The office v. home: Local companies defining what work will look like this year and beyond

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

The Dayton systems engineering company, Mile Two, opens its new office and will have employees work remote or in the office

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

For many regional employers, a hybrid of remote and in-person work will continue.

What started as a work-from-home experiment born of necessity in the COVID-19 era is likely to become far more common in the Dayton region and beyond, even after the pandemic ends.

While employers navigated the remote work challenges and found employee productivity remained high, some say key elements of the in-office experience are difficult to duplicate virtually, according to interviews with nearly two dozen business, government and military leaders.

“Most companies want to get everyone back on site ASAP. Many feel they are losing their culture by not being on site daily,” said Doug Barry, owner of BarryStaff in Dayton. “Some companies feel they could be completely remote. That will be the exception rather than the rule. There will be many hybrid options for certain positions, especially as companies weigh their office space needs going forward.”

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Some employees never worked remotely, including many jobs in the military, government, factories, warehouses, hospitals and grocery stores. But even those employers typically sent office staff home during the pandemic.

Robot manufacturer Motoman was one of them. Production continued at its Miamisburg plant but administrative staff worked from home until September, when some returned to the office on a rotating basis, said Steve Barhorst, president and chief operating officer.

Motoman production employees continued working through the pandemic but office workers were sent home to work. In this photo from May 2020 employees test a collaborative robot that was able to take employees temperatures when they arrived to work at the Miamisburg firm. From left are Matthew Hartshorn, Jayson Noll, John Elliott and Greg Morgan.
Motoman production employees continued working through the pandemic but office workers were sent home to work. In this photo from May 2020 employees test a collaborative robot that was able to take employees temperatures when they arrived to work at the Miamisburg firm. From left are Matthew Hartshorn, Jayson Noll, John Elliott and Greg Morgan.

“We had people who were begging to come back in,” Barhorst said. “When it is completely safe and this nightmare is completely over, I don’t think we will be back to 100% in the office. I think we will continue to have some flexibility for those groups that do not impact our manufacturing operations and it doesn’t make them less efficient.”

Discussions happening now

“Flexibility” and “hybrid” are the operative words as ever-shifting back-to-the-office dates begin to solidify and leaders sketch out if and when they will bring back some or all of their workers. The pandemic makes the future uncertain. But with COVID-19 vaccinations increasing and case counts declining, leaders are envisioning the workplace of 2021.

Companies should include employees in that discussion and address their concerns, said Terry Salo, senior human resources consultant for strategic HR inc., a Cincinnati company that serves clients in the Dayton region.

Terry Salo is senior human resources consultant at strategic HR inc. in Cincinnati
Terry Salo is senior human resources consultant at strategic HR inc. in Cincinnati

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

“It is working with leaders and managers to really break down what is the return on investment and why is it so necessary for employees to come back?” Salo said. “And why is their role critical to be in person?”

While some employees are excited to return to the office, others are resistant, she said. Workers are asking companies why they need to be in the office when remote work has been successful. They might be concerned about contracting COVID-19 at work, struggling with child care or have family members with health problems, Salo said.

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“They valued the flexibility and being able to have their own schedule and also balance everything that was going on,” said Tracy Miller, a University of Dayton principal lecturer and assistant chair of the management and marketing department.

In a world where remote work has become common, employees have more options to work elsewhere and companies risk losing good workers if they mishandle a return to the office, Salo said.

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Twenty-nine percent of 1,022 Americans working remotely said they would quit their current job if their employer did not allow them to continue remote work, according to a recent online poll by LiveCareer, a career services company.

Sixty-two percent of those polled said they would give preference in the future to employers offering remote work.

“Leaders really have to recognize the need to be empathetic, flexible, and think outside the box and be willing to take alternative routes,” Salo said.

Robust safety protocols are essential as companies begin shifting workers back to the office.

“They’ve not only got to be able to articulate what they are doing, but an employee needs to be able to feel it when they walk in the workplace,” Salo said. “(To see) that, ‘My employer has taken this seriously.’”

Hybrid model a first step

Seventy-five percent of executives surveyed nationally expect to have at least half of the workforce back at company offices by July, according to PwC, the multinational professional services network. That survey of 133 U.S. executives and 1,200 office workers done in late 2020 also found that 83% of executives said remote work was a success.

Roxanne Farrier, property administrator for the Miami Conservancy District, works in an enclosed cubical at the office on Monument Ave. The district adopted a hybrid workplace during pandemic. JIM NOELKER/STAFF
Roxanne Farrier, property administrator for the Miami Conservancy District, works in an enclosed cubical at the office on Monument Ave. The district adopted a hybrid workplace during pandemic. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

“U.S. executives and employees (are) converging around a post-pandemic future with a lot more flexibility, yet few are prepared to completely abandon the office space,” according to the report. “As a result, by design or default, most companies are heading toward a hybrid workplace where a large number of office employees rotate in and out of offices configured for shared spaces.”

Some Ohio executives are looking at a late-summer return for remote workers, said Pat Tiberi, president and CEO of the Ohio Business Roundtable. He suspects some companies will be back in the office by June, but said “most of them are going to be conservative” and allow remote work through the next several months.

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Many downtown businesses also are targeting June as a return-to-work date, said Sandy Gudorf, president of the Downtown Dayton Partnership.

“Overall there is a real sense of optimism for the individual businesses, and a real sense of optimism about downtown and its ability to bounce back,” Gudorf said.

Some local employers, including Henny Penny, a food preparation equipment manufacturer in Eaton, already returned all workers to the office.

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The Miami Conservancy District, a public agency overseeing the region’s flood control dam system, plans to bring back all remote workers on Monday. Field staff have continued working with one person per vehicle, and the 25-person office staff returned to the office on a rotating basis about six months ago, said Shannon Phelps, manager of administration.

“The big driving force is all of our staff are eligible for vaccines. We are watching the numbers. We are adapting. We are being flexible,” she said “That was the biggest lesson that we learned in 2020, is we have to be adaptable and we have to be flexible.”

Shannon Phelps, manager of administration at the Miami Conservancy District, walks by photos from the Great Flood at the district's downtown Dayton headquarters. The district adapted a hybrid workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic, with employees taking turns coming into the office.
Shannon Phelps, manager of administration at the Miami Conservancy District, walks by photos from the Great Flood at the district's downtown Dayton headquarters. The district adapted a hybrid workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic, with employees taking turns coming into the office.

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

The open office setting was modified with taller barriers around cubicles, and gatherings will be limited and face masks required except when alone in individual offices.

District staff remained productive working remotely, but “we are missing that communication and those relationships that you just don’t experience when you are working alone at home,” Phelps said.

Remote to remain an option

Synchrony Financial took a different path. Last year the Stamford, Connecticut-based company, which employed 1,900 people in Kettering, permanently shifted its global workforce to remote work and left the Kettering Business Park.

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Miller doubts many companies will go that route. But it might become more common for workers to spend only a day or two a week in the office, she said.

“Workers absolutely worked from home and were productive. But I think there has been a little fatigue in this whole system,” Miller said. “When you don’t have that interaction with people face to face, I think it wears on you.”

Tracy Miller is principal lecturer and assistant department chair at the University of Dayton Department of Management and Marketing
Tracy Miller is principal lecturer and assistant department chair at the University of Dayton Department of Management and Marketing

Credit: Skip Peterson

Credit: Skip Peterson

Some local employers have already decided to allow some employees to work at home indefinitely. Those include Montgomery County, Mile Two, Premier Health and Kettering Health Network.

“Remote worked really well for us,” said Amy Linkous, director of human resources at Mile Two, a systems engineering company scheduled to open its new headquarters Monday at 601 E. Third St. in downtown Dayton.

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“The edict is: Work where you work best. We expect that we have a large group of people that will come back to the office,” Linkous said. “We have some people that will stay remote because that works for them.”

The company tripled in size last year to 118 employees and began hiring from across the U.S., so those distant employees will also remain remote, she said.

Dayton systems engineering company, Mile Two, is moving into its new offices at 601 E. Third Street. From Left, Michael Heroux and Taj Varani work in the new office, which will continue using a hybrid model of some employees working remote and others in the office.  JIM NOELKER/STAFF
Dayton systems engineering company, Mile Two, is moving into its new offices at 601 E. Third Street. From Left, Michael Heroux and Taj Varani work in the new office, which will continue using a hybrid model of some employees working remote and others in the office. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Montgomery County and the two hospital systems have used hybrid operations from the start due to the nature of their work. Both health networks are exploring continued remote work opportunities while also looking to bring back some staff.

“Kettering Health Network is planning for a safe environment for employees to return on-site, as well as opportunities for some support roles to continue work in a remote setting,” said Derek Morgan, vice president of human resources.

Nearly everyone at Premier’s care sites remained in-person, while those at the corporate support services building worked remotely, said Ben Sutherly, Premier system director of communications.

“We have found that generally employees who were able to work remotely were able to do so successfully, productively and collaboratively,” Sutherly said. “We anticipate that some degree of remote work will continue for many corporate support service roles indefinitely.”

Montgomery County allows remote work if the job can be done at home, confidentiality and technological requirements can be maintained, and department heads or elected officials approve it, said Deb Decker, director of communications for the county.

Julie Walch is CareSource vice president, human resources business partnership and support
Julie Walch is CareSource vice president, human resources business partnership and support

Credit: Cong

Credit: Cong

CareSource in Dayton, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and AES Ohio, formerly known as DP&L, all remained open and staffed during the pandemic but sent large numbers of employees home to work. Now all are discussing the future of remote work and are open to continuing remote options.

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“We have not made a definitive decision in terms of exactly what the workforce of the future for AES Ohio looks like, but we do know that we will be headed back to the office,” said Brandi Davis-Handy, chief of public relations. “AES Ohio is not different than a lot of other companies in seeing how remote working and flexibility plays into the future, but I also don’t see that completely taking us away from having an active presence where we’ve always been.”

AES Ohio COVID-19 safety signage at the company's MacGregor Park facility in Riverside.
AES Ohio COVID-19 safety signage at the company's MacGregor Park facility in Riverside.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

The majority of CareSource’s 4,500 employees have worked from home since March.

“While some employees are excited to return to working in the office, many continue to enjoy the benefits of working from home. Employees will be looking for flexibility in their future work plans,” said Julie Walch, CareSource vice president, human resources, business partnership and support.

The company’s multiple buildings in downtown Dayton have been modified for COVID-19 safety protocols, but Walch said the nine-story headquarters creates a special challenge because physical distancing requirements limit elevator capacity.

“CareSource remains committed to downtown Dayton and looks forward to having employees return to our offices later this year, but we also now have the ability to offer employees increased flexibility to support work-life balance,” Walch said.

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Telework was a success at Wright-Patt after some initial hurdles, including installing upgrades to allow staff to connect to the base network from home, said U.S. Air Force Col. Patrick G. Miller, 88th Air Base Wing and installation commander.

Some jobs must be in-person, including at the base hospital, civil engineers, security and those accessing classified material. But at one point about 80% of the 30,000 to 32,000 employees on base were teleworking. Col. Miller currently has authorized units to be at 50% capacity on base, but he can authorize more if, as base commander, he has the staff to support that.

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“Telework in the government, some folks have been hesitant to do it, because they’ve been concerned about productivity,” Col. Miller said. “But the pandemic forced us into that and it opened some eyes. It opened leadership eyes into wow, this actually can work, we have proven it can work and how do we incorporate this into future actions going forward?”

The Air Force is in the final stages of approving a service-wide telework policy, he said.

U.S. Air Force Col. Patrick G. Miller is 88th Air Base Wing and installation commander at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base
U.S. Air Force Col. Patrick G. Miller is 88th Air Base Wing and installation commander at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

“One of the challenges we have across this installation is facility space and age of infrastructure,” Col. Miller said. “If applied appropriately as we reevaluate what we can do in a telework environment, we can potentially transform our work centers into more hoteling and telework-friendly type work centers for when you do have to come into the office, but also reduce infrastructure cost, reduce facility space footprint.”

Making hybrid work

A lot of the heavy lifting for remote work was done last spring as companies raced to get the proper equipment, internet bandwidth, technology and training in virtual communication tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Webex.

A remaining challenge for companies staying remote or going hybrid is overcoming what those interviewed said was the biggest downside of remote working: the loss of in-person interaction.

“We’re a technical organization and we get a lot of ideation from people sharing discussions and having hallway meetings, bumping into each other, having impromptu meetings,” Barhorst said. “So for us to drive efficiency and creativity, it does benefit us to have as many people in the building as possible.”

Companies that continue allowing some or all employees to work from home will remain challenged to communicate and collaborate well, keep the corporate culture strong and make sure employees feel included, UD’s Miller said.

Mile Two President Jeff Graley talks to his employees over a white board, which is a mobile collaboration system that allows employees to collaborate in the office and from remote locations. JIM NOELKER/STAFF
Mile Two President Jeff Graley talks to his employees over a white board, which is a mobile collaboration system that allows employees to collaborate in the office and from remote locations. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

To that end Linkous said the new Mile Two office includes collaboration areas designed for hybrid work and outfitted with white board technology that allows people in the room and virtually to write and interact on the board.

“Going hybrid will require intentionality to ensure that people don’t feel left out,” Linkous said. “So the thoughtfulness we put into going remote gave us some practice for what we’ll need to do to go hybrid.”

Tips for remote and hybrid workplaces
Make communication top-of-mind.
Stay connected using phone calls, email, texts, Slack, newsletters, virtual platforms and small in-person meetings.
Remote employees might feel isolated so be proactive in reaching out.
Explain the business reasons and job components that require an employee to be in the office.
Be flexible in handling employees' special situations, such as child care issues.
Infuse the company's culture into business processes and communicate it to staff.
Create engagement opportunities, like virtual coffee breaks, awards programs and team building efforts.
Inform employees of resources for wellness, mental health, avoiding burnout and managing stress.
Source: Terry Salo, senior human resources consultant at strategic HR inc.

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