose engagement or enthusiasm with your organization.”

Many of the initiatives at MBK and elsewhere fall into the broad category of connectivity, an important ingredient for success at any business, and something that’s been lacking due to the pandemic.

Monica Borgatti, chief operating officer for the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, said the small staff of three full-time and three part-time employees has mostly been working remotely since March. That means no water-cooler talk — literally, anyway, she said, adding that the nonprofit has tried to incorporate those types of discussions into the regular Zoom meetings in an effort to help people connect in ways beyond what they’re doing for work every day.

“We always, always make sure to start those weekly meetings with a virtual water cooler,” she told BusinessWest. “Everyone takes turns sharing something, whether it’s an article they’ve come across over the past week or something personal — they got a new dog and they want to show off the pictures, or some household project that they’ve finally completed.

“We make sure to create time for that at all those staff meetings, so we’re connecting with each other as people and not just as co-workers,” she went on, adding that the agency also allows for very flexible schedules and encourages employees to stop and step away from their work when they need to, and not stare at a computer screen for hours on end.

At MBK, one of the partners, Jim Krupienski, stages a monthly check-in social, Stack said, during which the company has a cocktail hour of sorts where those working from home can join in remotely. “It’s just really to check in and talk about anything other than work,” she noted. “It’s a mental-health check-in with adult beverages.”

Scanning the landscape, Wise believes many companies are struggling in their efforts to maintain morale among their employees. It’s easier for a smaller business to undertake initiatives in this regard than those with several hundred employees, she noted, but most are trying to do something.

It might be a food truck or two coming to the parking lot — even sharing a large pizza box can be risky during a pandemic — or more communication from the C-suite, she said, adding that there is more ‘management by walking around’ in this environment, or at least there should be.

Meanwhile, employers are pushing people to take time off and providing more one-on-one employee counseling, duties now falling in many cases to human-resources professionals, especially at smaller companies that do not have employee-assistance programs.

“They’ve had to put on their social work, psychologist’s hat,” she noted. “And it’s not something that they’re used to. But some employees just need to vent; they’re saying, ‘I don’t know what to do or where to go.’”

 

Bottom Line

While no one really knows when the pandemic will subside and something approaching normal returns to the workplaces of Western Mass., what most business owners and managers do know is that their valued employees will need some help getting to that point.

At a time when most e-mail messages end with the message ‘stay safe and stay sane,’ or words to that effect, achieving those goals has been anything but easy.

Addressing this battle fatigue has become an important, and ongoing, assignment for many businesses, and the smart ones understand that the fight is far from over, and they need to keep finding ways to be attentive and creative — and even fun.

 

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

Construction Special Coverage

Constructing a New Way Forward

By Mark Morris

Essential.

Brightwood-Lincoln Elementary School

Brightwood-Lincoln Elementary School is an $82 million project currently being built by Daniel O’Connell’s Sons.

That one word made all the difference for the construction industry as most sectors of the economy shut down, except for a handful deemed ‘essential’ by the state, construction among them, and thus able to continue working.

But to do that work, they had to quickly adjust to a new reality, as construction managers adopted new guidelines and procedures to prevent workers from catching the virus on the job site.

“At that time, building the project became secondary,” said Joe Imelio, project executive for Daniel O’Connell’s Sons. “The first item on our list was the health and well-being of everyone on the job.”

On March 25, Gov. Charlie Baker issued an order outlining COVID-19 guidelines and procedures for donstruction sites. In addition to reinforcing CDC guidelines on frequent handwashing, wearing face masks, and maintaining social distancing, the guidelines detailed specific procedures for construction sites.

In addition to providing workers with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks and face shields when social distancing is impossible, the mandate also imposed a “100% glove policy” while on the job site.

Another guideline emphasized zero tolerance for sick workers on the job. The guidelines stated in all caps: “IF YOU ARE SICK, STAY HOME!” Every day, each person reporting to work is expected to self-certify their health status by completing a brief questionnaire to confirm they are healthy enough to work for that day. If the construction work is inside, known as a “closed building envelope,” a medical professional must take everyone’s temperature before they can enter the building.

BusinessWest spoke with several construction managers about the adjustments they have made to maintain a safe environment for workers and keep their projects moving.

David Fontaine Jr., vice president of Fontaine Brothers, said he began preparing pandemic protocols in February, before the guidelines were established, to make sure his company could continue to operate safely.

Joe Imelio

Joe Imelio

“At that time, building the project became secondary. The first item on our list was the health and well-being of everyone on the job.”

“In our industry, many of the products in the supply chain come from overseas, so we saw ripples of this a little earlier than others,” he noted.

In early February, Nate Clinard, vice president of safety for Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, began purchasing more PPE than the normal stock, as well as hand sanitizer and disposable rags and towels. He also tried to buy hand-washing stations for outdoor job sites, which were selling fast.

“Because they were difficult to get from vendors and suppliers, we built our own portable wash stations,” he said.

But, despite the hurdles, at least firms were working, and continue to work, although the long-term economic impact from the pandemic and the shutdown — and what that means for the volume of projects contractors will compete for down the line — remains to be seen.

Starts and Stops

Within some niches, the pandemic offered opportunity. For example, in mid-March, as much of the state began shutting down, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT) accelerated its scheduled projects for the roadwork season that was about to begin in a few weeks.

Janet Callahan, president of Palmer Paving, which has many DOT contracts, said her crews would normally work on large road projects at night when traffic is lighter. As stay-at-home orders resulted in empty roads across the state, the DOT allowed paving crews to switch to daytime construction.

“For the same number of hours, we are able to work safer and more efficiently,” Callahan said. “You just get more done in daylight.” She noted that daytime paving is a big reason DOT projects across the state are 25% ahead of schedule.

Other construction managers saw several projects delayed at the outset of the coronavirus. Stephen Killian, director of New England Operations for Barr and Barr, said a number of his company’s projects were pushed back by as much as 12 weeks.

“Our people worked on the jobs as best as they could remotely, but if you can’t put it in the ground, you’re not moving the project forward.”

Killian added that, even when projects begin again, it’s not as simple as bringing all the workers back and resuming the job. Among the governor’s guidelines is a mandate that construction managers devote one day as a “safety stand down” to make sure everyone understands the new protocols. Combined with CDC guidelines restricting meetings of no more than 10 people, restarting a job can become a logistical challenge.

David Fontaine Jr.

David Fontaine Jr.

“In our industry, many of the products in the supply chain come from overseas, so we saw ripples of this a little earlier than others.”

“If you have 130 people on a job site, the ramp-up is slow because everyone needs to have the stand-down meeting to understand their responsibilities,” Killian said. “Doing that for all 130 workers in one day isn’t possible now because you can’t meet in groups larger than 10 people.”

One concern cited by several managers involves the uncertainty and anxiety about a virus that everyone is still trying to understand.

“Everyone seems rattled, and tempers are shorter because people constantly feel under pressure,” said John Rahkonen, owner of Northern Construction Services.

Callahan agreed. “Managing people’s anxiety and insecurity is something we work on every day, even before workers start their shifts.”

To try to ease some of the anxiety, Clinard and his staff made themselves available at all the company’s job sites to answer questions and listen to concerns.

“Early on, a lot of people just needed to talk,” he said. “We were there to help educate and provide an ear for them.”

As the owner of his company, Rahkonen said he feels a real responsibility to his employees. He described the decision to continue working during the pandemic as a scary one.

“There were a lot of people who thought we should shut down, but I don’t think that would have been beneficial to the families of our workers,” he said. “So far, knock on wood, we’ve been right.”

Trial and Error

As might be expected, suddenly adapting to new protocols is a process of trial and error. Killian noted a problem with getting accurate temperature readings back in March when it was still cold outside. “People were running temperatures of about 86 to 90 degrees because they were walking to the site after they parked their cars.”

To get more accurate readings, Killian said they changed the protocol to a drive-up system where everyone’s temperature is taken while still in their vehicles.

On face masks, Killian said his safety director found a contradiction in the state regulations. Guidelines for the construction industry say masks must be worn when social distancing is not possible. The regulation that covers all businesses, however, says face coverings must be worn by all workers. While Killian supports wearing masks near other workers, requiring masks at all times may cause problems. He’s concerned about worker fatigue and potential health issues on those summer days when 90-degree temperatures are common.

“We have to be mindful that the average age of the tradesmen and construction workforce is over 45 years old,” he said, adding that he has reached out to state officials seeking clarification on the requirement.

Palmer Paving crews

As more people stayed home and off the roads, Palmer Paving crews switched to daytime work.

Clinard said his job sites are using technology to make the daily self-certifying questionnaire work better. By assigning a QR code to each project, workers simply hold their phone cameras to the code to launch the questionnaire. Once completed, the information is loaded to a master document for that project.

“This gives us a real-time read of who’s on site and that they are healthy,” Clinard said.
“If any responses to the questionnaire suggest issues with that person’s health, they are not allowed on the job site that day.”

Requiring people who aren’t feeling well to stay home contributes to what Imelio called a “culture change in the construction industry,” adding that, “for many of the workers, if they stay home when they’re sick, they don’t get paid.”

On the flip side, Killian said many healthy workers who would normally be on the job are instead filing for unemployment out of a concern they may bring the virus home. “Unfortunately, that affects the daily number of men and women on site. Even the union halls are having a difficult time getting additional staff.”

Several managers addressed the real costs that come with COVID-19 mandates that didn’t exist a few months ago. Fontaine said his company’s staff is able to address many of the requirements but not all of them.

“There are definitely additional costs associated with COVID, such as the increase in labor to sanitize the site and bringing in medical professionals for temperature screening,” he noted.

Killian said building owners have agreed to pay for many of these extra costs, but they’re not happy about it because it’s an added expense they could not have anticipated when budgeting the project.

Factoring in all the added expense from the COVID-19 protocols creates another challenge when bidding on future projects as well. “If you bid on a job and put the cost of all the mandates in your bid, you may not be competitive,” Killian said.

In recent meetings on future projects, Imelio said he was asked about the impact of COVID-19 going forward. “It’s like asking, ‘what do you think interest rates will be in a year?’”

Fontaine’s company is currently building South High Community School, a $200 million project he described as the largest public project in the history of Worcester. He’s concerned that projects like these, which depend on tax revenue from state and federal sources, will be hit hard in the future. In the past, the company has adjusted by taking on more private construction when public projects slow down.

“The biggest question for us is how will COVID affect the 2021 and 2022 workload,” Fontaine said. “We may have to refocus our project mix for a couple years if we go through another significant downturn.”

Hit the Road

If nothing else, Callahan said, the pandemic is a reminder of the important role infrastructure plays in the region’s safety and economy. “Essential service providers such as hospital workers, firefighters, power-company crews, and delivery people all depend on our road system to get to their jobs and to help people.”

Despite the extra steps to start each day, all the managers said they are adapting to the new requirements. The trick now is to stay diligent.

“Our processes are in place, and they work well for the personal protection of all our employees,” Imelio said. “It’s different than the old way of doing business, but we’re making progress.”

“Managing people’s anxiety and insecurity is something we work on every day, even before workers start their shifts.”

Even though their work is outdoors, Callahan said it’s important for her crews to remain diligent. “It would take only one person to affect the jobs of 25 people, and that’s only one crew. We’ve made it clear to our staff, there is no relief from these guidelines.”

Strict compliance is worth it, she went on, because it gives her company the opportunity to repair roads for the DOT and municipalities around the state.

“We are so grateful to be working and employing people,” she said. “We are not part of the 41 million people who have suffered a job loss during the pandemic.”

Fontaine said his workers have had a great attitude during a time of difficult adjustments.

“Being in an essential industry, you know it’s important to be cognizant of your safety and the safety of those around you,” he told BusinessWest, “and you know it’s important to keep moving forward.”

Employment

Chop of Their Game

Members of Tru by Hilton’s ‘Team Awesome’ celebrate tying for the win in the cooking competition.

Eighteen employees from four different area hotels competed last month in a friendly, Chopped-style culinary competition at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute designed to enhance their professional development.

The participants, all management-level employees from the BK Investment Hotel Group, took part in a new one-day, four-hour program called “Team Building Through Culinary,” offered by Training and Workforce Options (TWO), a collaboration between Springfield Technical Community College and Holyoke Community College.

From the program’s customizable menu of options, the company chose “Sliced,” a culinary training exercise modeled after Chopped, one of the Food Network’s popular competitive-cooking shows. The training was led by chef and HCC Culinary Arts Instructor Tracy Carter, whose professional experience includes working at the Food Network, where she prepared the ingredient baskets for Chopped.

“The cooking sessions at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute are designed to help employees who work closely together improve their communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills, while enhancing team cohesiveness and highlighting individual talents.”

“The cooking sessions at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute are designed to help employees who work closely together improve their communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills, while enhancing team cohesiveness and highlighting individual talents,” said Tracye Whitfield, TWO’s director of Business Development. “TWO’s mission is to provide area companies customizable training progams for their employees’ professional growth.”

The Oct. 17 program included management teams from four of the BK group’s properties — Hampton Inn by Hilton, Residence Inn by Marriott, and Tru by Hilton, all in Chicopee, and Holiday Inn Express in Brattleboro, Vt. — who learned cooking techniques while competing against each other in one of the culinary institute’s teaching kitchens.

Under the direction of Carter, each of the four teams worked together to create a meal using a basket of pre-selected, mandatory ingredients, which in this case included chicken, brussels sprouts, mozzarella cheese, and guava paste, along with other items they could find in the kitchen’s pantries and refrigerators.

After the cooking was done, the participants sat down together to dine, sample each other’s creations, and vote for the team whose food they liked best. Two teams tied for the win: Hampton Inn by Hilton, wearing blue aprons and self-proclaimed “Team Awesome,” and Tru by Hilton, wearing yellow.

“We had a lot of fun,” said Sandra Reed Hofstetter, BK’s regional director of Operations. “Many thanks to Chef Tracy and the TWO team for the warm welcome and attention to detail.”

Workforce Development

The Power of Pause

As was made clear in the first three installments of BusinessWest’s ‘Future Tense’ series, handling the incredibly fast pace of change while also trying to look around the corner to see what the future might bring is not only difficult but extremely stressful. And the present is no bargain, either. In response, major corporations and small businesses across the country and around the world are increasingly looking at mindfulness as a way to help employees focus their attention and stay in the moment, as attendees learned in the most recent lecture

Moira Garvey says that when a computer isn’t behaving properly — probably because it’s doing too many things at once or can’t sort out everything it’s being asked to do — its operator will reset, or reboot, that piece of equipment.

And, usually, that works; the computer functions much better than it did before.

What many people are now realizing — and more need to realize — is that they, too, need to reboot on a regular basis, and for the same reason the computer usually does: We’re trying to do too much, we can’t sort it all out, and because of that, we’re not operating as efficiently as we can.

Just like a computer, we need to reset, we need to reboot,” said Garvey, senior consultant and facilitator for the Potential Project, a global leader in providing customized, organizational effectiveness programs based on mindfulness.

Moira Garvey

Moira Garvey

“Just like a computer, we need to reset, we need to reboot.”

Garvey was joined at the podium recently by Susan O’Connor, Esq. vice president and general counsel for Health New England, as they presented the final installment (for 2018, anyway) of BusinessWest’s Future Tense series.

In the first three programs, presented by Paragus Strategic IT, The Jamrog Group, and Meyers Brothers Kalicka, respectively, presenters talked about the quickening pace of change, the challenges of predicting what will come next, and the clear need to be proactive when it comes to anticipating what might lie around the next curve and being fully prepared for it.

In the final lecture, Garvey and O’Connor talked about what all this rapid change, unpredictability, and need to be prepared is doing to people — it’s stressing them out. And it’s not just the future that’s doing this, it’s the present as well. And it’s not just work. It’s also life — family, bills, difficult conversations, health concerns … the list goes on, and on, and on.

Add it all up, said Garvey, and people can really only focus about 53% of their mind on what they’re doing at a given moment, and in most all cases, that’s not enough (we’ll elaborate on this later).

The answer to improving that number, for a growing number of companies and the individuals they employ, is mindfulness, loosely defined as paying attention to the present moment in an accepting, non-judgmental way. It’s meditation designed to help a wandering mind — and all minds are wandering these days — come back, and stay focused on the present moment. It also gives people the tools needed to be less stressed and more calm.

The list of companies incorporating mindfulness programs continues to grow and now includes virtually every sector of the economy and the likes of Google, Microsoft, Accenture, Sony, Aetna, Airbus, Heineken, Marriott, Cisco, American Express, and countless others.

Why? Garvey sums it up quickly and effectively by citing the title of Thomas Davenport’s book — The Attention Economy — and the phrase that sums it all up: “Understanding and managing attention is now the single most important determinant of business success.”

Recognizing this, Health New England recently added its name to the list of companies involving employees in mindfulness programs, said O’Connor, adding that in the four years since HNE started down this road, it has seen real results when it comes to stress reduction and getting people to better focus on what’s right in front of them instead of everything else.

Jody Gross, HNE’s interim president and CEO, agreed.

“The health insurance industry is not unique in facing the challenges of constant change and uncertainty; our fast-paced lives at home and at work mean associates are continually pushing themselves to do more, to achieve more, and to do everything faster,” he said. “Technology and instant access results in a 24/7 schedule, and creates a fragmented, over-stressed, and hectic way of life. As Health New England looked for ways to reduce stress and build mental resiliency for our workforce, we understood it was critical to go beyond encouraging physical fitness. 

“We needed to invest in improving the health and well-being of the whole person,” he went on. “One way to stay centered and focused is to commit to the practice of mindfulness.”

For the issue its focus on professional development, BusnessWest talked with Garvey and O’Connor about the emergence of mindfulness and how companies are using it to help employees combat all the stress in their lives and stay in the moment.

An Attention Getter

As they addressed the audience gathered for the Future Tense lecture at Tech Foundry, Garvey and O’Connor set the tone for the discussion by putting up a PowerPoint slide with a map of the country. By clicking on a state, one could discern its ‘most googled healthcare problem in 2018.’

Clicking on Utah, for example, which owns the nation’s highest pregnancy rate, ‘morning sickness’ comes up.

Maneuvering over Massachusetts, O’Connor clicked her mouse, and the word ‘stress’ appeared in all capital letters in a red starburst, as if any additional emphasis was needed.

And while Bay State residents do indeed have a lot of stress, the condition knows no boundaries, said Garvey, adding that there are certainly lots of reasons for it. Advancing technology is part of it, as is the overall pace of change. But mostly, it’s about handling all that work and life are throwing at people, she noted.

Susan O’Connor

Susan O’Connor

“We turned to mindfulness to help employees remain resilient in the face the growing amounts of stress they face.”

And, like a computer, people on overload need to reset, or reboot, she said. “To speed things up, often you need to first slow down,” she said, referring to mindfulness or what she calls ‘the power of the pause.’

As we explain how it works, we need to go back to that number 53%. As Garvey explained, that’s how much of one’s mind is ‘on task,’ as she put it. The other 47% is off task, meaning it’s focused on everything but the task.

That means that, typically, people have a 47% ‘attention deficit trait,’ as it’s called. And to illustrate, Garvey offered an example everyone can relate to: “You pick up the phone to make an appointment … you get distracted, look at some e-mails or some texts … your mind starts to wander, and you wind up never making the appointment.”

To get more of the mind on task, people need to pause and reset, said Garvey, adding that this is mindfulness, or what she and others in this emerging field call “attention training.”

These are daily exercises — 10 minutes in length is the average — during which practitioners use meditation to keep their mind from wandering, she said, and bring it back to the present moment.

Because of its ability to help people focus, be less distracted by everything else around them, and, in the end, more productive, the business community has embraced mindfulness, said Garvey, noting that today, more than 450 major corporations and more than 100,000 employees are actively involved in mindfulness programs.

As for HNE, it started what O’Connor called a “mindfulness journey” roughly four years ago.

“We turned to mindfulness to help employees remain resilient in the face the growing amounts of stress they face,” she said, adding that mindfulness is now part of the business strategy for the company, the largest health plan based in Western Massachusetts.

Elaborating, she said that HNE introduced Potential Project’s Mindful Leadership program to its leadership team, a group of about 30 people. They took in part in a three-month pilot program involving 10-minute daily mindfulness sessions.

The results, studied by researchers from the National University of Singapore, are striking. They show a 31% increase in overall job performance, a 17% reduction in work/family conflict, a 37% reduction in “emotional exhaustion,” a dramatic, 52% drop in negative moods, and a 9% increase in attention, to 62% instead of the aforementioned 53%.

Summing it all up, she said the programs, now being used by a growing number of employees at the company, are helping these individuals “rewire” their brains to be less reactive to all that’s going around them and for them to respond more thoughtfully to the specific moment.

Gross agreed.

“Our mindfulness programs teach people to learn how to respond to the complexities and pressures of the workplace,” he told BusinessWest. “Our results have been excellent, and associates report improvements in how they approach uncertainty, have deeper concentration and an increased sense of satisfaction in and out of work.”

Mind Over Matters

Returning to that loose comparison between people and computers, Garvey said, “the expectation is that we’re always on. Well, machines can do that, but people cannot; we can’t always be on.”

But the truth is, we try to be, and that’s why the reset, the reboot, is needed.

Recognition of this has made mindfulness top of mind for a growing number of companies large and small, and most all of them are seeing real results in terms of stress reduction and improved productivity.

Practitioners with a lot on their mind are able to speed up by slowing down and dealing with the moment — just that moment.

This is the power of the pause.

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

Law

A Clear Roadmap

By Kimberly A. Klimczuk

Kimberly A. Klimczuk

Kimberly A. Klimczuk

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is a federal law that protects employees’ right to engage in concerted activity. Although the NLRA is commonly thought of as protecting employees’ right to form a labor union, which it does, it also protects the right to engage in other concerted activities that may have nothing to do with unions. ‘Concerted activity’ is a broad term and refers to any action employees take together for their mutual aid and protection, such as when two employees go together to HR to complain about their supervisor, or when an individual employee speaks on behalf of himself and his coworkers to demand they all get a raise. The NLRA applies to all employers, whether unionized or not.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is the federal agency responsible for enforcing the NLRA. It has long held that employer policies or rules that interfere with the right to engage in concerted activity violate the NLRA. In 2004, however, the board, in its Lutheran Heritage decision, expanded the NLRA’s protections by ruling that work rules not intended or used to target concerted activity would nevertheless be unlawful if an employee could “reasonably construe” the rule to prohibit concerted activity.

Under the Obama administration, the board relied on the ‘reasonably construe’ standard to declare unlawful a number of commonplace rules. For example, the NLRB found that policies asking employees to refrain from negative comments about co-workers and managers and asking employees to represent the company in the community in a positive and professional manner were unlawful because employees could interpret the policies to restrict their rights to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment. At the same time, the board held similar rules to be lawful, such as a rule prohibiting “disloyal, disruptive, competitive, or damaging conduct.”

These decisions created confusion for employers. Without a clear standard as to when a rule would be considered legal, employers wondered whether common-sense rules that had long been part of company culture would be declared illegal by the NLRB.

NLRB members are appointed by the president, and, unsurprisingly, the members appointed by President Trump have been friendlier to employers. Late last year, the NLRB issued a decision (The Boeing Company, 365 NLRB No. 154) that established a new standard for evaluating the legality of employer rules. Under this new standard, the board will weigh the interests of the employer in maintaining work rules against the impact of those rules on employees’ right to engage in concerted activity.

In its decision, the board noted that, “over the past decade and one-half, the board has invalidated a large number of common-sense rules and requirements that most people would reasonably expect every employer to maintain.”

The board’s general counsel also issued a memorandum this past June that provides further guidance to employers on how handbook rules should be interpreted under the new standard. The general counsel instructed that the board’s regional directors and other officers should not be interpreting general work rules “as banning all activity that could conceivably be included.” He then went on to group common handbook policies into three categories:

1. Rules That Are Generally Lawful to Maintain

• Civility rules;

• Rules prohibiting photography or recording;

• Insubordination, non-cooperation, and refusal-to-cooperate rules;

• Disruptive-behavior rules;

• Rules protecting disclosure of confidential, proprietary, and customer information (as long as they don’t reference wage or employee information);

• Rules against defamation or misrepresentation;

• Rules prohibiting use of employer’s logos or intellectual property;

• Rules requiring authorization to speak on behalf of the company; and

• Rules banning disloyalty, nepotism, or self-enrichment.

2. Rules That Warrant Individual Scrutiny

These rules are not clearly lawful or unlawful. Instead, the lawfulness of these types of rules must be determined on a case-by-case basis:

• Broad conflict-of-interest rules;

• Confidentiality rules that encompass ‘employer business’ or employee information;

• Rules preventing disparagement of the employer;

• Rules prohibiting or regulating use of the employer’s name (as opposed to employer’s logo or trademark);

• Rules restricting employees from generally speaking to the media;

• Rules banning off-duty conduct that would harm the employer; and

• Rules prohibiting making false statements (as opposed to defamation).

3. Rules That Are Unlawful to Have

• Confidentiality rules regarding wages, benefits, or working conditions; and

• Rules that prohibit joining outside organizations or that require employees to refrain from voting on matters concerning the employer.

Bottom Line

The memo is good news for employers because it provides a clear roadmap to evaluate the legality of employer handbook rules and reverts to a more common-sense standard. It also declares several policies lawful that had been declared unlawful by the prior board.

Employers that shied away from enacting handbook policies like no camera recording or respect/civility rules, or changed handbook policies to ensure compliance with the Obama board’s crackdown, may want to revisit those decisions.

Kimberly Klimczuk is a partner with Springfield-based Skoler Abbott. An employment-law attorney, she specializes in labor relations and collective bargaining; employment litigation; employee handbooks, personnel policies, and practices; and other labor and employment matters; [email protected]; (413) 737-4753.