Returning to work: Businesses slowly begin bringing staff back to office

June 15, 2020

It was a coincidence but still good timing that MarketBeat’s first physical office was ready just as businesses throughout Sioux Falls were beginning to return staff members who had worked from home for months to slow the spread of COVID-19.

It also represents what a post-COVID workplace might look like.

“My intent is not for any employee to be working out of the office full time, so there aren’t any dedicated desks for our team members,” founder Matt Paulson said.

“Instead, we have a variety of seating areas, including tables, a bar area, standing desks and some couches, so that everyone can work at a place that is comfortable for them.”

The space in the Crane Centre on East Eighth Street has a modern industrial look to blend with the building’s exposed brick. Fun elements include custom hardwood tables, a mural of downtown Sioux Falls, local art, an Italian espresso machine and a lot of plants – including a Venus’ flytrap.

Paulson moved in as soon as the space was ready, and there have been a couple of team meetings, “but I have largely left it up to my employees as to whether they work from home, our new office or somewhere else,” he said, adding there have been two or three people in the office most days while others have stayed home because of high-risk family members.

There won’t be a ribbon-cutting or open house for now, and he’s trying to limit the number of people in the office to reduce exposure.

“We try to keep our distance from one another when we are in the office and limit the number of employees that are in the office at the same time,” he said. “We also installed a PECO air purifier in the office, which supposedly kills airborne viruses, but who knows if it’s actually making a difference.”

As a company that has always been “remote first” and worked out of places such as Queen City Bakery and the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship before going fully remote in March, it wasn’t a big adjustment to shift to all online communication, he added.

“I think the initial fear of COVID-19 in the business world has passed, especially in our part of the country,” Paulson said.

“We are now transitioning to a time where businesses are reopening and taking smart, science-based precautions to protect their employees and their employees’ families. COVID-19 doesn’t have to stop the ongoing march of business, but it is a risk that needs to be managed.”

In the past two weeks, many businesses that transitioned workers to home are starting to bring them back, while acknowledging it’s too soon to tell when or if operations might ever return to the same approach as before the pandemic.

Downtown, especially, has seen a noticeable drop in the number of people coming into offices and subsequently patronizing area businesses since COVID-19 began.

Those numbers slowly are starting to come back, though.

Today marks the next step in a phased approach for The First National Bank in Sioux Falls, which will increase its downtown workforce to 82 people, up from 67 as of June 5 and nearly half of the 168 people who worked in the downtown office and main branch before COVID-19.

At the end of June, the bank plans to revisit several departments to discuss plans going forward.

“We’re in very much of a phased return to work, with our commitment to our team and customers and keeping our community safe at all our locations,” said Jennifer Reecy, the bank’s chief employee experience officer.

“We recognize we are in pandemic times and are trying to do our best to prepare ourselves. As an essential business, we know we need to stay open to our public, and as leaders we want to help people feel comfortable in this staggered approach and be mindful of safety and well-being concerns.”

The bank used a survey developed by Gallup to determine what was working well and what could be improved, as well as how employees were coping.

“We have a need to understand how our teammates are managing through these times of intense change and disruption,” Reecy said.

The bank also held dozens of one-on-one meetings with managers to make sure they were bringing people back in a safe way.

That includes bringing in different shift rotations to allow for more distancing, adding plexiglass for barriers and providing wellness bags with branded masks, a digital thermometer for temperature taking before coming to work and hand sanitizer.

They even talked about how “some are more comfortable with social distancing than others, so coaching people on how they ask people to step back,” Reecy said.

An internal well-being committee “has been fabulous with tips, tricks, supporting activities and really built a team camaraderie,” she added. “It has become a tighter group of individuals and teams. They have really stepped up to help each other.”

The bank has been flexible in its phased return and is re-evaluating conditions weekly, she said.

“I wish I had a crystal ball on when phase three will be put in place, but it’s a gradual transition, and there’s been a lot of grace given on everyone’s side, and the job is getting done. We’re not worried about it because everything is being met.”

Inside downtown’s Cherapa Place, offices also are coming back to life.

The Sioux Falls office for Marsh & McLennan Agency transitioned about 110 people to remote work in March and is bringing back the first 20 percent today.

“Our philosophy is to take a slow and steady approach, as the health and safety of our colleagues is of the most importance,” director of operations Jenae Ste. Marie said.

The firm also did a survey to gauge if employees were capable and comfortable coming back and used that to develop a return-to-office plan.

It also worked with its in-house corporate business resiliency team to put the right processes in place for safety.

“Our decision to bring colleagues back was based on local government mandates and guidance, monitoring of community outbreak conditions, our ability to provide proper social distancing and enhanced cleaning of our facility and leadership approval,” Ste. Marie said.

“We will continue to monitor this criteria to help us determine when we will begin to bring our next phase of colleagues into the office.”

At Woods, Fuller, Shultz & Smith, the nearly 90 employees and attorneys made the shift to working remotely in the early stages of COVID-19.

woods fuller

Managing partner Dave Kroon said it was “a fairly seamless transition, and we were proud of how everyone handled the challenge.”

As of June 1, the firm decided to open the office back up to the public with full staff, while monitoring case numbers and following state and federal guidelines.

“We continue to take recommended precautions to keep our staff and clients safe by limiting access to our offices by appointment, limiting the number of meeting participants in our conference rooms, sanitizing conference rooms between every meeting and providing masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to staff and clients,” Kroon said.

Conservative approaches

Many businesses say they are taking a conservative approach to returning people to the office – especially those that have a presence in many states.

At Eide Bailly LLP, which has offices nationwide, the 125-member Sioux Falls office received approval to begin a phased return starting June 8. That was after a reopening committee assessed the cases and percent positive rate in the Sioux Falls area.

During this stage, employees are still advised to work from home while about 25 percent of them are approved to work full or part time from the downtown office.

“And I expect that will last at least a couple weeks, if not until the end of June,” partner and CPA Derrick Larson said.

“We don’t know what phase two will look like. As a firm we’re looking at phase two … trying to keep our offices to allowing less than 50 percent of the workforce in the building during a given week in case there is an outbreak, so we know who entered the building and we’re monitoring that very closely.”

To decide who returned first, the firm surveyed its workforce and chose “those who really had a strong desire to get back to the office,” Larson said.

“It was administrative people and partners, a few managers, very few staff. The majority of staff is continuing to work remote, and they responded they feel working remote is going great and they don’t have a strong interest in returning in phase one.”

Back at the office, there is significantly more cleaning and there are changes to make sure employees are charged with things like cleaning up after themselves and wiping down the copy machine. They have to sign in and out.

“In phase one – and this will probably remain in effect through the end of the year – because we’re going to have a number of people working remote, we’re requiring any internal meetings to be done by Microsoft Teams or Zoom to make sure those working outside the office are not feeling left out. Especially in phase one, we’re not allowing any meetings in conference rooms.”

At Wells Fargo & Co., about 200,000 employees companywide are working from home and will be until at least July 31. In Sioux Falls, that includes about 110 employees who typically work in the downtown office and the majority employees in the administrative areas and operations centers.

For jobs that require coming into work, there are enhanced social distancing measures and staggered staff and shifts.

“We do not yet know when our business-as-usual activities will resume. We are creating a thoughtful, phased plan for returning to the workplace, and we will use guidance from health experts to maintain a safe workplace for all employees, including those who have continued to work from the office and those who will be returning to the office over the course of time,” spokesperson Staci Schiller said.

Great Western Bancorp Inc., which is based in Sioux Falls and has Great Western Bank locations in nine states, has about 75 percent of its Sioux Falls workforce working from home.

All branches are drive-up only. The downtown headquarters “typically has 150 people in the building, and right now we’re running at maybe 20 percent at most, coming and going,” said Andy Pederson, head of people and culture.

“We are still taking a conservative approach. We don’t have a definite timeframe yet and are watching the activity of the cases in town. We’re been functioning pretty well working from home, so we’re going to take a phased approach. Looking at maybe 25, 20 percent of Sioux Falls buildings over the course of the next month is probably the best estimate. We have no plans on full capacity at this point back in the buildings.”

Returning to the office will be voluntary, he added.

“We don’t even know when we’re going to open the downtown branch for customers,” he said. “It will not be in the month of June. We tend to follow the national banks and what they’re doing. If you look at Sioux Falls, some of the local banks have opened up and credit unions, but the bigger banks are not.”

He also has noticed more traffic downtown as he comes and goes from work.

“Two months ago, it was a ghost town down here,” he said. “It’s the locals that are coming back, but the more nationally spread out corporations are they’re not in any hurry. For us, it’s not worth the risk to have 100 people in the building and have one case shut it down.”

Workers weigh in

Workers also don’t seem to be in a big hurry to return, according to the most recent SiouxFalls.Business COVID-19 survey, in partnership with the Augustana Research Institute.

It was conducted in early June and found about 60 percent of workers said they have been working from home because of COVID-19.

Of those, nearly all would prefer to either continue working from home or split between the office and home. Twelve percent of respondents said they wanted to go back to the workplace.

“My spouse is in a high-risk health care role,” one said. “People at my work don’t take it seriously.”

Another commutes 45 minutes and said it didn’t make sense to take that time only to isolate in an office for the day.

“Technology makes it easy to work from home, but I do miss the face-to-face (on) occasion,” one said.

Another said she gets more work done at home, without stopping to commute, shower or get dressed up.

“Human interaction is just as important as eating healthy,” another added. “Too many people are impacted by not socializing with others. Mental health is crucial.”

Others said they are happier at home, appreciate the added family time and worry about putting themselves at unnecessary risk in the workplace.

“It’s hard to get things done at home but concerning to return to the workplace,” another said. “It’s OK as long as we are not open to the public, as staff are taking it seriously. But I am concerned about when we open our doors. I am also concerned about violence and threats we receive on a daily basis on our phone lines.”

Another noted thate  the ergonomics are better in the office, but “based on what I’ve seen in the past, some people who work in close proximity at the office are slobs who believe their coughs and sneezes are confined to their cubicles.”

Going forward, businesses likely will assess the benefits and drawbacks of allowing more remote work.

At Eide Bailly, “we’re definitely thinking this will impact our offices and how many people work remote,” Larson said.

“I feel like there are going to be a number of our employees who would prefer to continue to work from home, at least part time. Up to this point, we had a handful who worked from home but the majority worked from the office. I could see that transitioning to allow more flexibility … and I think our employees are going to demand that, and to remain competitive we have to offer that flexibility going forward, but as a firm we don’t know what that will look like and what kind of policy changes will come as a result of this.”

From reopening to wearing masks, Sioux Falls weighs in on COVID-19 recovery

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Returning to work: Businesses slowly begin bringing staff back to office

Ready to return to the office? We checked in with businesses slowly bringing people back and with employees who have been working from home.

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