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Best of Both Worlds

Michael Galat says Big Y is scheduling employees in a way that balances the company’s needs with their own.

Michael Galat says Big Y is scheduling employees in a way that balances the company’s needs with their own.

Looking over the past year and a half, Lisa Verville isn’t surprised the O’Connell Companies operated smoothly with the vast majority of its team working from home.

“People have stepped up, they did what they needed to do, and work got done,” said Verville, director of Human Resources for the large family of businesses that includes Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, O’Connell Development Group, Appleton Corp., and New England Fertilizer Corp.

“Now, the technical piece of it — if this happened 20 years ago, I can’t imagine it would have worked as well as it did. We didn’t have Zoom back then,” she added. “But we have a very dedicated team. I’m not surprised it worked well.”

Which is why remote work will continue at O’Connell — to a point. Starting last month, employees were required to work on site at least three days a week, and more if they want to.

“We miss everybody,” Verville said. “We have a great culture, and we don’t want to lose that culture. If people are 100% remote, I think there’s a risk of losing that — do people feel connected to their organization if they’re not here, cooperating and collaborating with their team?”

At the same time, “we know we have to balance that with what’s going on with our workers. We want our employees to be happy and feeling as though there’s a balance. That’s our goal.”

Welcome to the new, hybrid workplace, which looks to be a dominant model for employers across myriad industries, at least for the near future.

“People tell us they can do both,” Verville said. “I think it works, and allows for that work-life balance. I think people appreciate the flexibility.”

Big Y has been operating on a hybrid model for its support-center workers since early in the pandemic, said Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services. And that will continue.

“Obviously, our stores are open nights and weekends, and our goal, as always, is to make sure we’re taking care of our store employees and our customers at all times,” he said. “Business needs may be different for different positions. It’s finding the right balance — making sure we’re taking care of customers but also allowing our people the autonomy to work from home.”

That’s the thinking at MassMutual as well, said Sue Cicco, head of Human Resources and Employee Experience. The company’s return-to-office approach will balance flexibility with in-person collaboration, with most employees transitioning to a hybrid model, working some days in the office and some days remotely.

Ross Giombetti

Ross Giombetti

“I could see a lot of businesses and leaders getting impatient and frustrated; they want the old way to come back and expect everything to be great. But that’s not how it works.”

“We will also continue to support fully remote and fully in-office arrangements where it makes sense,” she added. “Importantly, this approach is designed to incorporate employee flexibility, so it will look different across the company, depending on role, function, and business needs.”

With most employees working 100% remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, she explained, “we learned that we can successfully operate in a virtual work environment. That said, we also think there’s value in teams meeting in person to spur creativity, social connection, and collaboration.”

The goal now is to build on the work-life flexibility MassMutual has offered for years, while taking into account employees’ feedback from recent engagement and surveys.

“Similar to how we approach many new situations,” Cicco said, “we’ll assess and evolve our approach as we learn more about what works best for our customers, employees, and company.”

 

Culture of Caring

Ross Giombetti, president of Giombetti Associates — a leadership institute that helps businesses acquire and develop top talent — said the vast majority of his clients are currently maintaining a hybrid model and anticipate sticking with it for at least a while.

“I think most companies realized that, contrary to the initial concerns they may have had, a lot of people were very productive during the pandemic, working remotely, and it actually went a lot better than they thought,” he told BusinessWest. “So a lot of organizations realized that’s here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.”

At the same time, he added, employers are finding resistance to bringing workers back full-time because remote work has become a habit.

“If you think about how habits are formed and what makes humans comfortable with something, it takes a full 90 days for a new norm or new habit to become part of our routine. Take mask wearing — I would bet most of us took about 90 days to get comfortable and used to wearing a mask.”

Well, many employees stayed home more than five times that long, so the habit has become deeply ingrained, becoming the new norm. Giombetti also noted that many employees told to return to the office, at least part of the time, may be uncomfortable doing so, still fearful of gathering in groups.

Sue Cicco

Sue Cicco

“By making sure our employees have the flexibility to take care of their families, we set off a virtuous cycle where our people are taken care of, and in turn they can take care of their communities, and that extends to how we can take care of our customers.”

In other words, working at home is a hard habit to break, for many reasons. That’s why most businesses are looking at hybrid scheduling as an acceptable option.

“I could see a lot of businesses and leaders getting impatient and frustrated; they want the old way to come back and expect everything to be great,” he said. “But that’s not how it works. A lot of the advice I’m giving people is to be patient with the process, be patient with people returning to work, whether hybrid or fully. When people are back around large groups of people, there will probably be some nervousness, and we need to be understanding of that.”

At Giombetti’s own company in Wilbraham, Fridays are remote days for everyone, and employees can request to work at home any other day they feel they’ll get more done there, with fewer distractions.

“If our team needs that, I encourage it. That’s how we operate,” he said. “I think many organizations understand it’s better to measure results, attitude, and performance than where they’re doing the work from.”

Galat said Big Y’s leadership learned many lessons over the past 17 months.

“One is that we can still be very productive while employees are working from home — there’s an increase in employee productivity when employees are happy. We’ve always considered ourselves a culture of caring, and this [remote work] has helped people balance their personal needs, whether it’s child care, elder care, whatever.

“I also think a big part of productivity is flexibility,” he went on. “Some may log on earlier in the morning, or at times work later at night.”

While working from home saves on travel time and can boost productivity in other ways, he admitted that it’s important that colleagues come in a few days a week to make sure they’re not missing out on the collaborative components of their jobs. Therefore, managers are expected to work on site at least three days a week, and everyone else at least two.

“Again, it depends on the business needs. That’s a very important component of it,” Galat said. “There may be weeks they have to come in every day, and there may be weeks they can work more from home. Each area supervisor works with them to find that balance based on the business needs and what’s going on in their personal life.”

Workers appreciate that kind of consideration, Cicco added. “By making sure our employees have the flexibility to take care of their families, we set off a virtuous cycle where our people are taken care of, and in turn they can take care of their communities, and that extends to how we can take care of our customers.”

 

Culture of Collaboration

That said, companies see value in making sure their workforce is physically present, at least part of the time,

“We think there’s value in both in-person collaboration and the flexibility created by working remotely,” Cicco said, adding that most MassMutual employees responding to surveys or other outreach preferred the hybrid option.

“We’ve learned that, while we appreciate the increased flexibility of remote work, we also miss the value we get from face-to-face meetings, impromptu conversations, collaboration across work groups, and what we learn when we’re together,” she went on. “Not to mention the social aspects — having lunch, bumping into friends around the building, and catching up over a cup of coffee.”

In addition, “we believe the connection that comes with being face-to-face brings energy, encourages innovative thinking, accelerates learning, and strengthens relationships and community,” Cicco noted. “With this in mind, we will encourage work groups to come together regularly, for the benefit of their work and their team.”

Giombetti said most of his clients offering hybrid work stress the need to be physically present at times — brainstorming and working through critical issues at a staff meeting, for instance. “Some things are best done in a room with other people. And most clients have found their employees are totally comfortable with that.”

The other challenge for companies has to do with culture, camaraderie, and the kind of collaboration that can’t be easily achieved over Zoom.

“A lot of organizations are training specifically on that topic,” he said. “While you’re honoring the flexibility of your teammates and employees, it’s important to make sure you can maintain that great culture you’ve built.”

Galat agreed, noting that, while Zoom and similar tools have their place and have been an important piece of keeping staff connected, some collaborations are more effective in person.

“We’re big on culture here — that’s a very, very important part of it. When you don’t see people at least part of the time, it’s hard to strengthen those relationships. It’s all about relationship building, and that goes back to who we are as an organization, caring about employees. Yes, we’re allowing them to work from home, but building relationships with people over the years when we don’t see them some of the time, that’s difficult.”

At the same time, Big Y has prepared a series of best practices for employees working remotely, including the need to take regular breaks. “Productivity is important getting the job done,” Galat said, “but we also want to make sure people are taking some time away as well.”

Giombetti said remote work has allowed some bad habits to creep back in, including a tendency to multi-task to the detriment of the main task.

“If you’re in the office, in the conference room, having a meeting, most of us know it would be foolish to pick up the phone when someone is talking to us because that’s just rude,” he explained, noting that it happens much more often during a Slack, Teams, or Zoom meeting. “Unfortunately, the last year and a half maybe caused us to retrench a little bit, and the amount of multi-tasking has increased. We have to guard against that.”

 

Unexpected Absence

Verville remembers the week in March 2020 when O’Connell’s Holyoke headquarters emptied for what most employees thought would be a temporary detour home.

“People did what they needed to do. There was a real commitment there,” she said. “But I personally didn’t think it would last this long. I think most people left the office and said, ‘see you in a couple weeks.’ No one thought it would be this long. And I missed everyone, so it’s great to get back to some sense of normalcy, if you will.”

That new norm seems to be an understanding among employers that their workers value flexibility, but also that the workplace culture will suffer without some face-to-face collaboration.

“It’s a hard balance,” Giombetti said, “but I think organizations that are intentional about it do it best; that’s the recipe for success.”

It could also be a recipe to attract talent at a time when many companies are struggling with hiring and retention, as many potential workers would be more amenable to a hybrid schedule than five days a week away from home.

“It’s about being able to attract and retain the top talent and finding that balance between supporting the stores — providing the tools to get their jobs done — and being accessible so that people say, ‘hey, I can work at home, and they care about me — I can take care of my family’s needs as well,’” Galat said. “It’s all about the workplace culture, and work-life balance is part of it. We want the best of both worlds.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Agenda

On the Move Forum to Advance Women

March 8: In honor of Women’s History Month in March and International Women’s Day, Bay Path University, Springfield Museums, and UnityFirst will present the fifth annual On the Move Forum to Advance Women from 10 to 11:30 a.m. This year’s theme, “Women in Leadership: This Is What Change Looks Like — Past, Present, and Future,” offers virtual attendees an intergenerational, cross-cultural, gender-inclusive, and history-infused conversation focused on women. Now in its fifth year, the event has engaged more than 1,000 women in community conversations and presentations on women’s history, empowerment, and advancement. This year’s event aligns with the priority theme of the 65th session of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women, “Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World.” According to Catalyst, in 2020, women of color represented only 18% of entry-level positions, and few advanced to leadership positions. While white women held almost one-third (32.8%) of total management positions in the U.S. in 2020, Asian women (2.2%), black women (4.1%), and Hispanic women (4.5%) held a much smaller share. The 2021 On the Move Forum will feature an opening perspective by Ariana Curtis, director of “Content: Race, Community, and Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past” at the Smithsonian Institution. The keynote presentation will be given by On the Move’s inaugural scholar, Laura Lovett, associate professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh and author of With Her Fist Raised: Dorothy Pitman Hughes and the Transformative Power of Black Activism. This event is free and open to the public and is hosted in collaboration with a range of organizations, including Springfield Museums, Women Innovators and Trailblazers, the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Girls Inc. of the Valley, Arise for Social Justice, the African American Female Professors Assoc., NAMIC New England, Creative Futures, LLC, and others. Registration is required. To register, visit baypath.edu/onthemove.

 

WMAS Radiothon to Benefit Baystate Children’s Hospital

March 9-10: Six-month-old Celine Grace Stewart spent the first 11 days of her life inside the Davis Neonatal Infant Care Unit (NICU) at Baystate Children’s Hospital. Hattie Avigliano also spent the first months of her life in the NICU at Baystate Children’s Hospital, arriving in the world 3½ months early and fighting for her life. These children and their families will share their miraculous stories of surviving and thriving during the 20th annual 94.7 WMAS Radiothon to benefit Baystate Children’s Hospital. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event will not be held at the hospital this year, but broadcast live from the WMAS studios for two days from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. WMAS on-air personalities, led by the Kellogg Krew of Chris, Dina, and Lopez, will fill both days with encouraging stories, and listeners will get to know the professional team from Baystate Children’s Hospital who care for their kids, their grandkids, and their neighbors’ kids. To donate, the public can call the Lia Auto Group Phone Bank at (413) 794-1111, visit wmaskids.com, or text WMASKIDS to 51555. This year’s Radiothon will be held in remembrance of Jim Raimo, 94.7 WMAS team member and Radiothon supporter, who showed great dedication to Baystate Children’s Hospital.

 

Pynchon Award Nominations

Through March 19: The Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts is seeking nominations from throughout Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire counties for the Pynchon Award, which recognizes Western Mass. citizens who have rendered distinguished service to the community. To nominate an individual, submit a one-page letter explaining why the nominee should be considered. Include biographical information, outstanding accomplishments, examples of service to the community, organizations in which the individual is or has been active, and the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of at least three people who can further attest to the nominee’s eligibility for induction into the Order of William Pynchon. The Pynchon trustees reserve the right to eliminate nominations from consideration due to insufficient information. Qualifying nominees will be considered and researched by the Pynchon trustees, who are the current and five past presidents of the Advertising Club. Nominations must be submitted by March 19 to William Pynchon Trustees, Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts, P.O. Box 1022, West Springfield, MA 01090-1022, or by e-mail to [email protected]. The 2021 recipients will be announced in June, with an awards ceremony tentatively scheduled for the fall.

 

Ubora, Ahadi Award Nominations

Through March 31: The Springfield Museums is seeking nominations for the annual Ubora Award and Ahadi Youth Award. These prestigious awards — conferred by the African Hall Subcommittee — are awarded to African-American people from Greater Springfield who have gone above and beyond in demonstrating commitment to the fields of community service, education, science, humanities, and/or the arts. The nomination deadline for both awards is March 31. The Ubora and Ahadi awards will be presented at a ceremony at the Springfield Museums in the fall. True to the Swahili word that comprises its name, the Ubora Award recognizes an adult of African heritage who exemplifies excellence in their commitment to creating a better community through service. In 2020, the Ubora Award was given to Rep. Bud Williams. Named for the Swahili word for promise, the Ahadi Youth Award is presented to a young African-American who excels in academics and performs admirable service to the Greater Springfield community. Eligible candidates must be age 19 or younger, live in or have strong ties to the Greater Springfield area, and be currently enrolled in grades 10, 11, or 12. In 2020, the Ahadi Award was given to Kareem Wedderburn. Nomination forms can be downloaded by visiting springfieldmuseums.org/ubora. Nominations may be e-mailed to [email protected] or mailed to African Hall Subcommittee, c/o Valerie Cavagni, Springfield Museums, 21 Edwards St., Springfield, MA 01103.

 

Fundraising Walk in Remembrance of Dave Stawasz

April: Western New England University (WNEU) faculty, colleagues, family members, and students are invited to participate in a commemorative event in memory of Assistant Vice President of Marketing Communications Dave Stawasz, who passed away peacefully on Jan. 28, surrounded by his family, after a courageous two-year battle with stage-4 colorectal cancer. Stawasz was a graduate of South Hadley High School and Syracuse University. His early career was as a news producer at WWLP and then later at WFSB. He joined the university in 2004. Steps for Stawasz is a virtual walk taking place throughout the month of April in his honor. Participants will log as many virtual steps as they can during the month by either walking or running while collecting donations along the way through friends and family sponsorships. By signing up, participants will receive a link to share on social media. From there, participants can create a personal giving page to collect donations and update progress. Details and instructions can be found at runsignup.com/race/ma/springfield/stawasz. Interested individuals can also make a direct donation on the website without participating in the walk. All proceeds will go directly to the Stawasz family.

 

Institute for Trustees

Starting April 7: Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation (BTCF) announced it is partnering with the Essex County Community Foundation (ECCF) in presenting the 2021 Institute for Trustees, an annual conference inviting nonprofit leaders to gather together for educational workshops and networking opportunities. Building on the success of BTCF’s 2018 Board Leadership Forum and designed for board leaders and executive directors, the event features 24 virtual workshops from leading nonprofit experts and opportunities to connect with hundreds of peers equally committed to their leadership roles. This partnership is part of a broader effort between BTCF and ECCF to leverage resources in support of building capacity and leadership within the nonprofit sector, given the challenges facing organizations due to the pandemic and its economic consequences. The Institute for Trustees kicks off on April 7 with a keynote address by Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, titled “Leading for Nonprofit Impact Amid Unprecedented Challenge.” Beginning April 9, workshops and opportunities to connect with fellow attendees through topic-driven, informal peer discussions will be spread over the course of four weeks. Workshop topics include racial equity, endowment building, crisis planning, governance, advocacy, finance, and much more. To register for the program, visit eccf.org/ift. Registrations will be accepted at a discounted early-bird rate of $110 until March 7. After that, registration will cost $130 and will close April 7.

 

Springfield Partners for Community Action Scholarships

Through April 23: Springfield Partners for Community Action announced it will award a number of $1,000 scholarships that can help recipients with tuition and alleviate the cost of going back to school and investing in bettering themselves. All applicants must be Springfield residents, and income-eligibility guidelines may apply. Scholarships will be awarded to those attending accredited/licensed schools in Massachusetts. Applications must be received by April 23. Late entries will not be considered. If selected, recipients must be available to attend an awards event (most likely virtual) in June. Visit www.springfieldpartnersinc.com/whatwedo/scholarshipsprogram for the application form and information on how to apply.

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