July 12, 2021

Back to work, back in the office

With COVID-19 vaccination rates rising, kids preparing to go back to classrooms and other signs of normalcy returning, it’s a safe bet workers will return to offices in September. But odds are things won’t look the same as they did before the pandemic.

From hybrid schedules to improved technology to enhance remote workers’ connectivity, businesses are making plans to get back to the office.

Puget Sound Energy: Look to employees

Puget Sound Energy (PSE) has more than 3,000 employees and serves 1.1 million electric and over 900,000 natural gas customers.

“Over the past year, it’s become clear our workforce can get a lot done working from home,” said Kierra Phifer, Local Government Affairs and Public Policy Manager for Puget Sound Energy.

While field employees were deemed essential workers, working hard to keep power reliable and natural gas flowing to customers during the pandemic, other PSE employees have been working from home. As the company began the process of bringing staff back to the office, it turned to its employees for guidance.

The company conducted a survey and asked employees if they wanted to continue to work from home, return to the office or have a hybrid work schedule. “It was abundantly clear that a good portion wanted to work from home in perpetuity,” Phifer said.

Beginning this month, some PSE workers will move into physical offices, if they choose. At the same time, those who prefer to continue to work from home will permanently move out of their office space. By September, all employees should be where they want to be.

Phifer, who opted for a hybrid schedule, will have a workstation in Tacoma and will work from home a few days a week. “I’m grateful PSE looking at workforce flexibility. It’s what our employees want.” 

BCRA: Easing into a new schedule

BCRA is one of the largest multi-disciplinary design firms in the Northwest, providing architecture and interior design, science and engineering, planning and resource management and more. The company has 80 employees, most of whom are based in Tacoma. A dozen or so staff members work out of BCRA’s Seattle office.

“Remote work is not new for us, so making the transition during the pandemic was fairly easy,” said Doug Oberst, managing principal for BCRA. While it will take some planning, a return to the office should also be fairly straightforward.

The company plans a “soft” return in early July. That basically means any employee who wants to come into the office can. The official reopening is slated for September.

“The warm-up period will give us a chance to figure out schedules,” Oberst said. “We haven’t decided yet, but we assume and expect employees will work some kind of hybrid schedule.” That said, there are downsides to a telecommuting workforce, especially in a field that thrives on collaboration, creativity and the exchange of ideas. “In our business, it’s important to be around others, especially for our younger staff members,” Oberst said. “That close interaction is how they learn.”

Remote meetings can also be tricky when some folks attend in person while others are virtual and may feel left out of the mix. “We’ve installed some technology, and we’re looking at more ways that enable staff to feel included when they’re remote,” Oberst said. Microsoft Teams conference phones have made dialing into meetings easier, and an Owl camera that provides 360 degree views and follows the sound of whoever is speaking helps ensure that full-meeting feeling.

“We’re already pretty much there,” Oberst said. “We just need to take a few more steps to make it work.”

To create the safest work environment possible, the company has also spent months encouraging employees to get vaccinated. In addition to sharing stories from leaders, the company boosted PTO by eight hours to cover the time to get vaccinated and recover from any side effects. Those already vaccinated also received the additional time. Now it’s a matter of continuing to follow CDC, health department and L&I guidelines, especially around masking.

 “A lot can change between now and September, but we’ll definitely be giving that more thought,” Oberst said.


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