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On the Home Front

On one hand, it’s good to be working — many people during the COVID-19 crisis have lost their jobs. However, those who continue to clock in every day, only from home, often face challenges they never had to contend with before, from balancing work with their kids’ education to the anxiety and loneliness that can accompany a lack of face-to-face contact. But that’s today’s new normal, and no one can predict for sure when people might start heading back to the office.

As the office manager at Architecture EL in East Longmeadow, Allison Lapierre-Houle has plenty to do, but enough time to do it. Usually.

“I handle all the administrative tasks — anything HR-related, financial-related, pretty much everything outside what the architects do,” she said, adding that she’s never had to work outside her set hours — until recently.

“Now, I’ve been working on weekends a little bit, at night a little bit, because I have to take constant breaks in between for homeschooling, and all of the distractions that come with running a house and doing my job at the same time.”

Like so many others right now, Lapierre-Houle is still doing that job, only she’s doing it from home — as a single mother of a first-grader and a third-grader, ages 6 and 9.

While the school provides a remote learning plan that students are expected to follow, and daily assignments to complete every day using Chromebooks and Google software — as well as Zoom meetings with classmates — children that young aren’t exactly self-directed, she noted.

“If they were in high school, it would be completely different. In first grade, she literally just learned to read, and now she’s expected to go on the Chromebook and complete assignments. So I do lot of side-by-side work with the kids, while also trying to manage the eight employees for the company, who are all working remotely as well. That’s been the biggest challenge.”

Allison Lapierre-Houle to balance working at home

It’s challenging for Allison Lapierre-Houle to balance working at home with two young kids — but at least they can help take a photo for BusinessWest.

David Griffin Jr., vice president of the Dowd Insurance Agencies in Holyoke, is able to split the child-tending duties with his wife, who works for Travelers in Hartford. They’re both home these days, juggling their jobs and home responsibilities as parents of two young ones, ages 2 and 3.

“We’re making the most of it,” Griffin said. “She has a more set schedule than me. Obviously, I have clients calling me, and I can’t plan when the client calls me with questions I have to go through. I get as much done as I can in the morning and late at night, and answer calls and help customers throughout the day. Right now is their greatest time of need, so I have to make myself available and be there for them to lend an ear and give some advice.”

Jim Martin knows that feeling — of working from home at a time when customers have more pressing needs than perhaps ever before. As a partner at Robinson Donovan specializing in corporate law and commercial real estate, he’s been working with clients on their submissions for the Paycheck Protection Program, deciphering the regulations and grappling with an ongoing series of often-confounding changes to them. “My clients need straightforward legal advice on what needs to be included,” he told BusinessWest.

“I do lot of side-by-side work with the kids, while also trying to manage the eight employees for the company, who are all working remotely as well. That’s been the biggest challenge.”

He’s providing that advice — and much more — largely from home, as the firm’s Springfield office is maintaining the core minimum of personnel needed to connect everyone else during a trying time.

“We were well-prepared for this; we had anticipated this may be necessary, so we had a network in place that allowed people to remotely access their desktops from home,” he explained. We got everyone equipped, so when someone comes in with mail, it’s scanned and distributed to every lawyer and the support staff. And we have remote dictation, so I can dictate right to my adminstrative assistant from home. We feel we were pretty well-prepared to make the transition to working remotely.”

While Martin doesn’t have children at home, he empathizes with those who do, as day cares are closed and people generally can’t come by to babysit.

He does, however, sometimes have to vie for the landline with his wife, a clinical doctor of psychology who continues to see patients, who are dealing with all sorts of issues, from depression to anxiety to domestic violence, all of which can be exacerbated by the current health and economic crises.

“People who need therapy, they need it more now,” he said. “She fortunately has access to certified confidential means of communication, video communication and things, but sometimes it’s over the phone if folks don’t have technology. So, I’m in one room, she’s in another, and sometimes it’s stressful in the house.”

Workers from most sectors are dealing with the same situation — doing their part to keep their companies afloat while often keeping a household together. But they’re recognizing something else as well — a general patience and understanding among those they deal with, and a recognition that we’re all in this together, even as people grow more anxious to get back to their old routines.

Alone Time

Before COVID-19, Seth Kaye, a Chicopee-based photographer, would get up each morning and go to his office to work and have meetings with clients.

“For me, that’s the biggest difference right now, just not being around people at all,” he said. “I would routinely have coffee breaks or lunch with friends and colleagues; that’s how meetings would be done, face to face. Right now, everything’s over Zoom, which has been fantastic, but nothing face to face.”

Seth Kaye

Seth Kaye is among many professionals who miss face-to-face interaction with clients.

He brought his entire workstation home, so he’s able to stay in contact with clients and even book new work.

“In terms of contracts, there’s nothing for me to photograph right now, as the commercial events have all been canceled for the foreseeable future. Weddings are the lion’s share of what I do, and people are postponing those to later this year or 2021. But business is still going on. People are still getting engaged. I’m still booking new couples to 2021. The world hasn’t stopped, and people are still planning for the future. That gives me an enormous amount of optimism.”

And also a chance to pivot to other business needs, Kaye added. “I’m trying to take the to work on my marketing and work on personal projects and try new things.”

Griffin said the team at Dowd is pivoting in other ways. “We have five offices and 47 employees, and we’ve been able to get everyone up and running from home; we’re still at full capacity. Of course, the insurance industry is considered an essential business.

“Everyone wants to make this work, but it’s been tricky to say the least,” he added, noting that technology has been a huge help. Because the company uses an internet-based telephone system, everyone was able to take their phones home and plug them into their computers.

“Our receptionist is working from home, and she answers live and transfers the calls,” he said. “And most of the staff have two computer screens in the office, and they brought one of the screens home. So it’s funny — if you go into the office and see all the desks with nothing on them, it looks like we’ve been robbed, but that’s not the case.”

Lawyers are as busy as insurance agents these days, and Martin is a good example, whether it’s helping small businesses with federal stimulus programs or assisting companies scrambling to prepare for all contingencies during the pandemic.

“I spent some time over the last two weeks dealing with transfer ownership issues between shareholders and and/or partners, so if people own a company, either shares or in a partnership, they are now feeling it’s important to establish and confirm in writing how the shares will be transferred … and what the conditions are,” he explained.

Meanwhile, employment laywers are dealing with unemployment and leave issues, while real-estate attorneys grapple with pending projects held up by wholesale postponements of meetings with planning and zoning officials, and estate planners see an uptick in business from families getting their affairs in order (see story on page 24).

The list goes on — and most of the work is being done remotely.

“It is a challenge, if you haven’t worked from home before,” Martin said. “I know some people work from home regularly, but for those of us who haven’t, it’s a big adjustment period. At least it is for me.”

It certainly has been for Lapierre-Houle, and also her kids.

“I definitely find myself, especially in the evening, saying to them, ‘it’s a school night,’” she said. “For them, it doesn’t feel like a school night. They think they can get up whenever they want and stay up as late as they want, but I’m trying to keep us on schedule — they get up like for school, and I sign on to work at 8.”

Convincing students to treat these days like regular school days is undoubtedly something parents of older kids grapple with as well. And kids of all ages are likely tiring of the social isolation.

“They can’t see their friends except behind a computer screen … that’s a significant emotional challenge because they don’t understand the social aspect. But they still have to learn and do their schoolwork,” Lapierre-Houle noted, adding that the warmer weather gives a reprieve in that they can go outside — but also provides an additional distraction because they want to be outside, rather than inside doing schoolwork.

She does appreciate her boss, company president Kevin Rothschild-Shea, who, she says, has always emphasized work-life balance, which has made this transition a little easier for employees. “He’s always been very flexible with families or children, but there’s still pressure to get work done, not to mention all the distractions at home.”

New Routine

Clients have been equally understanding of the current situation, Griffin said. “They’re not giving us a hard time — ‘I need this in two hours.’ Again, turnaround times are out the window, and people have been very accommodating and very understanding of that.”

On a personal level, he does miss meeting clients in person. “There’s nothing like going out and seeing clients face to face and talking with them, trying to see what their energy level is, how business is going … I do miss that. I’ll be excited to get that aspect of things back because it is missed. Now we have to make do with what we have, and everyone is in the same boat together — it’s not like we’re at a competitive disadvantage because of it.”

“It’s funny — if you go into the office and see all the desks with nothing on them, it looks like we’ve been robbed, but that’s not the case.”

Kaye told BusinessWest that’s been a challenge for him as well.

“I would see people regularly, just in passing or at the coffee shop — the day-to-day stuff we take for granted, now that we’re not able to have that routine. The routine now is different,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s a temporary new normal, but that human contact is gone right now.

“I’m taking the quarantine thing seriously, aside from pharmacy drives and having people put food into the trunk of my car when I order it from local farms,” he added. “I haven’t had any face-to-face contact in about three weeks. Some of my friends are doing the same. Some of our parents are not, which is interesting. But the social aspect being gone is definitely challenging.”

As the virus has still not peaked, the next couple weeks will bring more of the same, and though people he talks to are starting to go a bit stir crazy, they’re adapting as best they can, Kaye said.

“The people I’ve been speaking with, whether it’s clients not sure what their plans are going to be for 2020 or talking about postponements, they’ve been really nice about it. They have their needs as business owners, and I have my needs and concerns, and so far everyone has been really great.”

That first coffee-shop meeting will still be pretty satisfying, though — whenever that might be.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Collaborative Culture

 President Paul Scully

President Paul Scully

When Country Bank sought to overhaul its space on South Street in Ware a few years ago — a former mill building that houses about 110 employees — its leaders banked on what they call a collaborative culture, where low cubicles, glass walls, and comfortable, casual meeting spaces all aim to promote better communication and interaction, and a work environment that appeals to the young professionals that comprise the bank’s future.

Walking down the wide main hallway of Country Bank’s headquarters in Ware, you notice certain things. The central, glass-walled café. Conference spaces with names like ‘Integrity Room’ and ‘Prosperity Room,’ reflecting the bank’s values. The occasional beach ball.

Wait, what?

“Someone said to me, ‘what’s the deal with the beach balls?’” bank President Paul Scully said. “Well, we had them at a company event, and they ended up in the hallway. And when you’re walking down the hall and someone’s coming toward you and there’s a beach ball there, what do you do? You kick it.”

It can be an icebreaker of sorts, he went on, as the roughly 110 employees who work in the former mill building on South Street — almost half of the entire Country Bank organization — don’t necessarily all know each other. But it’s also, well, kind of fun.

“For people who visit, it’s unexpected,” said Shelley Regin, the bank’s senior vice president of Marketing, who estimated about 40 such balls reside somewhere in the building. “Normally, the hallway’s full of beach balls, but they make their ways into the offices, too.”

While fun to kick around, Scully said, the balls also promote interaction, a concept which was, frankly, the driving force in a recent, multi-year renovation of Country Bank’s main office. It’s the reason cubicles were lowered, solid walls were replaced by glass, and some of the gathering spaces feature couches rather than traditional chairs.

“When we moved in here 13 years ago, everyone had a cubicle as tall as me, and you couldn’t see one another,” he told BusinessWest. “That didn’t foster good collaboration. And there was no daylight because the work stations were so tall, they blocked the daylight.”

Scully had a catchy description of what the renovation aimed to reflect — “Google comes to Ware” — and explained why that type of culture is important.

One of the casual meeting spaces at Country Bank

One of the casual meeting spaces at Country Bank, is meant to spur creative thinking in an informal setting.

“We love the fact that we are in a mill town and that we’re a flourishing business here. But how can we attract the talent we need? We’re a $1.6 billion bank with 14 locations and growing — and we need to have Millennial talent to help move it forward. And they’re not going to want to hide in a cubicle and come out twice a day, for lunch and to leave. We said, ‘let’s really look at what is happening in workspaces that’s breeding collaboration and fun, and people just working together as a whole unit.’”

Like the low cubicles, the glass promotes more openness as well, Regin said.

“They put me behind glass walls so they can keep an eye on me,” Scully joked, before noting that his office used to be tucked away in a corner, as opposed to its current spot at the end of that main hallway. “You never went there unless you had to. It didn’t do anything for collaboration, nor did it allow me really to be a part of things. Now, right here, at my desk, this is the hub.

“We’re a $1.6 billion bank with 14 locations and growing — and we need to have Millennial talent to help move it forward. And they’re not going to want to hide in a cubicle and come out twice a day, for lunch and to leave.”

“The glass just opens everything up,” he went on, “and it supports the philosophy that we’re all equal components of the organization, and it’s not like you have to be behind a closed wall to do important things. We do have shades that come down. But if you put the shades down, everyone’s going to want to know what’s going on in Paul’s office, so you might as well just have them up and let them see.”

For this issue’s focus on banking and finance, BusinessWest paid a visit to Ware to learn how Country Bank is using its thoroughly 21st-century space — and several touches of fun that go well beyond the stray beach ball — to better position itself as an employer of choice at a time when competition is high for young talent.

Milling About

When Country Bank moved its headquarters in 2005 from Main Street to 44,000 square feet of former mill space on nearby South Street, it had options to relocate in another town, but the bank’s leaders felt it important to remain an economic engine in the community it had called home for more than 150 years.

“We looked at adding onto the main office, which was a Band-Aid approach, and then this fell in our lap,” Scully said of the former American Athletic Shoe plant, famous for its ice skates. “It was a very large employer, and had maintained the building meticulously. We have a lot of space here. You could easily say we could use half of it, but it works well for us; it allows us to have a big area for innovation and technology, and we have a whole education facility as well.”

The first renovation, to make the space suitable for bank operations, took place 13 years ago, and included those high cubicles and some decidedly unattractive color schemes and décor.

“Everything was kind of a pale yellow,” Scully said. “I started to walk around one Saturday and said, ‘this is awful. The color tones aren’t energizing. You can’t see anything. Let’s bulldoze it down and make it something where people are going to come in and say it’s is a really cool space.’

“It’s a great company, too, which is more important than being a cool space,” he was quick to add. “But you have to have those two together in order to really have it become a destination.”

As opposed to 2005, however, the latest renovation, which began around 2015, took place while people were working in the building — and often shifting around to accommodate the changes. “I moved five times in a year,” Regin said.

One of the casual meeting spaces at Country Bank

One of the casual meeting spaces at Country Bank, is meant to spur creative thinking in an informal setting.

“Really, the key piece was that group that moved into the first section that was done,” Scully recalled. “They were going to make it or break it for us, because if they said, ‘oh, it’s awful,’ we were doomed. Like anything else, when you say you’re going to change something, people immediately think of 1,000 reasons why it’s not going to work. It’s like Who Moved My Cheese? — ‘you’re throwing me off, you didn’t ask my input.’

But when that first group of employees settled in, they were more than satisfied. “Within the first week, they invited everybody in the building for brunch on a Friday because they were so excited about their space. We didn’t pay them for that. I think it spoke to just how much they loved it.”

The renovation stretched over two years because of the need to work around each department. In addition to the collaborative elements, the building also features a conference center with state-of-the-art multi-media equipment, an expansive IT space, and a number of small activity rooms. A gym was considered at one point, but Scully worried that it might turn into wasted space if interest waned, and besides, there’s a gym around the corner that Country didn’t want to siphon business from.

He had reservations about the central café as well, but that has proven to be a big hit. The fridge is stocked with fresh fruit all week, and Fridays feature a brunch with pastries or a yogurt bar. Then there are the Friday-morning games, like Hangman or Pictionary, that began with a few employees sneaking away from the brunch.

“We would all be hanging in the café, and one of the departments would go in a conference room and close the doors every Friday, and that wasn’t really working with me,” Scully recalled. When he found out they were using the short morning break to play games, however, “I said, ‘how about if you do that for everybody?’ They said, ‘really? We can do that?’”

bank based in an old mill building.

Paul Scully says visitors are often surprised to see a bank based in an old mill building.

So now, employees get an e-mail telling them what that Friday’s game is, and anyone is welcome to join in. It’s as much a way to get people talking and collaborating as are the small meeting spaces decked out with couches.

“When you go into a conference room, so often people think there’s a protocol of behavior, in the way you interact with one another,” Scully said. “It’s different when you’re sitting on a couch, bouncing ideas around. That’s what we really wanted to do — have it so people can think in an innovative fashion and look at things totally differently.”

Have a Ball

If visitors and new employees are surprised by the culture being fostered inside the building, he added, the exterior can be unexpected, too.

“I had a gentleman come in last week, and I explained, ‘OK, we’re in a mill building. And you’re going to think, this can’t be it. But you’re in the right place.’ And he said to me, ‘Scully, you’ve explained to us your building before, but this is not the typical bank,’ and I said, ‘at many levels, we’re not the typical bank.’ And that’s fine with us.”

He recalled speaking with someone who had also renovated a mill some years ago. “When I explained about the beach balls, he said, ‘beach balls?’ I couldn’t decide at that time whether we had just lost his confidence in us as a bank or not. But that wasn’t the case at all. The next day, I Federal Expressed him a bunch of beach balls and got a text from him the following day saying, ‘where’s the pump?’ I have every reason to believe those beach balls are flying through the air at his office as well.”

Banking, admittedly, has a staid reputation, and it’s not necessarily a field young people get excited about, he noted. But it is an industry where the culture is changing, and banks with an ear toward what Millennials prefer — when it comes to collaboration, flexibility, and even fun — will have an edge in attracting them.

“We would all be hanging in the café, and one of the departments would go in a conference room and close the doors every Friday, and that wasn’t really working with me.”

“This isn’t about a space,” he said. “It’s about the present and the future. Clearly, my generation is the minority this building, which is great. The Scully generation can’t be the generation that dictates how we’re going to do business. We want to be able to attract young talent and then unleash them, and let them think about how to do things differently.”

In that sense, the physical space is critical, Regin said. And it’s working. “A few years ago, most of our people who worked here were very local — 20 minutes to a half-hour away — and now they’re coming an hour. When they come to this space and realize what Country Bank has to offer, they’re willing to travel that hour, or even longer.”

In a job market where banks have to compete for talent, she added, Country Bank has plenty to offer when it comes to culture. “When people walk in here and see there’s a collaborative atmosphere, that’s important. That’s what people are looking for, especially the Millennial segment — they want to be at a place where they feel valued and there’s room for growth. It’s a destination, not just a job, where they sit in their cube all day and don’t see anyone.”

Scully agreed. “It’s important to have a place where, if someone is comparing their options, hopefully they say, ‘hey we like the option of coming here.’”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]