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Updated: October 19, 2020 Focus: Returning to Work

Remote work debate intensifies as CT continues economic reopening, infection rates spike

HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper Covr Financial Technologies CEO Mike Kalen
Majority of CT employers still allowing remote work 
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Productivity at Hartford’s Covr Financial Technologies soared this spring when it abruptly shifted to remote work in the throes of the coronavirus outbreak in March.

After all, the digital life insurance software developer is in an industry that’s highly adaptable to teleworking, according to CEO Mike Kalen, who says year-over-year sales are up 60% through the first seven months of the health crisis.

But an initial spike in productivity waned after Covr’s 90 employees, including 15 in downtown Hartford’s Boat Building, had been working from home into the summer months. Kalen found that employee attendance was declining at videoconferencing meetings, and training new hires remotely was less effective.

Photo | Contributed
Covr’s Hartford employees, at the Boat Building, remain spaced out.

Those factors, and others, encouraged Covr in early October to fully reopen its office for staff except for those at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, or who provide health care for family members.

“The majority of employees understand this is the right thing for Covr at the right time,” Kalen said of Covr’s phased reopening plan.

Covr is among the few firms that has committed to bringing back most or all of its employees as the state continues to ease restrictions on certain businesses, schools and social gatherings, area brokers and landlords say.

Large employers in the Hartford area — including Prudential, Travelers, Cigna, Aetna, Raytheon Technologies and others — are planning to mostly keep their offices closed through at least the end of this year to blunt the possibility of a widespread COVID-19 outbreak. (They have also beefed up their telework capabilities in recent years, making it easier to operate in a remote setting.)

For smaller employers, the debate over returning employees to the office vs. keeping them at home is heating up as Connecticut’s daily infection rate this month rose to levels — greater than 1% — that have not been seen since late June.

While a majority of Americans were pushing to work remotely at the start of the pandemic, some smaller employers are increasingly pushing to at least bring back workers on a modified basis, as they wait for a potential COVID-19 vaccine that could debut early in 2021 — although some health experts say it won’t be ready until the spring.

Adapting quickly

It was mid-March when Covr and many other downtown offices closed and quickly pivoted to remote working.

Covr, which offers software that provides a centralized portal for financial advisors to compare the benefits of certain life, long-term care and disability insurance plans, was fully remote by March 16, when all employees in their Hartford, Idaho and Colorado offices were equipped with laptops, cameras and headsets as they continued to serve financial advisors and individuals in all 50 states.

The company after July 4th began welcoming employees back to its 2,000-square-foot Hartford office on a voluntary basis. Five Hartford employees opted to return to the office, but two-thirds of the entire company stayed home.

Returning employees were required to social distance, wear masks around the office, and use a mobile app to track daily health metrics. Since nearly all workers returned on Oct. 5, Kalen says Covr continues to track how schools, restaurants and other businesses are managing in-person operations.

Graphic | Contributed

On Oct. 8, the state began phase three of its reopening plan, which included allowing performance venues to open their doors and increased indoor dining capacity at restaurants.

“This is the best decision for our business, recognizing that it’s not a no-risk decision,” Kalen says. “If the situation changes we can make modifications as needed.”

Just a few blocks from Covr, electricity and natural gas consultant Titan Energy New England also reopened its office in the Stark Building — at 750 Main St. — on a voluntary basis in May, to coincide with the first phase of Connecticut’s economic reopening.

All of Titan Energy’s 10 in-office employees have since returned to the 18-story tower, at 750 Main St., said Brendan Kearney, Titan Energy’s manager of customer support and key accounts. Half of those workers have their own offices, while others work out of a “bullpen” that separates employees with glass partitions. Its entire sales team continues to work remotely as it did before the pandemic hit.

“It has worked great so far, with our entire staff being able to complete their jobs almost identically from home or the office,” Kearney said.

Hybrid working

Mark Soycher, Human Resource Counsel, Connecticut Business & Industry Association

The majority of small and midsize companies in Connecticut have reopened their offices in at least split shifts, but there’s been more pressure in recent weeks for staff to return, according to Mark Soycher, human resource counsel for the Connecticut Business & Industry Association.

Still, though, a rising infection rate and schools opening and closing periodically — forcing parents to care for their children at home — will keep remote working a viable option for many employers.

More than half of the 1,000 executives polled this summer by the CBIA and accounting and advisory firm Marcum LLP said their employees had the option to work remotely.

“My sense is that employers are looking at productivity, culture, and wanting people back to the office because there’s a certain richness of interaction that occurs face to face,” Soycher said.

Pam Moore, Partner, McCarter & English

Pam Moore, a partner at Hartford law firm McCarter & English, said most companies have a strong desire to reopen to maintain high productivity and also bring back a sense of teamwork that can’t easily be replicated when workers are fully remote.

Most office-based companies are going to limited capacity and using staggered schedules and other methods to keep employees safe, she said.

At McCarter & English, for example, employees are split into two teams — half come in on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the other half come in on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Teams then alternative working in the office every other Friday so capacity never goes above 50%.

Face masks and social distancing are the norm.

“I don’t have a lot of clients that are 100% remote,” said Moore, who represents 50 to 100 clients who each employ between 100 and 50,000 employees. “The nature of almost any organization is that there has to be some hub of in-person activity and you have to at least have essential personnel in, like your finance or IT people.”

In terms of legal risks associated with reopening, Moore said as long as employers follow sector safety guidelines published by the state, as well as guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, then anyone who gets sick at work won’t have a claim for negligence.

“The only risk is if an employer ignores safety precautions and behaves recklessly,” she said.

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