Nearly 16 months after much of Maine’s workforce went remote, many businesses are preparing plans to reopen their offices. But after a year in which the only constant has been change, and with so many facets to creating a new normal – safety, employee satisfaction and a positive work culture chief among them – many employers have been hesitant to set any plans in stone. 

Instead, companies have opted to try out new ways of working, many of which involve more flexibility and remote work, to figure out what works and what doesn’t in a landscape that has changed dramatically.

Finding the right balance is especially crucial in Maine’s tight labor market. Both recruitment and retention are high priorities, and worker surveys show that flexibility may be key in both areas.

Beyond allowing for more remote work capabilities, some businesses are trying out new ways to make the office a more attractive place to be, from thinking more about the personal needs of workers to adding more amenities and sprucing up the workplace.

But creating a back-to-office plan in a world still grappling with the coronavirus pandemic isn’t a one-and-done, one-size-fits-all approach, and it takes more than just figuring out how to make people happy.

Employers are wrestling with if, how and when to bring people back, the best way to use and configure a space built for a very different kind of office, how to schedule people, the safest way to handle vaccines, how to run meetings and manage employees when people cannot be together, and a slew of other logistical and ethical concerns.

Nate Wildes, owner of Flight Deck Brewing Co. and executive director of Live + Work in Maine, at Flight Deck in Brunswick on July 16. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Nate Wildes, owner of Flight Deck Brewing Co. in Brunswick and executive director of the workforce development group Live + Work in Maine, said that while several businesses have decided to go remote for the long term, most are still hedging their bets.

“I haven’t heard of any employer who has sold all of their real estate,” Wildes said. “I’m hearing the approach, universally, that we’re committed to trying things. Everyone has learned the lesson that there’s no silver bullet or singular answer. … You just have to adapt and put your best foot forward and do it as a team.

“There’s no post-COVID world here,” he said. “Things are still in flux.”

NO GOING BACK

For Jennifer Wright, a hybrid work schedule offers the best of both worlds. 

An executive assistant to the chief human resources officer at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Wright works from home two or three days a week, much to her dog’s delight, and then goes into the office the other two or three days, depending on the week. 

“You can plan your days around who is going to be in the office that day, and when you come in you have this really amazing intention,” she said. “And on the converse, being able to have that unbroken project time in my home office has been invaluable.” 

She’s glad to have the “random little conversations in the hallway” back while also getting a “full day at home where I can clear out my inbox, finish up early and take some time to garden,” she said, calling remote work an “interesting way to approach the work-life balance.”

Wright isn’t the only one who feels that way. 

Nationally, companies such as Google, Ford Motor Co. and Citigroup Inc. have all promised more flexibility moving forward. 

In May, a Bloomberg survey of 1,000 adults showed that 39 percent would consider quitting if their employers didn’t remain flexible around remote work. Among millennial and Generation Z employees, that figure rose to 49 percent.

Another survey, conducted in March and April by FlexJobs, a job site for finding remote work opportunities, found that 58 percent of the roughly 2,100 people surveyed would look for a new job if their current role did not allow remote work. Of those surveyed, 65 percent said they want to continue full-time remote work post-pandemic, and 33 percent said they prefer a hybrid work arrangement. Only 2 percent said they’d like to return to the office full time. 

And yet, one survey of 350 business leaders by Illinois-based staffing firm LaSalle Network found that 74 percent plan to have their employees back in the office by fall of this year.

Many Maine companies have similar aspirations, with sights set on Labor Day as the target date to bring employees back to the office or to have a long-term workforce plan in place.

According to Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, Labor Day is a good target for employers to aim for. It gives families time to plan ahead and know what will be happening with school or child care. And from a public health standpoint, Maine is likely to remain in relatively good shape.

Cases are trending upward again, partly due to the new and highly contagious delta variant, but Mills said the state has “very, very low risk for another major surge” that would stretch the health care system’s capacity.

Maine has a “wall of vaccine to protect us,” she said, and while the workplace will be a far cry from what it was in 2019, a return to the office can be done well with common-sense safety measures in place, such as masking if unvaccinated, maintaining appropriate distancing and ensuring good ventilation. Navigating these safety changes, coupled with new challenges such as determining the form and function of an office in 2021, won’t be simple, she said.

To return to a new normal is harder in many ways than what we did in March of 2020 when we sent everybody home,” Mills said. “It’s less intense but a bit more complicated.”

For most employers, it’s still a “work in progress,” she added.

Jackson Lab, the biomedical research group where Wright works, corporate payment technology firm Wex Inc., disability insurance provider Unum Group, Camden National Bank, workers’ compensation insurance provider MEMIC Group and VETRO FiberMap, which hosts a broadband communications network mapping platform, all plan to embrace some level of hybrid work for employees, though the extent, methodology and longevity vary.

According to Katy Longley, chief operating officer at Jackson Lab, of the nonprofit’s roughly 2,500 employees spread across Maine, Connecticut and California, only about 35 percent have been able to work remotely.

Before the pandemic, about 5 percent of the workforce was remote, and as life slowly begins to return to some semblance of normal, that number has gotten closer to 25 or 30 percent – a figure Longley expects will hold steady for some time.

“This is an experiment,” she said about the move toward hybrid work options. “I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way it was.”

Some of the exact policies are still being worked out, but Longley said the lab’s office spaces will be reconfigured depending on how often an employee will be in the office. For example, anyone who works there one day a week or less will not have a dedicated workspace.

Days in the office will become more intentional, more collaborative, she said.

“We don’t want them to be on Zoom calls if they’re in the office,” Longley said, because at that point, they might as well have stayed home.

There will be a focus on “changing your work style so you’re having face-to-face meetings if you’re in the office” and “not just standing behind a computer.”

“The bottom line is, we think the physical workplace and expectations (of employees are) fundamentally changed,” she said.

Tony Payne, senior vice president of external affairs at MEMIC, said that intentionality will be the key to business success as employers move forward with plans to bring people back to the office.

“You need to ask yourself: What is it that is going to be necessary and better to have people convening in the office, and how do you use that time intentionally?” Payne said. “Does that mean training? Does that mean brainstorming? What is it that people do well when they’re together that you can’t do as well on a Zoom call? You have to be very intentional about how to use the time when you do have people coming together.

‘THE GUY ON THE SCREEN’

At MEMIC, plans are still in flux, but Payne said they will likely be looking at a few core days in the office and a few remote days, but that there will be no “one size fits all” approach. Vaccines are not mandatory, but unvaccinated employees are required to socially distance and wear a mask. Currently, the majority of employees are still working from home.

Employee surveys have indicated that upwards of 70 percent of employees would like to have the option of full-time remote or hybrid work, but that the sense of belonging is also really important.

Recently, Payne said he was in a meeting and was the only one not in the office.

“I felt like an outsider,” he said. “I was the guy on the screen.”

Payne suspects that in the next two or three years, as more people start to come back and this type of interaction happens more, up to two-thirds of the workforce that has the option to return to the office will be there as much as full time.

“It’s that sense of community and belonging,” he said, “but it’s got to happen in ways that others show up. You can’t build community if nobody’s there.”

Preventing that outsider feeling Payne described is one thing Camden National Bank is working to prevent.

According to Renee Smyth, chief marketing officer, the bank is planning to offer a flexible work schedule for those who are not customer-facing in retail banking – an approach she said looks at employees’ “holistic well-being” and not just their ability to perform work.

As a manager, Smyth said she will have employees who are working in all three options – full-time in office, hybrid and full-time remote. To help preserve a positive company culture, Camden is providing leadership opportunities for people, like Smyth, who will need to balance managing employees from different settings.

It can be a challenge to have employees with such different schedules and keep everyone engaged, especially for a business that had very few remote workers and no hybrid workers prior to the pandemic.

“We’re trying to provide tools and tips to make it work, meet employees where they will perform best personally and professionally,” she said.

Officials are asking employees to decide how they want to work or how often they plan to come into the office by Labor Day, but acknowledge that plans may change.

“I will say it’s still experimental,” Smyth said. “We are open to continuing that dialogue as the winter comes in, things change, child care and elder care changes. … We’re learning along with our employees.”

Unum will also offer a “flex schedule” after Labor Day, said Wendy Gibson, senior vice president of corporate services, in a statement. A quarter of employees who previously worked full time in the office are now coming to campus each week, a steady increase from the height of the pandemic. After Labor Day, home office employees will return, but with the option of two remote days each week, an approach Gibson said matches the company’s “agile and inclusive” work culture.

“We’ll continue to monitor the pandemic and adjust our approach as needed,” she said.

Wex employees also will have more flexibility, said Claire Clonan, vice president of global human resources operations and business transformation. The company’s offices are open, and anyone who wishes to come back is welcome to do so – they just need to complete a health screening survey with standard COVID-19 questions and a (confidential) question about vaccination status, she said in a statement. Vaccinations are not mandatory.

“We’ve learned a lot this past year and one of the things we heard from our employees is that they’d like more flexibility in their roles,” Clonan said. 

Employees will not be required to return to the office through the end of the year.

Once they do go back, managers and employees will work together to determine the best way for employees to work in the future, whether hybrid, remote or on site, Clonan said. Employees do not need to declare definitively at this time.

FLEXIBLE BENEFITS

At VETRO FiberMap, a software company that builds fiber network mapping software for telecommunications companies, going full remote in March 2020 was pretty seamless. So seamless, in fact, that the company is not requiring any of its 57 employees to come back to the office.

Making the switch turned out to be a win for everyone, CEO Will Mitchell said.

“We found that we were equally productive at a minimum and really more productive, and employee satisfaction was higher,” he said. “That flexibility is highly valued by everyone on the team. We discovered there was no real downside and it was actually beneficial to the company and the employees.”

Plus, a remote workforce opened up the growing company (they added 22 new employees this year) to a national talent pool. Now 19 of the 57 employees work out of state and Mitchell expects that will soon increase, as he expects VETRO FiberMap to increase by 50 percent in the next 18 months.

While returning in-person isn’t required, Mitchell said the company’s brand new office on Commercial Street in Portland is open to fully vaccinated employees. Only about three people work regularly from the office, but on any given day there may be five to 10 there, working on projects. The new office is a “flex space” with a hoteling system for desks and plenty of space for transient and occasional use, he said.

Mitchell expects office use will gradually increase through the fall, in part due to the natural “trade-offs” that come with remote work.

Earlier in July, several of the employees were able to get together and celebrate a product launch – face-to-face time that Mitchell said was a “real pleasure and relief.”

“Getting together in person to celebrate a company milestone was really energizing and felt long overdue,” he said. “There are some things that are lost without having time to be together in person, which is why these team meetings are beginning to happen again. They’re bringing back something of value, but we (still) recognize that need to stick with the flexibility that remote offers.”

For Friday, a small Portland-based startup company, remote work is the name of the game.

Friday offers a suite of software for businesses or workers to help make remote work successful and smooth.

Founder Luke Thomas started Friday based on his own frustrations from a career spent working remotely but feeling distanced from co-workers and the office culture.

“So much happens naturally at the office,” he said. “When you are no longer in the same room together, you can feel disconnected,” he said.

So how to mesh the flexibility with connectivity? Thomas said it’s all about intention, but doing it naturally.

Thomas said he and a few other Friday employees will meet up periodically to grab lunch and co-work from a coffee shop.

“If you want to make hybrid work, you have to keep (in person) constrained to specific opportunities,” he said, such as whiteboarding, eating food and one-on-one meetings.

“If you create too much complexity, you’ll confuse people and create absolute chaos. Keep it simple.”

After a year and a half of kids joining Zoom calls and cats walking across keyboards, the hard line some people once maintained between work life and home life has been blurred.

Virtual meetings provided a window into employees’ lives and as they craft their return to office plans, many employers are choosing to hold on to what they learned. 

“The pandemic has been a very important reminder that everyone is human and everyone has a life,” said Wildes, the director of Live + Work in Maine. “A lot of folks have just completely shifted the mentality of what work is.”

Everyone is trying to adapt, he said. 

“We all started with different workplace cultures (but) all experienced the same thing” last year. For months, the only mentality was survival, from a professional and personal standpoint. Now that the focus is shifting back to productivity and growth, the next few months will test the plans that businesses are only theorizing now. 

“Employers don’t have an answer for what something will be long term,” he said. “They are simply embracing what’s working.” 


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