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June 14, 2021

Greater Hartford employers test the waters of a post-COVID work environment

HBJ FILE PHOTO Rohan Freeman, CEO of Hartford-based civil engineering firm The Freeman Cos., said he ordered most of his 50 employees back to the office on June 1.

After more than a year of remote work by several hundred of its Connecticut employees, KeyBank starts its pandemic pivot this month.

Many non-branch employees, such as those based in KeyBank’s corporate offices at 100 Pearl St. in Hartford, and in New Haven and elsewhere, will start reporting more frequently to those locations for the first time in over 15 months.

James Barger

The Ohio-based lender, which has more than a dozen Hartford County branches and about 500 Connecticut employees, is going to have fewer dedicated desks, and over time, less real estate in general, said James Barger, KeyBank’s market president for Connecticut and Massachusetts.

“If you’re an employee at Key, you might have an assigned office like me, you might be ‘mobile’... and come in but not have an assigned space, or you might be working from home pretty much every day and maybe come in a few times a year,” Barger said.

The policy, communicated to workers about two months ago, is based heavily on job duties and managerial oversight. A large number of branch employees won’t have a choice to work remotely, but those in roles that support large geographies or multiple locations likely will.

Employees deemed “mobile” may work from a combination of locations.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean work from home, it means you can work from multiple locations and on a given day, home might be one of them,” Barger said. “We truly want to meet the needs and wishes of employees.”

One month after Gov. Ned Lamont lifted the vast majority of Connecticut’s remaining COVID-19 restrictions, an increasing number of Hartford-area employers are starting to call their workers back to the office.

Besides KeyBank, the Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA) and Hartford-based Freeman Cos. will be among the earlier round of employers testing what the next phase of office work life looks like, as vaccinations continue to push coronavirus infection rates and deaths to their lowest points since the virus first emerged over a year ago.

In bringing back workers, those companies are in sync with Lamont, who ordered state workers back to the office in June. Many other employers, however, continue to hold off, not perceiving much incentive to issue return-to-work edicts until school starts up again in the late summer.

Polls have made it clear that many employees want to work remotely some of the time.

Keith Hubert

According to a recent online poll conducted by PwC and the Hartford Business Journal, 80% of respondents want to work from home at least one day a week, assuming COVID-19 is no longer a concern. National surveying by PwC has found a majority prefer either one or two remote work days a week, and also that there is a split between workers and management on how quickly a return should occur.

The results indicate that employers may feel compelled to accept a hybrid work environment moving forward for those whose roles allow for it, in order to retain and attract talent.

Check out the full HBJ/PwC Return to Work Poll results here.

“One of the most significant trends is clearly employees want to return to the office at a slower pace than employers want to happen,” said Keith Hubert, PwC’s Hartford office managing partner. “Employees want more flexibility to not be in the office five days a week, which may be a little different than some employers hope, so I think there’s a disconnect there.”

KeyBank is not alone in adopting a hybrid model.

So far, it appears many employers — though not all — plan to accommodate workers’ desires for flexibility because they don’t want to risk alienating employees, particularly top talent.

“What’s at stake is your workforce and the quality of your workforce,” Hubert said. “I don’t think that disconnect can be ignored if you want to continue to attract and retain the top talent.”

CBIA aims to set example

At CBIA, CEO Chris DiPentima is allowing the majority of his 100-person staff to work out of the office a day or two a week as responsibilities allow.

Chris DiPentima

DiPentima called workers back to CBIA’s downtown office on Church Street June 1. He weighed the potential pros and cons of that decision in advance, but decided it was worth it to return to a more normal work life.

“No one got mad and left,” DiPentima said. “I am seeing a lot of smiles and seeing some folks for the first time in person since I started here [in Aug. 2020].”

DiPentima said many of CBIA’s employer members want to meet worker needs while also encouraging and creating a workplace culture.

“Innovation is how we compete,” he said. “There’s some of that virtually but when you’re around a conference room you get a stronger level of collaboration.”

His decision also factored in the economic ripple effects of having employees back downtown. It will provide some boost to area restaurants and retail establishments that have suffered since last year, and he hopes other employers follow suit.

“You never really want to mandate something,” he said. “But we feel we need to set an example and be a leader for the business community we represent. Workers are critical to the local economy.”

Joining CBIA in its June 1 back-to-the-office shift was Hartford-based civil engineering firm The Freeman Cos., which has approximately 50 workers in the city.

“All employees are expected to be back in the office full time,” CEO Rohan Freeman told HBJ. “For [employees] to be effective they need to be in the office sometimes.”

Working from home over the past year was a necessary measure, but not ideal, according to Freeman, who reported that he hasn’t lost any workers over the decision.

“No one has opposed the policy and no one has left the company because of it,” said Freeman, who has been willing to make an exception here and there. One pregnant employee is still working from home.

Meanwhile, Freeman ordered two unvaccinated employees who had been working from home to come to the office wearing masks, which matches guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Many employers still in transition

While downtown office activity is ramping up, September remains a common homecoming target for many of Hartford’s large office employers, including Aetna, Eversource and Travelers.

Check out the full HBJ/PwC Poll results here.

A fall return is also in the cards for Big Four accounting firm PwC, which has been closely tracking challenges and providing consulting services around workplace returns. PwC has itself remained mostly remote for now, according to Hubert.

However, PwC has communicated the basics of its new scheduling policies to its 55,000 U.S. employees, which will classify workers as either fully remote, flexible or in-person (in the office full time) going forward.

“The vast majority will probably fit into the flexible category, where they work one to three days a week in the office,” he said.

The firm won’t likely track the exact number of days a given employee is in the office or not, he said, but performance will be crucial to the flexibility.

“It’s really going to be about productivity,” he said. “Are you getting the job and your assignments done in a quality way? If that’s the case, there’s not going to be any pressure to be in the office or not be in the office.”

Glastonbury-based accounting firm Fiondella Milone & LaSaracina (FML) has approximately 85 employees based out of its home office and another in Enfield. Most have been remote during the pandemic, but that could change in July.

Frank Milone, a partner at FML, said the firm’s leadership team has been evaluating its options for some time and is expected to roll out further announcements to employees soon.

“I don’t think we’ll ever not have an office, I don’t think we’ll ever be a fully remote environment,” Milone said.

He anticipates there will be more flexibility for remote scheduling at FML in the future. The firm wants to respect the different desires and concerns of its workers as best it can, he said.

However, FML is also likely going to have to grapple with some key differences in employee duties.

Its audit department normally spends much of its week on the road visiting clients, but has been interacting with those customers remotely during the pandemic.

If audit clients begin to demand in-person meetings in the months ahead, it means a remote schedule may not be a permanent option for FML’s auditors.

“We need to ensure employees understand that,” he said.

Meanwhile, FML’s tax department has historically worked mostly in the office, and therefore could be a more likely candidate for remote work over the long term, he said.

Check out the full HBJ/PwC Return to Work Poll results here.

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