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The Grass Is Greener

By Mark Morris

Brian Campedelli

Brian Campedelli says the pandemic has definitely contributed to a spike in landscaping business.

On his daily commute from Wilbraham to East Longmeadow, Dave Graziano has never seen lawns as green as they are this year — even with the recent lack of rain. And as project manager for the landscape division of Graziano Gardens, he knows a thing or two about green lawns.

“More than ever, people are working on their homes and their yards,” Graziano said. “Because they’ve been stuck at home for the last few months, they’re way ahead in their yardwork projects.”

BusinessWest spoke with several area landscape contractors who say their residential business is booming this year. With people spending so much time at home, yard projects — both large and small — that were delayed in the past are now getting done.

“There’s definitely a correlation between COVID-19 and a spike in our business,” said Brian Campedelli, president of Pioneer Landscaping. “People are stuck at home and want to enhance their lifestyle, so they are improving their yards.”

For some homeowners, the scale of yard projects has gone far beyond replacing some shrubs or reseeding a lawn. Contractors are finding most of their business has shifted to hardscape projects, such as stone patios, stairways, and outdoor kitchens. Projects like these can cost around $20,000, with larger and more elaborate designs exceeding $100,000. For one project, Campedelli and his crew are working on a “massive patio” with an overhang attached to the house to shelter a bar underneath.

“We’re installing a TV with surround-sound speakers, as well as a firepit so they can chill out next to their pool.”

Where patios already exist, Campedelli said some homeowners want to rip out the existing structures and start fresh with new construction, while others enhance what they have by adding a firepit or accent lighting.

According to Gary Courchesne, president of G & H Landscaping, accent lighting has been in high demand in recent years. Also known as low-voltage accent lighting, it’s the subtle lighting that can enhance a home’s aesthetics, safety. and security.

“Because they’ve been stuck at home for the last few months, they’re way ahead in their yardwork projects.”

“As important as the safety and security features are, about 90% of the time, people choose accent lighting for aesthetic reasons,” Courchesne explained.

Improvements like lighting help owners to better enjoy their property now, while boosting curb appeal if they ever want to sell. Real-estate website Homes.com estimates that, when homeowners install accent lighting, they can recoup about 50% of their investment to the eventual resale value of the home. The return on investment for patios and decks can range from 30% to 73%.

No matter what project homeowners choose, they all have the same objective: low maintenance. Courchesne said some of his customers have asked for “no-maintenance” shrubs. While those don’t exist, he and his crew design layouts with reduced maintenance in mind.

“For example, instead of filling around the shrubs with mulch, which needs replacing every year, we’ll use stones,” he said. “People are definitely leaning toward designs that look nice and are easy to maintain.” 

Graziano echoed that point, noting that, when he replaces old shrubs with new ones, his customers want landscapes that are easy to care for and do not require lots of maintenance. “Everyone has busy lives, and they don’t want to be burdened with spending too much time on yard care,” he said.

For many years, sprinkler systems have been an effective way to maintain lawns with minimal effort and continue to be popular this year, especially newer, more efficient models.

“People who did not have sprinkler systems are getting them installed,” Courchesne said, “and those who own systems but haven’t run them much are using them more this year.”

Growing Revenues

While landscape companies are busy with plenty of projects, it’s not exactly business as usual.

Each day starts with making sure workers have the proper face masks and other personal protective equipment they’ll need for that day. In the past, a crew might ride together to a job, but state guidelines now mandate one person per vehicle, and shared equipment must be disinfected in between users. Contractors have adjusted to all these extra steps because they are grateful to be considered an essential business.

That essential status wasn’t a given at first, though. Back in March, when Gov. Charlie Baker released the first round of essential industries that could remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, the landscape industry was not explicitly listed. The guidelines allowed for some interpretation that would include them, such as support of essential construction projects.

Gary Courchesne says accent lighting is becoming more popular

Gary Courchesne says accent lighting is becoming more popular

So a coalition of landscapers, golf-course superintendents, and related professionals formed the Green Industry Alliance of Massachusetts (GIA) and appealed to the governor to specifically identify landscaping as an essential industry. The group’s argument centered around the short time window that spring presents for fertilizing, as well as controlling mosquitos, ticks, and other invasive species. The GIA also noted that many homeowners who are physically unable to take on lawn care depend on outside companies to maintain their property.

Shortly after the appeal, the governor declared landscapers essential providing they follow CDC guidelines.

Courchesne said the initial confusion of whether or not they could start their season resulted in some starts and stops in the beginning, but his company is now up to full speed and adjusting to the new protocols.

“Normally, we start the day with our full staff gathered around a conference table,” he said. “Now, we’re meeting in smaller groups out in our yard, so even if there was an infection, it’s not spreading to everyone.” 

In early March, before the governor had ruled on landscapers’ status, Greg Omasta, president of Omasta Landscaping, temporarily closed his business over concerns about the spread of coronavirus.

“We closed for three weeks to make sure all our people were healthy,” he said, noting that this decision put his business behind in some of its early spring projects. “We’re scrambling now to get bark mulching done and plant seasonal flowers and such.”

Campedelli said his company also lost some work early in the spring due to delays caused by COVID-19, but he understands the changing nature of the virus and the guidelines. “We stay current on the latest requirements regarding COVID-19, and we make sure to share those with our workers as they happen.”

A few landscapers say hardscape projects are surging.

A few landscapers say hardscape projects are surging.

Since the go-ahead in March, Campedelli said his company is so busy, he would hire 10 more people if he could. Having enough workers is also a constant challenge for Omasta, who has 30 workers on staff but would like to add six or eight more.

Several contractors said one particular challenge in finding workers this year involves the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which allows unemployed workers to collect an additional $600 per week through late July. While they all agree the program has merits and is important to help those who are struggling, they also point out that the additional $600 a week keeps some people on the sidelines who would otherwise be working.

Sometimes, filling open jobs is difficult because of the nature of the work. Graziano said the industry has been the same for more than 50 years, and it’s not for everyone. “Either you like to put a shovel in the ground, move mulch around and install pavers, or you don’t,” he told BusinessWest.

A typical landscaping season can run nine months, with three winter months dedicated to snow plowing. As Omasta pointed out, the length of the season is always tied to weather, which determines how early they start in the spring and how late they can work in the fall.

Even when the season is in full swing, rain is a constant variable to consider, Courchesne added. “There was one week in May when, out of six work days, it rained four of them.”

Home Games

When the rain clears, people are looking to get outside, but they’re not ready to stray too far. Until there is more certainty about the coronavirus, many are choosing not to go away on vacation.

Because of this uncertainty, Omasta said, his customers have made the decision to stay put rather than spending a week at the Cape.

“They’re telling me they want to stay home and work on some improvement projects so they can enjoy their backyard this summer,” he noted.

It’s not unusual for homeowners to want a big improvement project and then procrastinate on making the final decision. Courchesne said this year seems different.

“I’m seeing people with less hesitation than normal in their purchasing attitude,” he noted. “They’re saying, ‘we’re home, so let’s do this.’”

Because more people are home, even working from there, he added, they are realizing their home is not such a bad place — and they want to make it even better.

And that has made this a different kind of year for this industry.

Cybersecurity Special Coverage

Risk and Reward

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught businesses anything, it’s that employees, in many cases, can do their jobs from home — which can, in theory, lead to cost savings. But also expenses — the type of expense that, if ignored, can lead to much bigger losses.

We’re talking about data security. And what remote workers need depends, in many cases, on how long they plan on staying home, said Sean Hogan, president and CEO of Hogan Communications in Easthampton.

“We have some clients investing in the home office and planning on shrinking their bricks and mortar, so they’re going to save money on bricks and mortar or the lease,” he told BusinessWest. “But then they have to invest in bandwidth and security for the remote office. It’s a huge issue.”

And a sometimes messy one. In a shared workplace, Hogan noted, “you might have great security, firewalls, routers, you have security installed, you make sure all the security is updated, you constantly have the latest patches and revisions.”

But working from home poses all kinds of issues with the unknown, the most pressing being, what programs are running on home devices, whether those devices are loaded with viruses, and whether they can infect the company’s servers when they connect remotely.

“We’re trying to control security at someone’s own bandwidth at the house, where three, four, or five people may be trying to jump on at the same time,” he added. “It’s not shaped at all; it doesn’t prioritize any applications or traffic. Now, there are ways to do that — we can install SD-WAN software that allows us to monitor the connection and prioritize traffic like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or GoToMeeting. That way, you don’t have everyone breaking up and having issues.”

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

“We have some clients investing in the home office and planning on shrinking their bricks and mortar, so they’re going to save money on bricks and mortar or the lease. But then they have to invest in bandwidth and security for the remote office. It’s a huge issue.”

But that doesn’t solve the issues of security holes in the home wi-fi — which have weaker protocols, allowing hackers easier access to the network’s traffic — as well as the human element that makes workers vulnerable to phishing scams, which are the top cause of data breaches, and insecure passwords, which allow hackers easy access to multiple accounts in a short period of time.

“The Internet has become the Wild West over the last 10 years,” said Jeremiah Beaudry, president of Bloo Solutions in Chicopee, starting with scam e-mails — from phishing attacks to realistic-looking but nefarious sites that try to wrench passwords and data from users and install malware on their computers.

“I get e-mails from clients three or four times a day — it used to be once or twice a week — saying things like, ‘I got this e-mail asking me to wire money to a client,’” he noted. “You can’t stop people from pretending to be someone else, and the language is getting more and more clever.”

That combination of possibly flawed technology and human errors make the home office a particular concern in the world of cybersecurity.

“Nobody has the exact answers right now for how to make the most secure connection at a remote office,” Hogan said, adding that going to the cloud has been an effective measure for many businesses, while others have taken the more drastic step of setting up physical firewalls at remote sites for key employees — say, for the CEO or CFO. “We’ll lock them down if they’re actually connecting to files and servers that are really confidential.”

Possible solutions are plenty, he said — but it all begins with knowing exactly what equipment remote employees are dealing with, and what threats they pose.

Viral Spread

COVID-19 isn’t the only fast-spreading infection going around, Hogan said. In fact, “45% of home computers are infected with malware. That’s an eye opener for many people. It’s a huge issue, and removing it is a huge challenge.”

One problem is the human element — specifically, how users invite threats in by not recognizing them when they pop up. Take the broad realm of phishing — the setting in which people receive such pitches can actually make a difference in how they respond, Beaudry said.

“It’s harder to sift through it when working from home; it’s not natural. You’re out of your element when you’re sitting at our desk in your pajamas, as opposed to being in your office at work. You may not be reading your e-mail as carefully as you normally would. You may not be on alert.”

A big piece of the puzzle is end-user awareness, he said. “You want to have your employees educated about what’s out there, so they know how to spot forgeries.”

Alex Willis, BlackBerry’s vice president of Sales Engineering and ISV Partners, recently told Forbes that companies trust their employees to do the right thing, and workers are generally honest, but trust can be a dangerous thing.

“The problem with just trusting people is that employees don’t always do this on purpose,” Willis said. “Sometimes, it’s just purely unintentional. They are working on a home machine that’s riddled with malware. They need access to corporate data. For instance, if the company issues a slow laptop to an employee and the employee has to get their job done, they are going to use their home computer that is faster to do the job. In that scenario, the home computer might not be as secure.”

Jeremiah Beaudry

Jeremiah Beaudry says home networks aren’t typically built to run as efficiently — or safely — as those in a workplace.

Again, it’s that issue of the unknown, Beaudry told BusinessWest. “You don’t know what they have going on with their home networks. We didn’t set up the home connection, we don’t know what they have, and everyone has different people on it. Some are borrowing it from their apartment complex or sharing it with the neighbors, and they expect the internet to work perfectly. It’s not going to.”

In an office, on the other hand, everyone is using the same network, running at the same speed, with the same level of security and firewall protection. “Then, when they go home, there are so many variables.”

The best-case scenario is to give employer-owned devices to employees so they can remotely manage information.

“You can put antivirus on an employer-owned device; when they’re using their own devices, you don’t know what they’re doing to protect it,” Beaudry added. “And if the employee is laid off or fired, you would have the ability to control any employer-owned data.”

At the very least, he said, companies should encrypt the traffic between their network and individual users’ home computers.

“We put monitoring agents on remote clients that monitor for any viruses or malware and will update their antivirus and malware protection in some cases,” Hogan added.

Vigilant Approach

None of this completely addresses the speed and efficiency issues of home devices. “Usually, in a home office, they pay for their own bandwidth, and the business can’t say, ‘we don’t want your kid playing Fortnite,’” Hogan said. “That’s the challenge.”

“I get e-mails from clients three or four times a day — it used to be once or twice a week — saying things like, ‘I got this e-mail asking me to wire money to a client.’ You can’t stop people from pretending to be someone else, and the language is getting more and more clever.”

“Some clients will pay for a second, business-only connection for remote workers, he added. “But that’s pretty extreme; not many are doing that.”

More popular — and effective — is the move to a virtual environment. Working in the cloud, he noted, means not worrying about the hub-and-spoke relationship between physical servers and computers that’s the biggest weak point for security. “Most of my clients have eliminated that weakness.”

For some clients, the cybersecurity issue is especially critical — take medical businesses, for whom privacy is paramount in the HIPAA era. “That changes the game completely,” Hogan said, noting that one resource for companies handling sensitive data is a SOC, or security operations center.

“Clients who really value security can sign up with a SOC team that responds in case of a breach,” he explained. “It’s a lot of monitoring, detecting, and responding.”

Delcie Bean, CEO of Paragus IT, said any investment in platform migration and remote work has to be accompanied by investment in strong security tools — and education.

“The legacy tools and technologies used to secure networks for the past 10 years need not apply for this next wave of mobile workers,” he told BusinessWest. “Security of the future will be a lot more about multi-factor authentication, deep encryption, and will involve a lot more end-user training as well as testing than the command-and-control style approach of the past.”

Hogan agreed. “Password management is so massive,” he said, noting that people resist simple protections like multi-factor authentication, or even just using complicated passwords, or different passwords for different sites.

“We are also dark-web monitoring pretty consistently,” he added. “The dark web has been on fire lately — a lot of breaches.” Once data fall into those hands, the damage is done, he added, “but the important thing is to know what got breached, and if you can tell what credentials are out there, so you can change them.”

The bottom line, Beaudry said, is to make sure employees use unique passwords and encrypt connections remotely, and not using tools that are potentially vulnerable.

“And there’s a long list of tools known to be exploited by hackers, so it’s good to check with an IT professional before using any remote desktop method,” he added. “Some methods require you to open firewall ports that can leave you vulnerable to ransomware and all sorts of awful data breaches. The main thing is to make sure your firewall is locked down and no unnecessary ports are open, and you have backups of all data.”

That’s a lot to consider when moving into an era of expanded remote work — some of which comes at a cost. But the cost of ignoring it is much higher.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Mom Tech

Many people assume that working from home is less productive than spending time in the office. However, the opposite is oftentimes true. This is especially true now that technology allows for quick and easy communication between home and office, giving employees, especially moms, the ability to work efficiently from home while maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

When Tiffany Appleton looks back on raising her now-19-year-old daughter, she remembers how difficult it was to have a full-time job on top of the 24-hour job called parenting. As a single parent, she really didn’t have a choice whether to go to work or not — she had to find a way to balance the two.

And she did — but she also realizes how much easier that might have been in today’s world, where technology allows employees to work from home productively and sustain a healthy work-life balance.

Appleton, recruiter and director of the accounting and finance division at Johnson & Hill Staffing, finds more and more people are working from home, and sees benefits for both the employee and the employer.

“I’ve interviewed many people who have had a work-from-home schedule, and usually they say that they end up working more than they would if they were in the office,” she explained, adding that it is oftentimes easier to be productive at home than working in an office environment, with the myriad distractions found there.

“I think much of this desire for having flexibility to work remotely came from moms who wanted to have their hands in balancing both the career and raising a family, and not having to feel like they could only do one or the other.”

In fact, the work-from-home population has grown by 159% since 2005, and the number of employers offering a remote option has grown by 40% in the past five years. The start of this fairly new trend, Appleton said, can be attributed to the moms.

“I think much of this desire for having flexibility to work remotely came from moms who wanted to have their hands in balancing both the career and raising a family, and not having to feel like they could only do one or the other,” she said.

Mary Shea, vice president of digital strategy at GCAi, can attest to this. She’s a new mom of a 4½-month-old boy. She commutes from Sturbridge but works from home on Mondays and Fridays, a schedule she says took some getting used to but now allows her use her time more productively while helping her maintain a healthy lifestyle. Her position at GCAi includes building and managing ad campaigns for her clients, a job she says she can do very well remotely.

Between her long commute and having a new baby boy, Mary Shea says working from home twice a week makes a huge difference in her life.

“Most of the time, I don’t have to be in the office,” Shea told BusinessWest. “I’ve set it up where Mondays and Fridays are my set schedule. Those are the days I’ll work on things that I know are online, and then, the other three days, I come into the office or go on location for a video shoot.”

Working from home saves Shea three hours a day that would otherwise be spent in a car — time she spends either working more, grocery shopping, or fitting in some exercise. And she never feels disconnected from the company, knowing her team back in the Springfield office is only a phone call away.

“Technology today has enabled parents, particularly moms like me, to work remotely,” she said, adding that hard and soft technology like the cloud-based project-management system GCAi uses and applications on her phone make this possible. “Being able to work remotely in the situation I’m in now is pretty vital because it’s just such a busy week.”

Barriers to Success

Shea isn’t the only mom, or employee in general, who feels this way. Karen Buell, vice president of Operations at Payveris and mother of two, has been working from home three days a week for eight years.

“Some women are pushing off having a family or they’re choosing between a career and having a family. For me, I can choose both,” she said, adding that being part of a tech company makes this a pretty easy thing to do.

Tiffany Appleton says Western Mass. businesses are adopting work-from-home policies slower than bigger cities, but it is still becoming more normal in the area.

In fact, Buell says about a third of the employees at Payveris are 100% remote.

But for some employers, this can be a difficult thing to embrace. Appleton says the negative stigma that surrounds those who work from home can sometimes prevent employers from making the jump.

“I’ve found, in Western Mass., we’re a little slower to adopt it than the cities are,” she said. “Sometimes employers get scared by work-life balance and think, ‘that means people don’t want to work, they just want to have a life and pretend they’re working.’ They just assume the worst.”

This negative perception is one of the things Buell experienced in her early work-from-home days, with people telling her she’d have a hard time being visible or ever being promoted. Despite the lingering stereotype, she was promoted at Payveris just a couple months ago.

“It doesn’t hold you back. If you’re there and you’re showing up and being productive, you can do anything,” she said. “It’s not about where you are, it’s about how productive you can be.”

Another challenging aspect about working from home is maintaining a connection with those who are at the office. Both Appleton and Shea agreed this responsibility lies largely with the employee, but also the cooperation of co-workers to maintain connectivity.

“Keeping the culture of the office is probably the most important thing the employer can do when having people who are not in the office all the time — finding ways to make sure that they are included, even if they’re not there in person,” Appleton said.

This may even include something as simple as telling a co-worker not to bring a lunch tomorrow because the office is ordering pizza or letting them know that so-and-so down the hall got engaged.

“Those are the things that usually irk people,” she continued. “Making sure there are ways to include the people when they’re not there — and being very conscious to include them and make them feel like they are part of the team — is important.”

Karen Buell says employers would benefit from seeing the upside of remote work instead of focusing on the negatives.

Technology makes all this especially simple. Appleton says more and more employers are investing in the kinds of technology that can be accessed remotely, such as Freedcamp, a collaborative project-management system that GCAi uses for everyday business and communication.

Win-win Situation

With increasingly adaptive technology that allows employees to do things like videoconferencing and sending documents through group-sharing software within seconds, disconnectedness is becoming less and less of a problem.

“Taking the next step to make sure the tools you’re investing in for the office have those abilities for people to work from anywhere is crucial,” Appleton said.

When she thinks about becoming a working parent 19 years ago, she realizes how helpful modern technology would have been when her daughter was home sick from school and she had to take the day off from work. Or on a snow day, when it wouldn’t have been necessary to get in the car and drive to the office to be productive.

“It’s nice now that you can do everything you need to do from home,” she said. “I think it’s good for the employees and the employers at the end of the day.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]m