On a Friday in early March, Spectrum Health had its office employees work from home for the day – an experiment, in case the COVID-19 pandemic ballooned and forced people to work from home.
They never returned to the office.
Six months later, many industries are back – from manufacturing and construction to restaurants and retail. Yet, many white-collar employees continue working from their kitchen tables and makeshift home offices.
Michigan offices are allowed to reopen in Phase 4 of the MI Safe Start Plan and Executive Order 2020-176, but only for work that can’t be done remotely. In Phase 5, everybody can return to offices – but it’s still recommended people who can work remotely keep doing so.
Northern Michigan Regions 6 and 8 are in Phase 5 while the rest of Michigan is in Phase 4.
Many people have adapted after six months of working from home. But there’s a group of workers itching to go back.
“There are people that need that routine,” said Corey Stowell, vice president of human resources at auto supplier Webasto. “They need to get up every morning and do their shower, gym, whatever it may be and come into the office and have that human-to-human interaction. They go crazy if not. And then there’s the other half that are completely 100% OK staying at home and working from home full time.”
The vision on when office workers can return is unclear. But for a handful of Michigan’s larger employers, the answer isn’t 2020.
Estimates on when office workers could return
At the start of the pandemic, most businesses told workers they’d only be home for a few weeks. But as the virus’ staying power became clearer, businesses learned this wouldn’t be a short-term interruption.
MLive interviewed seven medium-to-large employers in Michigan to get a feel of when they might bring people back to the office. None had certain dates – as its dependent on the virus and the executive orders – and most said there’s a good chance the estimate is bumped back further. Here’s what they said:
- The state of Michigan – which has 49,000 employees, including 26,000 working from home right now – sent an email to employees saying teleworking will continue through at least Oct. 31.
- Dart Container Corporation, headquartered in Mason with 1,300 office employees, hopes to start bringing back some office employees in October.
- Ford Motor Company told its office employees to expect to work from home for the rest of 2020. The company has 34,000 office workers in Michigan, the majority of which are still working from home.
- Rocket Companies/Quicken Loans in Detroit is targeting a potential January 2021 reopening. Dan Gilbert’s Rocket Companies have roughly 17,000 Michigan employees.
- Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids is also preparing to reopen in January. The Michigan health care organization has 31,000 employees, including 7,000 office employees now working from home.
- Consumers Energy, based in Jackson, is targeting a return for sometime in 2021. About 5,000 of its 8,000 employees are office workers and currently working from home.
- Webasto is waiting to get the green light from the state before sending office employees back. Of its 900 Michigan employees, 450 work in offices and most remain working at home. An additional hurdle – the company is moving its North American headquarters from Rochester Hills to Auburn Hills in January or February.
Flipping a switch vs. the staggered approach
Whenever office workers do return, it won’t look like it did in February.
Many businesses are considering a tempered approach to bringing people back – which could include making it optional for people to return and limiting people to certain days and times in the office to keep the crowds down.
Ford won’t have to recreate the wheel, as it’s watching how reentry is working at its offices in China, said Cassandra Hayes, Ford transformation communications manager.
Most of Ford’s office workers in China have returned, Hayes said, as COVID-19 cases tapered off after its initial surge.
“They took a very staggered approach, bringing in a certain amount over a period of time, over a period of days,” Hayes said.
When Webasto starts bringing office employees back, it’ll start with only 20% of them for the first few weeks, then increase to 40%, Stowell said.
March and April were big transitions for employers. They set up communication channels and let employees take computers, desk chairs and other items home.
Many workplaces implemented or ramped up their usage of Microsoft Teams, an app allowing groups to chat and videoconference with each other. Workers were trained to do Zoom calls. And some finally moved beyond the landline.
“There was a big push for anybody who had desk phones still to get a cell phone,” said Mark Dziadosz, a senior environmental quality analyst with the state. “Which I finally did. I didn’t want to carry around two cell phones for the life of me.”
IT and tech departments were in the spotlight. Ford went from 1,000 people working from home to 115,000 people in a matter of 48 hours – a “quantum leap” for the company, Hayes said.
Ten or 20 years ago, such a drastic work-from-home transition would have been disastrous without today’s technology, industry leaders said.
“Oh gosh – yeah, I cannot imagine,” Stowell said. “There were enough challenges even with what we have.”
Industry leaders say an effective, widely-available vaccine will help get offices back to normal, since that would lower the community spread of the virus.
“We are preparing to bring team members back safely regardless of a vaccine, but that means not everyone will be working in the office at all times due to the need for social distancing and masks,” said Pam Ries, chief human resource officer at Spectrum.
The next question is: Will employers require workers to get the coronavirus vaccine?
It’s something Spectrum hasn’t on decided yet, Ries said – as more study on the safety and effectiveness of the drug would be needed before a decision is made.
Spectrum does require its employees to get the flu shot every year, a common practice in the health care industry.
The extinction of the water-cooler conversation
Companies like Ford, Spectrum and Webasto haven’t seen a decrease in production because of the shift to working from home. It’s helped Ford move out of their comfort zone, be more agile and try out more digital tools, Hayes said.
But there’s one component of the office not easily replicated: the informal, water-cooler conversations.
Non-work conversations about how frustrating the Detroit Lions are or what somebody’s cooking for dinner may seem irrelevant to business success, but those informal connections are actually crucial, Ries from Spectrum said.
“Knowing more about an individual helps you better understand how they’re wired and how you can better collaborate with them,” Ries said. “Often we need those relationships when we’re trying to accomplish difficult or complex work together or making decisions together.”
Spectrum has tried finding ways to recreate the water-cooler chats, like starting informal group chats or having outdoor get-togethers.
Ries also started a “Picnic with Pam” video chat most workdays at noon, where a small group can have lunch and get to know each other better.
“(I’m) getting a lot of feedback from some people who said, ‘Gosh, you literally were the only person I actually interacted with today,’” Ries said.
Some extroverted people miss the conversations and banter that come with office work. Some are itching to return for – if nothing else – the social aspect.
“They feel a little bit isolated,” said Jeff Shingler, vice president of employee experience at Consumers. “You’ve got no one to banter with or talk about sports with or the Tigers or anything like that. And you lose some of that connectivity. But we’re able to still do everything largely that we need to do, remotely.”
Working from home? Not all bad
The pros and cons employees cite about working from home aren’t counterintuitive.
The good: People save on travel time, gas and laundry for work clothes. Plus, workers with kids doing remote school can be around their child, if needed.
The bad: Kids, pets and home in general can be distracting, there can be issues with personal internet and bandwidth and most work must be done electronically instead of having hard copies.
“I cannot fathom how some people with a full house handle trying to get work done and having a full house of kids and screaming,” Dziadosz, who lives alone, said. “For me, it’s relatively quiet, so it’s not terribly distracting. But the structure of the office, I believe, is better to get the work done.”
A new consideration in the debate is the subject of masks.
Because they’re required in public spaces, Spectrum doesn’t want to use up its equipment on office employees and potentially cause a shortage hospitals, Ries said. Plus, there’s the concern of wearing a mask for eight to 10 hours per day.
Dziadosz got a taste of that as he has to wear a mask all day when he goes to air pollutant tests for the state.
“It doesn’t sound bad, but when you’re actually physically exerting yourself and you’re trying to breathe through those things, it restricts you,” Dziadosz said. “If you’re wearing one of the ones that goes behind your ears, it starts to wear on you after a while. Even after two, three hours, you don’t forget you’re wearing that mask.”
Industry leaders said their companies are more open to allowing employees to work from home than they were before the pandemic.
At Webasto, the new plan is to never have more than 70% of workers in the office at a given time, even after the pandemic. The shutdown has helped the company realize that more work can be done from home than they thought, Stowell said.
“We’ll never be back to 100%,” Stowell said.
Many workplaces could adapt a hybrid-type model of working from home and the office, Shingler from Consumers said. It will be particularly useful on days when commuting is a hassle, like in big snowstorms, he said.
“Really, there’s no rush to get back,” Shingler said.
It’s the same sentiment at Spectrum, as leaders realize the viability of working from home and the risks of squeezing in an office together.
“It’s something that’s working,” Ries said. “So why risk the health and safety of our team members?”
COVID-19 PREVENTION TIPS
In addition to washing hands regularly and not touching your face, officials recommend practicing social distancing, assuming anyone may be carrying the virus.
Health officials say you should be staying at least 6 feet away from others and working from home, if possible.
Use disinfecting wipes or disinfecting spray cleaners on frequently-touched surfaces in your home (door handles, faucets, countertops) and carry hand sanitizer with you when you go into places like stores.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has also issued executive orders requiring people to wear face coverings over their mouth and nose while in public indoor and crowded outdoor spaces. See an explanation of what that means here.
For more data on COVID-19 in Michigan, visit https://www.mlive.com/coronavirus/data/.