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The Great Return

Chris Viale, president and CEO of Cambridge Credit Counseling

Chris Viale, president and CEO of Cambridge Credit Counseling

Over the past year or so, most companies have set — and then pushed back — the date when workers would return to the offices they left when COVID-19 arrived in March 2020. Now, such a return seems more real. But what’s also real is a commitment to flexibility among area employers, who recognize not only that employees can work effectively from home, but that hybrid, or fully remote, work schedules are becoming ever-more critical when it comes to attracting and retaining a workforce.

There was the Great Depression. And 75 years later, there was the Great Recession. We’re still struggling with what’s being called the Great Resignation, and now … we have what some are referring to as the Great Return.

This would be the return to the office of all those workers — tens of millions of them — who went home to work right around this time two years ago. Some have already returned, but many haven’t. There have been several scheduled returns over the past two years — indeed, most major corporations have moved back their return dates several times due to surges and new variants — but this time, by most all accounts, it seems real. Very real.

And it also seems complicated, or at least far different than most would have thought a return would look like two years ago.

That’s because the world of work has changed in a profound way, with the matter put in its proper perspective by Kristin Morales-Lemieux, senior vice president and chief Human Resources officer at Baystate Health.

“When we first sent everyone home, no one wanted to be there,” she said, adding that roughly 4,000 of the system’s employees were told to work remotely, if they could. “And for the first six months, we spent all of our time trying to hold back the tide of employees and managers who wanted to come back into the building, and, quite frankly, walking around and finding people who should not be there and shooing them back home again.

“As our employees come back together, our goal is to combine the flexibility and convenience we’ve had working remotely with the energy, connection, and collaboration that comes from being together in person.”

“But somewhere around that six-month mark …. there was a shift, and people starting saying, ‘I don’t want to go back,’ or ‘I certainly don’t want to go back full-time,’” she went on. “And in a few areas where we started to transition departments back, we started to notice that, not in large numbers, but here and there, we began losing people who were taking jobs with other organizations that allowed them to work remotely full-time.”

Kristin Morales-Lemieux

When they first went home, Kristin Morales-Lemieux says, employees were clamoring to come back to the office; six months later, most no longer wanted to.

This phenomenon explains why ‘flexibility’ is the watchword as the Great Return commences, and why the hybrid schedule — whereby people work in the office at least a few days of the week and remotely for the remainder — is becoming the norm among employers, and, increasingly, expected when it comes to employees.

At Monson Savings Bank, employees now have a number of options when it comes to working schedules, including a hybrid model that has them in the office at least two days a week, and a four-day work week. MSB President Dan Moriarty said such flexibility, at a time when most have proven they can work effectively from home, is a practical response to the changing work climate.

“We wanted to create some culture for retention for existing employees,” he said, echoing the thoughts of many we spoke with. “And as we compete against other companies in this region, but also well outside, that offer flexibility and remote working, we thought it was a good balance — for the organization and the employee.”

Meanwhile, MassMutual has put in place what it calls a “flexible workplace approach” that is comprised of three work arrangements — full-time in the office, full-time remote, and a hybrid of the two, with the majority of the financial-services giant’s employees working a hybrid arrangement.

“Flexibility is at the heart of our approach,” said Sue Cicco, head of Human Resources and Employee Experience for the company. “As our employees come back together, our goal is to combine the flexibility and convenience we’ve had working remotely with the energy, connection, and collaboration that comes from being together in person.”

Elaborating, she said the flexible-workplace approach has been in place since last summer with employees “testing” it over the past several months. They are now being asked to be at “a more regular cadence” by the beginning of April.

At Cambridge Credit Counseling, Chris Viale, president and CEO of the company, plans to bring employees back to work a hybrid schedule starting later this month. But the longer-term plan is to bring most employees back five days a week, he told BusinessWest, adding that he’s expecting some pushback, will listen to those giving it, and may ultimately change his mind.

“If people thought the labor market was tight going into COVID, we haven’t seen anything yet.”

But for now, that’s the plan, and for reasons that would resonate with many employers across the region.

“We’ve been grappling with this for quite some time,” Viale explained. “Right before the pandemic, we secured a much larger office space with a state-of-the-art call-center environment, and we committed to a seven-year lease, so we have that financial expense baked in to trying to do what’s right for everyone, trying to make sure the company is functioning as we need it to, trying to make sure we’re serving the consumers we’re serving, and meeting the needs of our staff. We’re trying to balance all that — somehow.”

Overall, there are many forces driving the flexibility being exhibited at most workplaces, but perhaps the most significant is common sense when it comes to the matter of attracting and retaining talent, especially at a time when businesses in virtually sector are struggling to do so.

Dan Moriarty says Monson Savings Bank is focusing on flexibility

Dan Moriarty says Monson Savings Bank is focusing on flexibility with its return-to-the-workplace strategies, including hybrid schedules and the option of a four-day work week.

Morales-Lemieux noted that Baystate Health, which regularly employs roughly 13,000 employees, currently has about 1,900 vacancies, three times what might be considered normal and a powerful motivating force when it comes to establishing return-to-the-workplace strategies.

“If people thought the labor market was tight going into COVID,” she said, “we haven’t seen anything yet.”

 

Work in Progress

It’s called ‘Corporate Tuesday.’

That’s the name Monson Savings Bank has attached to the second day of the work week, a day when most, if not all, employees will be in the office, said Moriarty, adding that this is the day, considered better than Monday, or any other day, for that matter, when people would schedule in-person meetings, department meetings, and collaborations.

“The parking lot is pretty full,” he explained, adding that Corporate Tuesday has been in effect since Jan. 1, and has thus far been greeted with a generally positive response.

Beyond Corporate Tuesday and some similar initiatives, there is now unprecedented amounts of flexibility when it comes to work and work schedules, at companies both large and small, a new landscape that has been years (and not just the past two years) in the making.

Indeed, Morales-Lemieux echoed others when she said there was some movement in this direction before the pandemic, especially as the unemployment rate dropped and it became steadily more challenging to attract and retain talent.

Sarah Morgan

Sarah Morgan says employees at Health New England have shown they can be effective working remotely.

“Even pre-COVID, we were really starting to feel the pressure to move into a variety of more flexible work arrangements, even as it relates to our frontline workers,” she told BusinessWest. “As the unemployment rate had dropped over the past decade, coupled with our own unique challenges in Western Massachusetts, such as our aging population and the number of healthcare-related — and non-healthcare-related — companies that we compete with for workers, we had, in the year prior to the pandemic, been talking in earnest about how we needed to change in order to make sure that we could keep a workforce.”

Elaborating, she said this talk involved, among other things, remote-work scenarios not only for attractive job candidates from other states who do not wish to relocate to Massachusetts, but also candidates and existing employees already in the 413.

Suffice it to say the pandemic has served to open more eyes to this need to change and add several layers of urgency to the matter, despite the delayed nature of the return to work.

But change comes hard to many companies, said Meredith Wise, president and CEO of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, noting that, in this case, most employers she’s talked with have seen the wisdom of embracing flexibility and not trying to put in place a one-size — or one-schedule, to be more precise — fits-all policy or strategy.

Indeed, even most old-school managers who would certainly prefer to have everyone back in the office eight hours a day, five days a week, are recognizing the need to embrace the changing landscape and not fight it — for a number of very practical reasons, especially those workforce issues, she said.

“We’re advising people to be flexible and talk with employees about what’s going to work for them. And one of the big reasons why is the retention problem that most employers are facing right now.”

“We’re advising people to be flexible and talk with employees about what’s going to work for them,” she explained. “And one of the big reasons why is the retention problem that most employers are facing right now; there are enough employers that are offering hybrid arrangements that you could easily lose people if you put your foot down and say, ‘I need you here five days a week.’ Those workers can easily find someone who will be flexible and more accommodating.”

 

Balance Sheet

Those we spoke with said there have been a number of fits and starts when it comes to returning employees to the workplace. Most were ready to start the process last spring or last fall, but Delta and then Omicron ultimately pushed back those timetables.

Now, most are looking at later this month or early next month as a return date, although it appears the vast majority of workers will still be working remotely at least a few days a week.

At Health New England, Sarah Morgan, director of Human Resources and Organizational Development, said all but a handful of the company’s 385 employees are currently working remotely, and there is no set date for a return. As for a plan, it involves being flexible, giving employees an opportunity to “volunteer” to return if they should desire to do so and if the conditions with regard to the pandemic warrant such a return.

For many reasons, she said, returning everyone to the office full-time — essentially turning back the clock to early March 2020 — is not practical. For starters, even with COVID subsiding in many respects, the company is no rush for a return to pre-pandemic density levels in its office space in Monarch Place. But over the past two years, employees have shown they can effectively work remotely, she went on, which more than justifies flexible or hybrid work schedules.

“Our associates have proven that they’re capable of working remotely for quite some time; they’re meeting the standards and expectations and doing very, very well,” she told BusinessWest. “They’re meeting all the needs of our members, and so we’ve said that people like to work at home, we understand that, and we’re going to enable a certain amount of flexibility within teams and a hybrid approach.”

Like others, she said such flexibility is becoming ever-more critical when it comes to attracting and retaining employees, but also widening the pool of talent to include those from other regions of the country.

“We recognize that flexibility around remote work and hybrid work schedules is a way to honor the needs of people,” she said, using that word ‘needs’ in reference to everything from family matters to physical disabilities. “We’re seeing more people ask for that flexibility when they apply.”

And at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which employs roughly 150 people, 100 at the Agawam Corporate Center, there will be similar amounts of flexibility, said Jennifer Murphy, director of Human Resources, adding that the employees now working remotely, and that’s most of them, are slated to return in a hybrid format on April 4.

“Part of our new flexible-work policy involves a hybrid work model; when we return, people will be required to work 60% of the time in the office,” Murphy said, adding that this plan of action has been generally well-received by employees. Overall, it represents acknowledgement of both the emergence of remote work as being popular and effective and the importance of face-to-face interaction when it comes to office culture.

“What COVID has taught us is that, given the nature of our work, we can operate our business successfully remotely,” she explained. “But we also feel it’s important for our culture that we work together and collaborate together; there’s real value in those face-to-face interactions. Overall, we’re trying to balance the value and importance of in-person work and collaboration with employees’ desire to also have that flexibility to work remotely.”

Jennifer Murphy

Jennifer Murphy says the 100 employees working at the offices of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation will be returning on April 4 and working hybrid schedules.

At Cambridge Credit Counseling, Viale said his plan to bring employees back to a hybrid schedule was greeted with a generally positive response. Overall, he’s not expecting the same when it comes to his plans to bring all or most employees (there will be exceptions for health considerations and other factors) back full-time.

Elaborating, and echoing Morales-Lemieux’s comments, he said that, as the months went by, employees became increasingly comfortable with working remotely, and increasingly uncomfortable with the thought of returning to the office.

But after weighing all the factors, including that seven-year lease on a significantly larger footprint and other considerations, he decided that bringing everyone back is the best course. But, as noted earlier, he will listen, and he may be open to changing his plans.

And what may be a deciding factor in his ultimate decision is his ability to maintain his workforce.

“What’s really challenging is just finding people to work,” he said. “I just heard an ad coming in to work this morning that Target is hiring people for $24 an hour; our starting wage is between $16 and $18 an hour.”

At Ware-based Country Bank, most all employees have been back to the office since last fall, said Miriam Siegel, first senior vice president and chief culture officer for the institution, adding that she believes that the bank is among the first, if not the first, business of its kind to put a flexible work policy in place.

The employees who have returned are working three days in the office and two remotely, she said, adding that the new policy, or strategy, is not the result of COVID, necessarily, but rather recognition that times and needs are changing, and flexible schedules are the logical, responsible response to the current landscape.

“One of the big things we’ve learned at the bank is that we have to recognize that we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all working world anymore,” she said. “That has become our mantra in many ways.”

Elaborating, she said the pandemic helped drive home the need to communicate with employees, have them articulate their challenges and needs, and then work with them to the extent possible to accommodate those needs.

“What COVID has taught us is that, given the nature of our work, we can operate our business successfully remotely. But we also feel it’s important for our culture that we work together and collaborate together; there’s real value in those face-to-face interactions.”

This is the right thing to do, Siegel said, but it’s also what many companies are willing to do, which is critical during what could only be called an ongoing workforce crisis.

“When you couple this remote-work situation with the Great Resignation, shifting priorities, and our challenge to retain people … we need to be listening to our employees and accommodate them when we can,” she said. “Because they’ll very quickly go somewhere else right now.”

At Baystate, as Morales-Lemieux noted, efforts to bring back — to the extent they are coming back — those 4,000 employees who left for home two years ago have been underway for some time.

There is now an organization-wide communication plan and strategy that will be launched in early April, she said, adding that there are still 3,000 people working “completely or largely” remotely.

 

Bottom Line

At all the workplaces we talked with, the new policies and strategies are in place for what would be called the time being.

Indeed, each company said it reserved to right to re-evaluate and change what is in place, depending on how things work out.

“The program we put in place — we keep the option open to revise or revoke if we don’t see good results,” Moriarty said. “But so far, so good.”

Murphy concurred. “When we initiated this policy and rolled it out, we said we would try it for one year and see how it works, and that we reserve the right to revisit it,” she said, adding that, while there is general confidence that this strategy will succeed given what’s happened over the past two years, it is still, on some levels, an experiment.

But overall, she’s not expecting many changes to the new policies — or to the current landscape in the workplace, for that matter.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see the trend turning back to fully in-person work for most people, especially those who work at a computer all day,” she said. “We’ve shown that that the remote model works; I think it’s here to stay.”

Morgan agreed. “We’re trending in that direction; HR professionals are talking about the trends, and the ‘new normal,’ and what will be the future of work,” she explained. “For so many reasons, we’re engaging in work in a different way; we’re fitting it into our lives in a different way than we could if we had a 30-minute commute to the office — and we’re finding that we can be even more productive.”

Those sentiments are among the many that make it clear that work has changed over the past two years — and probably changed forever.

And this will make the much-anticipated Great Return something to watch.

 

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

Architecture Special Coverage

Building Momentum

By Mark Morris

River Valley Co-op

The outdoor seating area at River Valley Co-op before it opened last spring.

Curtis Edgin says his business is all about flexibility and constantly making adjustments. This is the case when times are ‘normal,’ he noting, adding that the pandemic and its many side-effects have only added new dimensions to this equation.

Edgin is a principal at Caolo & Bieniek Associates architecture firm in Springfield, and he appreciates that his firm has stayed busy for the last two years, a time when adjusting and remaining flexible became the norm for everyone, not just architects.

“We were fortunate to have a backlog going into the pandemic; because projects were at different phases, we’ve continued to stay busy throughout,” said Edgin said, noting that municipal projects such as schools, libraries and public safety facilities make up more than two-thirds of Caolo & Bieniek’s portfolio.

Much of the design work handled by Kuhn Riddle Architects in Amherst involves colleges and universities. When campuses switched to online learning during the height of the pandemic, they also put many of their building projects on pause, said Aelan Tierney, president of Kuhn Riddle, adding that this began to change this past fall and her firm has been extremely busy since then.

“Colleges felt more confident about the future in terms of bringing students back to campus, so all the on-hold projects came back to life,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s been a complete turnaround from where we were in 2020.”

Meanwhile, it was two years ago that daily headlines generated speculation about if and how area restaurants, pummeled by the pandemic and draconian restrictions, would survive. They have survived — and many are thriving — by adapting to changing times, said Thomas Douglas, principal of Thomas Douglas Architects in Northampton, a firm that specializes in the restaurant and hospitality sectors.

Kuhn Riddle Architects President Aelan Tierney

Kuhn Riddle Architects President Aelan Tierney

“Our restaurateur clients put their focus on refiguring their spaces with less seating and shifted to a different type of service model geared more toward takeout,” said Douglas, adding that these adjustments kept this sector — and his firm — busy at a time when such vibrancy seemed unlikely.

Together these stories convey a time of challenge and opportunity for area architecture firms — a time when some projects were scrapped or delayed, but when others came onto and then off the drawing board as different types of clients adjusted to what the pandemic brought to their doorsteps.

And for many, what it brought was a pressing need to improve the air circulation.

Indeed, design plans for the River Valley Co-op in Easthampton were drawn up long before COVID was on anyone’s radar, said Douglas. From its inception, the plan was for the co-op to run nearly net zero, with most of its heating and air conditioning provided by an array of solar panels covering a large portion of the parking lot. With much of the actual construction of River Valley occurring during the height of the pandemic, he noted that the firm made several changes on the fly. The original plan called for a grab-and-go food area that was nixed after contemplating the idea of people touching food in an open area. At the same time, air quality, took on a new urgency.

“In the middle of the project we needed to shift gears and upgrade the HVAC system with more-robust filtering capacities,” Douglas said. “We made these changes to better address the effects of the pandemic.”

The pandemic has brought other changes and adjustments, especially when it comes to needed materials, said those we spoke with, adding that supply chain shortages combined with steady price hikes for building materials and mechanical equipment have become a constant challenge.

Because architects plan projects that won’t break ground until months later, figuring out what materials will be available and what they will cost has become a big ongoing concern. Tierney said right now mechanical equipment such as generators are delayed up to 12 months before they are available.

“It’s very unsettling for clients and contractors to not know how long it will take to do a project,” Tierney said. “No one feels confident about cost estimates that are put together today because you don’t know if they will be relevant in three to six months when you actually start construction.”

“Any new project plan has to evaluate how it will impact the environment.”

For this issue and its focus on architecture and engineering, BusinessWest talked with several area architects about the many ways the pandemic has impacted business — and how this sector has responded as it always has, by making adjustments and positioning itself effectively for the day when the storm clouds move out.

 

Blueprint for Success

It’s called a ‘Zoom booth’ — by some people, anyway.

Like the name suggests, it’s a small space, like a phone booth, only instead of phone calls, it’s for the Zoom meetings that have now become part of day-today life in the modern workplace.

“It’s a place where someone in an open office setting can pop into a quieter space to take part in a remote online meeting,” said Tierney, adding that while her firm has included such spaces in many of its plans, it has also converted several conference rooms to accommodate meetings where some people attend in-person while others take part virtually.

Curtis Edgin (left) and James Hanifan

Curtis Edgin (left) and James Hanifan say the pandemic has thrown extra layers of complexity into renovations, particularly with HVAC.

Zoom booths and altered conference rooms would be among the more subtle changes to the landscape resulting from the pandemic, said those we spoke with, adding that the more dramatic adjustments, as noted, involve air flow and a recognized need to improve it.

And the amount of work — and redesign — needed generally depends on the age and condition of the building.

Indeed, unlike making a design change in new construction, planning a retrofit with existing buildings brings another level of challenge, said Edgin, citing, as one example, a school client looking to replace its old rooftop heating unit with an upgraded unit that would add cooling to the system.

“First we look at structural considerations, such as whether the building support the new unit if it weighs more than the old one,” Edgin said.

The next step according to James Hanifan, also a principal at Caolo & Bieniek, concerns the duct work in the building.

“Many older facilities don’t have the ventilation systems that are required by today’s building codes,” he explained, adding that older buildings often depend on operational windows for ventilation which cannot be relied on in cold weather and can invite mold into the building during rainy times of the year.

Schools may opt to purchase stand-alone air filtering units to install in every classroom but that can be complicated, too.

“Sometimes they find out the electrical system can’t support all that additional equipment,” said Hanifan. “Now they’ve got a different issue.”

Recent funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has certainly helped municipalities in budgeting for these projects. Edgin anticipated that many will use their ARPA funds for improved HVAC and energy projects in their schools and other public buildings.

Overall, energy efficiency and sustainability are built into architecture plans. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification is one standard that has provided what Tierney called a great baseline for architects when considering sustainability standards.

Last year Gov. Charlie Baker signed Executive Order 594 which requires all state buildings to meet strict energy efficiency and emission standards going forward.

“Any new project plan has to evaluate how it will impact the environment,” Tierney said. “The goal is to reach carbon-neutral and net-zero emissions by 2050.” Independently, organizations are increasingly focused on reducing energy consumption and on the types of materials they use when constructing their buildings.

“It’s great to see Massachusetts as one of the strongest states in terms of energy code,” Tierney said. “They are aggressively increasing energy requirements every three years when they update state building codes, which is fantastic.”

Thomas Douglas

Thomas Douglas says River Valley Co-op had a strong emphasis on sustainability from the start.

While the River Valley Co-op had a strong emphasis on sustainability from its inception, Douglas suggested a creative addition to the plan that maintained the spirit of the project.

“My first college degree was in landscape architecture, so I worked with the coop to create a large outdoor patio that has a view of Mt. Tom,” Douglas said. With easy access from inside the building as well as outside, the layout can also accommodate a food truck next to the patio.

“We wanted to create a vibrant, exciting, and yet cozy outdoor atmosphere for the patio.”

 

Drawing on Experience

Meanwhile, both public and private spaces are being adjusted to provide employees and visitors with larger and, in many ways, different spaces.

Indeed, a few years ago, companies had begun planning office layouts that were open and airy to encourage more collaborative workspaces. The arrival of COVID caused a change to some of those plans.

“After designing for an open-office concept, the pandemic came along, and we had clients who wanted to go back to individual cubicles,” Edgin said.

Kuhn Riddle is still creating collaborative areas, while at the same time staying conscious about air exchange and filtration.

“As we begin opening back up and taking off our masks people remain concerned about air quality,” Tierney said. “The last two years have definitely influenced how we think about design.”

When the Westfield Boys and Girls Club was planning a childcare wing, it increased the size of the project from 11,000 to 15,000 square feet because the state had increased minimum space standards per child from 35 to 42 square feet after COVID hit, said Tierney, adding that her firm was brought in as the schematic design architect to work on this part of the project with Chris Carey, the architect of record on the building expansion.

“We don’t know if the state will ever go back to a smaller square-foot-per-child standard, but we wanted to be ready in the future for another pandemic or other event that requires keeping children spaced apart,” she explained.

Add to these challenges and adjustments the ongoing supply-chain issues and escalating prices of materials, which together bring new levels of complexity — and stress — to designing projects and seeing them to completion

As part of a dormitory renovation at Elms College, Hanifan was planning for a certain type of carpet only to be told that, if it even gets produced (and that’s a big if), there will be a 16-24 week lead time. He has already begun adjusting the plan because the project must be completed before the fall semester in September.

“We will look at other colors and if we can’t get those, we will have to look at other manufacturers.”

This constant uncertainty often puts his municipal clients in a tough spot.

“No one wants to hear that prices have spiked and everyone knows prices don’t tend to go down,” Hanifan said. “So, there is a lot of indecision on whether to go ahead with the project or wait to see if prices come back down at some point.”

While supply chain delays and rising costs are still part of daily life, a sense of optimism creeps in as the weather becomes warmer and COVID mandates get relaxed.

“It’s been a tough couple of years, but I think we’ve turned the corner,” Tierney said.

Hanifan acknowledged that in the immediate short-term, supply chain issues will continue because manufacturers are under pressure to get materials out as fast as they can.

“Eventually they will be able to re-stock and fill their warehouses once again,” Hanifan said. “It may be a few years out but I’m optimistic it will happen.”

All it takes is remaining flexible and making adjustments when necessary.

Special Coverage Work/Life Balance

Blurred Lines

During the pandemic, work arrangements were, in some ways, clearer than they are now — in short, remote work was the norm. Now, however, businesses and their employees are grappling with balancing company needs and culture with workers’ desire to maintain flexibility regarding when and where they get their jobs done. At the center of all of this is the amorphous, yet critically important, concept of work-life balance — and how, in some ways, remote work has made it even more challenging to achieve.

The employees at Paragus IT

The employees at Paragus IT have been returning to the office — but will be allowed to keep working at home some days.

 

Getting work done during the pandemic was … messy, Delcie Bean said. But it got done.

“In the heat of the pandemic, we had to have maximum flexibility and understood that everyone was doing their absolute best to get done what needed to get done and make sure the clients were taken care of,” the CEO of Paragus IT told BusinessWest. “It was going to be messy, but we had to get through it.”

Emerging from COVID-19, then, has been a time for employers to assess what happened and what they learned about the many different ways people can get their work done — and still have time for themselves.

“What did we lose having everyone remote, and what did we gain?” Bean said. “We realized it was some of both columns A and B — there were certainly some benefits and some risks.

“Really, we found it’s very employee-specific,” he went on. “Some employees really need the structure of the office — they get up, commute, work in the office, commute, relax at home. That’s what helps them separate work from life. Others were really flourishing with a blend, doing work from home; they were good at setting up boundaries and not having their work bleed into their life.”

Despite the evidence showing that many workers flourish at home — achieving work-life balance by establishing firm boundaries — that blurring of lines between work time and family time is a concern, according to area company leaders we spoke with. The result, oddly enough, can be even less balance than before.

“With more people working from home and having increased autonomy over their work schedule, it becomes more challenging to differentiate between work time and personal time,” said Patricia Coughlin, Human Resources director at Wellfleet in Springfield.

In Bean’s case, the post-pandemic strategy that developed was to require employees to work in the Hadley office at least three days — a gradual shift, actually, beginning with one day in June, two days in July, and three days starting in August. Anyone who wants to be on site every day is welcome to do so.

Patricia Coughlin

Patricia Coughlin

“With more people working from home and having increased autonomy over their work schedule, it becomes more challenging to differentiate between work time and personal time.”

“There are certain things that are lost when you’re 100% remote,” he said, giving examples like mentoring new employees and collaborative projects. “But if remote is working for you, we don’t want to stop you.”

He understands that some people need to be in the office to function because they have too many distractions at home.

“It depends on their personality. My home is not a distraction at all — once the kids are in school, my home is quiet, with nothing to distract me,” he said, adding, however, that there’s also nothing there to energize him.

“I need energy from other people to function at my best. We all work a little differently, process things a little differently. A lot of flexibility is good, as long as that flexibility works for both the employees and the company — but working at home can lead to issues with work-life balance if the work never goes away.”

Amy Roberts, chief Human Resources officer at PeoplesBank in Holyoke, said the bank’s leaders learned the organization can be effective while incorporating different types of work arrangements.

“When the pandemic hit and we had to move to a remote workforce for much of our corporate team, there was no question that our associates were dedicated and would get the job done,” she noted. “We had concerns about remote work as it relates to data security, customer impact, and overall engagement of our workforce. But we saw pretty quickly that we were able to operate, meet the needs of our customers, and keep our team engaged.”

For that reason, the bank is now working to establish a hybrid model for many roles and will continue to evaluate increased flexibility for team members. “We may also consider fully remote roles, but at this time those will be very limited.”

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank wants to develop strategies with its employees to avoid overly blurring the lines between work and family time, especially when working at home.

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank wants to develop strategies with its employees to avoid overly blurring the lines between work and family time, especially when working at home.

Like Bean, she noted that collaboration can suffer when people are not physically working together. “It’s such a big part of our day to day that we have to ensure people can easily get things done and make decisions as a team from anywhere. We feel this is an important aspect of any sustainable hybrid work model.”

Coughlin agreed that the pandemic made Wellfleet’s leaders more aware of the different ways people not only work well, but collaborate with their peers and find satisfaction in their work. As a result, the company plans to offer hybrid work arrangements and telework options as part of its model going forward.

“We learned from our employees that there is no one-size-fits-all methodology in creating an effective work environment,” she noted. “Throughout the pandemic, it became apparent that the ‘typical’ work arrangement may not be effective for all people.”

She added that this flexible approach is an attractive model that will allow Wellfleet to expand its talent pool while improving overall job satisfaction and increasing opportunities for growth and effectiveness. Again, however, the key is communication and setting boundaries.

“Supervisors and employees should set clear expectations of work schedules, availability, and when responses to e-mails are expected,” she said. “Maintaining this communication reduces the likelihood that employees feel the need to be available while on their personal time.”

 

Unhealthy Relationship

That latter concern is one employment experts across the country have been pondering. Constance Grady, a staff writer for Vox, recently penned an article titled “How Capitalism and the Pandemic Destroyed our Work-life Balance,” arguing that, in a precarious, COVID-disrupted economy, workers became even more attached to their work, in often-unhealthy ways.

“Those of us who were lucky enough to have jobs we could do from home brought our work into our living rooms, our kitchens, our bedrooms,” she wrote. “We pivoted. We shared strategies for how to be productive and overcome the stress of trying to work during a global health emergency. We challenged ourselves to meet and even exceed our pre-pandemic goals, against unfavorable odds. Despite everything, we prioritized work.”

But treating work as a sacred object has consequences, Grady argues. “We have treated work as something to be taken home and cherished. Work is our lover. And this year, we took it to bed.”

Bean understands that risk. “We’ve always strongly encouraged employees to have work-life balance as much as possible and encouraged people to unplug at the end of the day and not resume work until they’re back in the office again,” he said. “That worked much better in the pre-pandemic world, where there were cleaner lines between work and home.”

Paragus has long offered employees ‘discretionary time’ for personal obligations and appointments, which they can make up later. “We try to give employees freedom to schedule their work around what works for both them and the company.”

But over the past year, those lines blurred, with more people shifting their schedules or even working sporadically, a couple hours on and a couple off — especially when they were helping their homebound kids navigate the world of remote learning.

Hopefully, a return to something approaching normal, even if it does include some remote work, will sharpen those lines a bit. What helps, Bean said, is making firm decisions on what the home is actually for, especially at night.

“I’m very strict. When I get home, the phone goes on the counter and stays there until I go to bed. It’s rare for me to check e-mail at home, and it’s rare for me to work weekends. I try my best to model that you don’t need to work all night and on weekends to keep up; you can do your job during your work hours, then be with your family. You need that balance, and your family needs you there.”

Beyond that, he added, employees need to decompress from work in order to be productive the next day. “You need that separation time to process. You’re never able to let it sink in and reflect when you’re just going, going, going.”

Roberts agreed. “We are concerned about the blurring of lines with people who are working at home,” she said. “We are looking at this issue to determine if there are other ways we can ensure this balance with our plan for long-term workplace flexibility.”

Ideas include encouraging employees to work in a dedicated space, and at the end of the work day, leaving that room behind and closing the door — in other words, stick to the set work schedule.

“Obviously, if a customer issue occurs at the end of our day, we aren’t walking away, but in most cases we have seen that people have done a good job maintaining their normal work hours from any location — home or office.”

Understanding employee needs helps them to create balance while meeting the company’s needs, Coughlin added.

“When people have the flexibility to manage their schedule — for example, to attend a personal appointment and make up time later in the day — that can have a really positive impact on productivity. And everyone’s different; some people are more productive early in the morning, some are more productive in the evening, and others work best within a very set schedule.”

From a company perspective, she went on, it’s important to establish general standards that allow all employees the opportunity to achieve a healthy work-life balance — and it’s important to engage with employees to better identify what is meaningful to them.

“Work-life balance, and what that means, can really vary from person to person,” she noted. “One employee might be driven by the satisfaction in completing a task, while another takes satisfaction from counting hours ‘clocked in.’”

 

Creating a Culture

The bottom line, Coughlin said, is that Wellfleet’s people are fundamental in creating its culture, so it’s important to engage with them, through various platforms, to identify and implement ways to support a healthy work-life balance.

To that end, it offers education and trainings to improve work efficiencies, as well as communication regarding company benefits workers can utilize for personal purposes. Supervisors also work closely with employees to coach skills like prioritizing tasks, setting realistic goals, and time management.

“Wellfleet believes a healthy work-life balance fosters a culture in which employees are able to perform their job duties in a productive manner,” she added. “Good balance and increased flexibility in the workplace can help prevent burnout, reduce stress, and promote overall wellness.”

The company also offers employees the flexibility to adjust their work schedules to attend appointments and encourages them to use paid time off for their personal well-being, Coughlin said. “We saw the need to internally emphasize this message throughout the pandemic, although the ways we promoted this adapted to the circumstances.”

Wellfleet isn’t the only company re-emphasizing the need for workers to take time off, even if they’re not taking as many week-long vacations as before. HR Daily Advisor recently published a story on work-life balance that included input from several employers across the U.S. noting that employees have been de-emphasizing long vacations in favor of three-day weekends, staycations, and mental-health days off — as well as taking less time off overall.

“We have always focused on promoting a healthy work-life balance, and I don’t think remote work will change the way that we encourage our team to pay attention to this balance,” Roberts said. “Some of the ways that we promote this balance is our official work week being 38 hours, generous time-off plans, and fun team events and activities throughout the year. Our managers also do a good job of making sure they balance their expectations to ensure that a healthy work-life balance is a real thing.”

At the same time, Bean said, workers at any number of companies may have begun seeing those remote and flexible work models of the past 16 months as a permanent aspect of work-life balance — or, at least, they hope so. That could cause tension down the line, as employers, already struggling to retain talent in many industries, may have to negotiate such arrangements moving forward.

“However, another part of me knows behaviors and habits don’t change easily,” he added. “We, as a country, have 200 years of working 8 to 5 and going home. I don’t know if the pandemic was long enough to permanently break this muscle memory.”

If he’s right, companies adopting hybrid models now may eventually shift back to the typical, on-site work schedule of the past.

“Maybe people will work from home more than before,” he said. “But I don’t think this was that disruptive that we’ll fundamentally change the way we do work. It comes down to a lot of factors.”

Those factors range from employee desires to company needs and what type of culture an employer wants to promote. And the day might come when the current job surplus lessens and employers feel they have more leverage.

“How comfortable are you with making a decision, if an employer tells you to come back to the office or find new employment?” Bean said. “We’ll see how those things play out, and we’ll find out if the changes are temporary or long-term — and, if they’re long-term, how impactful they’ll be.”

Until then, employees will continue to get their work done in whatever way their company allows — and, hopefully, not take it to bed.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Insurance

Protect and Serve

Phillips Insurance team members, from left, Christopher McMaster,  Chrystal Greenleaf, Joe Phillips, and Christopher Rivers.

Phillips Insurance team members, from left, Christopher McMaster, Chrystal Greenleaf, Joe Phillips, and Christopher Rivers.

In the 66 years since Joe Phillips’ father opened the business that bears the family’s name, the insurance industry has undergone plenty of change, both in the range of risks faced by individual and business clients and in the products available to lower those risks and protect key assets. But the way the agency does business has changed as well, reflecting a modern approach to technology, mobility, and employee flexibility. The result has been high retention of both team members and clients — and consistent growth.

The insurance world has changed significantly in the 22 years since Joseph Phillips took the reins at Phillips Insurance Inc. — not to mention the 66 years since his father hung out a shingle in Chicopee.

But some changes at his agency don’t have as much to with insurance itself as they do with the way today’s employees — especially younger ones — want to work.

“We try to be as flexible as possible in this changing work environment,” Phillips said, noting that four employees work from home — actually, they kind of have to, living in Montana, Florida, Delaware, and right around the corner, relatively speaking, in Boston. “And we try to be as flexible as possible. Our office is open from 6 to 5 every day, so everybody picks eight hours within that timeframe to work. Some people come in at 6 and leave at 2. It works out, especially for some of the new parents whose spouses work.”

It adds up to a high employee-retention rate; four of Phillips’ 28 staffers have been there for more than 20 years, and 10 have been around more than a decade.

“You need to think about employee retention,” he said. “The average person has seven to nine jobs in their lifetime. If our average employee had seven to nine jobs in their lifetime, our retention would kill us. And our customers want to come in and see the same face, talk to the same person on the phone.”

“Everyone has become so fast-paced right now — people want something sent over, and you’re e-mailing and texting clients 24/7. And you have to, because it’s just as fast on their side as well.”

That’s why insurance agencies, like businesses of all kinds, need to compete for talent, he said — not just up front, but once they’re on board.

“Interviews used to be pretty one-way, and now — and I think it’s healthy — it’s a two-way interview, so when I bring in a new prospect for employment, they’re interviewing me as well. We sell them on the benefits we’re providing — retirement plan, health insurance, flexible work hours.”

It’s an office that’s set up for flexibility, he said — not just for flex time and maternity leave, but when a snowstorm strikes, or a major accident clogs up the Mass Pike, workers are set up through agency-automation technology to work from anywhere. That means no slowdowns at a time when clients demand speed and efficiency like never before.

“Everyone has become so fast-paced right now — people want something sent over, and you’re e-mailing and texting clients 24/7. And you have to, because it’s just as fast on their side as well,” Phillips said. “There are no more days off, which is good and bad, I guess. Companies don’t start their workday at 9 o’clock anymore. If they are, they’re far behind the curve.”

The agency’s headquarters in downtown Chicopee will soon expand for the fourth time in the past 20 years, a testament to its consistent growth.

The agency’s headquarters in downtown Chicopee will soon expand for the fourth time in the past 20 years, a testament to its consistent growth.

All this modernization and flexibility makes a difference, Phillips said, noting that clients appreciate stability — the agency boasts a 98% client-retention rate — and the staff has increased from 17 employees in 2014 to 28 today. Some of that growth has been internal, with three people who started as receptionists moving up to broader duties.

In short, Phillips Insurance is keeping up with the times, its president said, and growing all the more for it.

Family Business

Phillips’ father entered the insurance business in 1953, purchasing the William J. Fuller Agency, which was founded in 1892, and changing the name. The younger Phillips came on board in 1996 and took over the business when his father died unexpectedly a year later. At the time, the staff totaled three people, and two of them — Joe Phillips and Jeanne Jones — are still there.

Growth has necessitated some physical changes. This fall, the agency will undergo a 2,500-square-foot addition on the back of the building — its fourth addition in 20 years — and it also bought the former Masonic temple next door and will be tearing it down to build a 30-car parking garage.

The growing clientele is dominated by commercial lines, which account for 80% of total premiums. Much of that business is surety bonds for construction-related risk, mostly in Western Mass., but a good percentage east of Worcester, where the construction market is particularly active, and some out of state.

“MGM has really helped — we had 10 clients working down there, from a $20 million site package to the $6 million masonry package,” Phillips explained, adding that the Five Colleges have been doing a lot of building in recent years as well, providing further growth opportunities.

Another change has been the rise of captive insurance, he said. “That’s a little different. Our clients actually get together with a group of other like-industry-group businesses, and they form their own insurance company. They become the profit center. Instead of spending $500,000 a year to a major national carrier and that carrier making hundreds of thousands of dollars off you, you can make money off yourself. It’s becoming more and more common; it’s a growing section of the market.”

Phillips has also grown its employee-benefits department quite a bit over the past five years, while its personal lines — including home, auto, boat, ATV, and personal umbrella — are growing well, with the agency licensed with 20 insurance carriers, including some of the largest players, like Safeco (a member of Liberty Mutual), Arbella, Safety, and Preferred Mutual.

Still, “we specialize in complex risk — a lot of construction solar, recycling … a lot of tougher industries,” Phillips stressed. “It’s a diverse group of businesses, from Northern Tree Service, one of the largest tree-cutting companies in the country, to the Student Prince restaurant in Springfield.

“We’re an industry-specialization agency — construction, hospitality, manufacturing — so we align ourselves with the insurance carriers that want to ensure those types of businesses,” he added. “We have very good relationships with our insurance carriers. We’re one of the largest writers for Liberty Mutual in New England, and other household names have been great partners.”

Current Events

The modern approach to doing business spills over into Phillips’ online presence, which includes Instagram, LinkedIn, and a revamped website with an active blog that aims to educate clients — and hopefully future clients — on various aspects of insurance and risk; recent articles cover boating safety, lowering one’s carbon footprint, and home-security technology. Meanwhile, the agency has won awards from the Republican’s Reader Raves program four years running.

Meanwhile, the agency’s charitable efforts include sending about 15 employees annually to prepare Thanksgiving meals at the Knights of Columbus, as well as donating to efforts like the Joseph D. Freedman Bowl-a-thon to benefit Camphill Village, Berkshire Hills Music Academy in South Hadley, and Link to Libraries.

The latter is an example of civic involvement that goes beyond donations, Phillips said. “We’ve got about six people now going to elementary schools in Chicopee. We donate a few hundred books a year, and a different person goes over and reads every month. It’s great for morale. Everybody loves to do it. And it’s an opportunity to get out of the office.

In fact, he said, there’s a bit of a reading backlog because the volunteer readers don’t want to stop doing it. “We gently nudge them aside to give everyone an opportunity.”

Another hands-on activity is the bowl-a-thon, which Phillips has been involved in for eight years, sending 15 to 20 bowlers to participate and raising $85,000 last year alone.

“We want people to feel good about where they work and what we do for the community, and there are certainly plenty of worthwhile causes out there,” Phillips said. “It’s tough to pick — there are only so many hours in the day and so much money to go around. You have to pick a few and really make a commitment to it. Something like Link to Libraries is really hands-on and gets everyone involved, rather than just writing a check.”

In a way, those community-engagement efforts aren’t much different than the insurance business itself. In both cases, the goal is to solve problems and make people’s lives a little more secure.

Joe Phillips says the agency has built a strong reputation for taking on complex risk, much of it surety bonds for construction projects.

Joe Phillips says the agency has built a strong reputation for taking on complex risk, much of it surety bonds for construction projects.

“With the personal lines, we’re protecting someone’s most valuable assets,” he said, adding that they also help families deal with the cost and stress of milestones like, say, adding youthful operators to an auto policy.

“On the commercial side, we’re also solving problems,” he went on. “We’re coming in and working as a trusted advisor, much like they’d work with their CPA or their attorney. We identify risk exposures that maybe they hadn’t really reflected on in the past that they should have — assets that are at risk. We try to work with them to develop the most comprehensive package for their insurance, whether it’s a utilizing captive insurance or using higher deductibles to save on premiums and maybe absorb some of the risk on smaller losses.”

It’s gratifying, Phillips added, to come to work every day knowing this work — and what the agency does outside the office — makes a difference in the region.

“We try to be out there in the community through business networking, charitable networking, and, of course, just trying to do the best job for our clients,” he said. “That’s the best referral — our existing clients.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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