There’s a lot to like about working remotely from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, says Kara Kalupson.
Kalupson, who works for Rettew, a Lancaster-based engineering consulting, site planning and technical services company, likes being home if a package is being delivered or the cable guy is coming to make a repair.
She’s glad to skip the 30-minute commute to and from the office, since it means she has an extra hour to herself each workday, making it easy to find the time to take her dogs, Skippy and Dottie, for a walk. And she’s not going to complain about being able to wear a T-shirt and shorts on the job.
Kalupson, who assists municipalities with operating, maintaining and improving municipal stormwater systems, also is more productive working at home.
“There are less interruptions, meetings and small talk, but you really need to be focused and disciplined,” said Kalupson, 57. She noted, though, that having both of her children grown and living out of state and a husband who’s retired gives her a quiet environment some remote workers don’t have.
Kalupson shifted her workplace from Rettew’s Columbia Avenue office to her New Providence home's attic in mid-March when the company told all of its 140 Lancaster employees to work remotely, as Gov. Tom Wolf mandated remote work where possible countywide to fight the spread of COVID-19.
Kalupson said the transition was simple, thanks to Rettew’s long-held insistence on having “digital files of everything.” All she had to do was take her laptop and her office computer’s monitor to her house, then plug them in at a desk in her attic.
“Honestly, it’s like sitting in my cubicle at work,” said Kalupson.
It’s a good thing that Kalupson likes working remotely, because she and thousands of other countians in her situation might be doing so indefinitely. Though Wolf upgraded the county’s status Friday from yellow to green, working remotely has only changed from required to “strongly encouraged.”
Eventually, when the threat of COVID-19 eases enough for workers to return to the office, Rettew anticipates giving employees a “hybrid” option allowing them to work some days from home and other days from the office.
Kalupson expects to take Rettew up on the offer. Being at the office has its pluses too, she said.
“I think it’s important to see the people I work with most closely every now and then -- and see others in the company. I do manage three people and like to maintain some level of human connection,” she said.
“There are opportunities for more spontaneous conversation when you are together. That of course is assuming that other employees will also choose a hybrid situation,” Kalupson said.
Triggering a trend
Kalupson’s desire to keep working remotely to some extent is not unique.
So many relocated workers have discovered the upside of working remotely that some of the county’s largest employers have decided to allow more working from home – to some degree -- on an ongoing basis, according to a sampling of nine significant employers by LNP | LancasterOnline.
The same trend is playing out nationally, said Adam Ozimek, chief economist for Upwork, a global platform connecting freelancers (who work remotely) to businesses that might want to hire them.
Ozimek, who works from his Lancaster city home for the San Francisco-based Upwork, said the impact of COVID-19 on the way people work “arguably represents the most drastic and rapid shift to the global workforce that we have seen since World War II.”
In the U.S., the share of employees working from home has quadrupled to nearly 50%, he said, resulting in “an unexpected and massive trial run for many workers and companies.”
And the reviews are overwhelmingly positive, based on Upwork’s survey of 500 hiring managers of U.S. employers in late April.
“For 56% of hiring managers, working remotely has gone better than expected, and for another 35%, it has gone as expected,” said Ozimek. “For only about one in ten has it gone worse than expected.”
That’s news they will use. Whenever companies can return to their office buildings, 62% of the hiring managers said their companies will use more remote work than before the pandemic, including 26% of the hiring managers saying “significantly” more. Only 6% said less.
Other studies have found favorable opinions of work-from-home arrangements too.
For instance, a survey by the IBM Institute for Business Value found 75% of employees who began working from home during the pandemic would like to continue doing so at least occasionally. A similar result came from a Gallup poll, which found 59% of employees working from home during the pandemic would like to continue working remotely as much as possible.
The shifting of white-collar workplaces from office to home doesn’t necessarily mean more vacant office space here, and certainly not long-term, said Bill Boben, senior vice president at High Associates Ltd., the southcentral Pennsylvania’s largest developer and manager of commercial space.
“We think the coronavirus pandemic may prompt some office users to downsize their footprint with more employees working from home remotely, but this may be partially offset by an overall increase in the amount of space occupied per employee in the office (to create social distancing),” he said.
If more Class A office space (high quality construction with attractive amenities) in Lancaster city and suburbs does become vacant, it’s just a matter of time – perhaps one to three years -- before it’s absorbed by firms looking to grow, predicted Boben. Class A space in the Lancaster market was 94.5% occupied at year-end 2019, according to High’s research.
Less office space, less expense
Rettew sees solid business reasons for building on its remote-work experience during the pandemic.
Shawn Barron, director of marketing and communication, said the hybrid option will provide benefits for both employees and Rettew’s bottom line.
In a survey of its Lancaster workforce, employees said working remotely led to an improved work-life balance and higher productivity, among other advantages. And if that can translate into a smaller need for office space, all the better for Rettew.
“The ‘hybrid’ work environment will likely allow us to reduce our real estate footprint, which will ultimately decrease our cost structure and overall expenses, making us a more competitive company,” Barron said.
The county’s largest employer, Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, which boosted its number of remote workers from 200 to 1,300 due to the pandemic, likewise found the newly remote workers performed well. As a result, its future plan echoes Rettew’s.
“While we do not expect permanent remote work for the 1,300 employees that moved off site, a number of departments will likely do a hybrid option – a mix of office and remote work,” said Alexandra Jorgensen, chief human resources and organizational effectiveness officer.
Clark Associates, the corporate umbrella for the WebstaurantStore, Clark Food Service Equipment, Clark Mechanical Services and other firms, is following the same path. The pandemic forced Clark Associates to ramp up its remote workforce from 112 employees to 440.
A “better than expected” outcome for employees – including being safe and “just as productive, if not more so” -- has Clark Associates opting to have a significant remote workforce in the future, said spokeswoman Jasmine LaGore.
“Coming out of COVID, we are implementing a company-wide desk sharing program which allows employees to work some days from the office and some days from home. This will enable us to maintain six feet between employees at all times and also frees up some office and parking space,” she said.
Josh Parsons, chairman of the Lancaster County Commissioners, also saw the potential for long-term applications of the lessons learned during the pandemic about working remotely, as county government saw a “pretty seamless” expansion of its remote workforce.
“I do think there will probably be some increase in remote work as a result of this…,” depending on the view of the county government’s department heads, said Parsons. “We’re always looking for ways to be more efficient so I think there’s some possibilities there.”
Fulton Financial, which saw its local remote workforce soar from “very small” before the pandemic to approximately 560 to 840 employees, sees the chance of some carryover as well.
“We do anticipate that some team members could potentially continue to work remotely, even when the pandemic subsides,” said spokeswoman Laura Wakeley. “An internal team has been reviewing what we learned from the quickly implemented remote work guidelines during COVID-19 to see what policies might be developed for the longer term.”
At Donegal Insurance Group, which quickly told about 500 of its 523 employees here to work remotely, there's been “mixed” reactions to the new setup.
Some enjoyed it and felt they were productive; others missed the in-person interaction and collaboration with colleagues, especially those on teams working on projects, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Miller.
So Donegal is leaving the door open for some to return to working remotely at some point.
“After the full return (to Donegal’s offices) is complete, we will evaluate potential future opportunities for expanded flexibility and working remotely for job functions that can be performed effectively and efficiently outside of our home office,” said Chief Financial Officer Jeff Miller.
“Our first priority as we consider those opportunities will be to ensure our ability to provide excellent service to our agents and policyholders,” he added.
Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 likewise had its eyes opened to possible new workplace arrangements in the future, due to the success of its temporarily remote workforce, said Flip Steinour, assistant to the executive director.
“Staff/positions that we weren’t sure could be regular teleworkers are now being reevaluated to determine how we may be able to incorporate this program post-COVID,” said Steinour in an email.
About 70 of IU13’s non-instructional staff are working from home now, up from five before the pandemic; its instructional staff is on summer break.
For other employers, though, in-person interaction is too precious to forgo once it’s safe to bring staff back to their company office spaces.
“Very limited face-to-face interaction has been a big departure from our typical highly-collaborative, in-person way of working…,” said Nate Scott, president and CEO of Cargas Systems, which saw its local remote workforce leap from two to all 143 employees in the county.
“Most of our teammates are really looking forward to working together in our office again soon,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Armstrong World Industries, which has all of its 700 employees from its Columbia Avenue headquarters working remotely, said it’s too early to know how many might want to work remotely going forward.
Jennifer Johnson predicted it would be “a mixed bag.”
Though the transition to remote work “was pretty seamless,” she said: “I can’t predict how many people will continue to work from home post pandemic and / or if they’ll do that exclusively. I very much doubt it. As human beings we like to be and work together. We’re meant to be social. We’ve done great working from home but it’s not the same as seeing people face to face.”
Hoping for Home Work
After 3 ½ months of working remotely at home, IU13 employees Katie Schultz and Brooke Henry are hoping they get the chance to continue working remotely once its New Holland Avenue office reopens.
Schultz, supervisor of early childhood and special education services, and Henry, a human resources program assistant, both favor a hybrid of working from home and working at the IU13 office in the Burle Business Park.
Working remotely from home, they said, has improved their work-life balance.
“Honestly, I think that would boost morale,” said Henry. “I know a lot of people have been always wanting to work from home. Now that, unfortunately, this pandemic has happened, we’ve been more than able to prove that we, at the drop of hat, could go 100% virtual.”
Schultz and Henry said working remotely from home offers them greater flexibility and fewer interruptions.
“We’re still able to complete our work throughout the day. But you can go pop in a load of laundry if you need to on your lunch break. You can go take a walk outside real quick,” said Schultz, 33, of Lancaster.
Henry, 26, of Drumore, is happy to skip the one-hour drive to the office, get the chance to take a lunch-time horseback ride on the farm where she lives and nearby Fishing Creek Nature Preserve, and be more productive on the job.
“You can zone into one project and work on that until it’s completed without any distractions. That’s been a big plus,” said Henry.
Schultz agreed that work goes more smoothly. “My productivity is different. I don’t know if it’s increased. Meetings have 10 less minutes of chit-chat. I can reach people a bit easier too,” as colleagues seem to be checking their messages more frequently, she said.
Like the IU13 employees, finance executive Matt Feldstein of Clark Associates sees the past 3 ½ months as proof that working remotely from home is a solid alternative.
Feldstein, who until two weeks ago oversaw a 15-employee staff as an accounting manager, said before the pandemic, management had been wondering if his department could work remotely someday.
“With COVID, we had no choice but to give it a shot,” said Feldstein, 29, of Mount Joy.
“It’s working better than we expected. Productivity remains as high as it was in the office, and some weeks, even higher.”
That bodes well for any future use of remote work from home by the department, he indicated.
“If you’re able to maintain your level of productivity while also watching your children because schools are closed, daycare is closed, imagine how productive you will be when you’re working from home and kids are back at school?” Feldstein asked.
Feldstein, who was promoted to controller of Clark’s WebstaurantStore division two weeks ago, knows first-hand what that challenge was like. He and his wife Lauren, a social worker who always has her office in their home, have a daughter, Sophia, who was 9 months old when the pandemic hit.
Sophia was out of daycare until a week ago. So working remotely from home gave both parents a chance to see milestones like Sophia’s first steps.
“It was definitely tough” to juggle work and parenthood, he said, “but the good thing is we got to see our daughter grow up.”