Out of the office
Businesses and government agencies turn to telework to battle coronavirus
In an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 and encourage social distancing, state offices, schools and universities across the commonwealth pivoted to telework in mid-March.
Amazon.com Inc., Capital One Financial Corp., Elephant Insurance, Dominion Energy Inc., Genworth Financial Inc. and many more companies big and small made the transition in short order as predictions for the pandemic grew bleaker and scarier — and working parents began figuring out how to balance telework with caring for kids who were also sent home.
Blake Hodges, the Richmond-based vice president of enterprise risk at Genworth Financial, the S&P 400 insurer, oversees the company’s teleworking, which started en masse in mid-March for its 2,000 employees in Richmond and Lynchburg. He’s working from home, accompanied by his wife and two elementary school-age children, plus their large dog.
“The dog hasn’t barked much” during phone meetings, he says. “I think everyone is adjusting to this. Everyone has been understanding of those distractions.” To prepare and handle any unforeseen tech issues, Genworth increased staffing on its IT help desk for the first day of company-wide teleworking.
Genworth issued portable Wi-Fi hotspot devices to a handful of employees with poor internet access at home. Secure connections are established through virtual private networks, which block sensitive information from hackers. Morning catch-up meetings are now held via Skype, and colleagues communicate more through online chats.
“Our first and foremost goal is to minimize the interaction between each other, as it relates to keeping employees safe,” Hodges says.
Amazon asked all of its employees to work from home if they can. Those who must go to work — including at fulfillment and distribution centers — have paid and unpaid time off available if they don’t feel comfortable being at work, according to an Amazon spokesperson, and anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 or quarantined can receive up to two weeks of paid leave. All hourly workers have unlimited unpaid time off. And Amazon plans to pay anyone in support roles whose work is interrupted during the crisis, a spokesperson says.
Henrico County-based Elephant Insurance, which sent 95% of its 675 employees home to telework, gave its employees the latitude to “take time off as needed with no need to use their paid time off allotment” if they’re feeling unwell, says company CEO Alberto Schiavon.
Standards differ for contractors and temporary employees who are employed by staffing firms but work for big companies. Genworth has encouraged staffing firms to allow contractors to telecommute, Hodges says, “but it is up to the business. Our understanding is they’re working from home.”
And while workers are out of the office, some companies, like Dominion, are taking the opportunity to deep-clean their workspaces.
Dominion is also “talking to employees about hygiene and not traveling domestically or internationally,” says spokesperson Le-Ha Anderson. Many of the utility’s 21,000 Virginia employees started teleworking in mid-March, although a significant number work on power lines or have other jobs that can’t be done remotely.
Businesses are also focused on keeping up workflow and maintaining efficiency while employees are out of the office and working remotely.
Regular, scheduled communication between supervisors and employees is key for anyone worried about productivity dropping, says Chris Arabia, manager of statewide mobility programs at the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT).
Colleagues should set a specific time every day to connect via teleconference call or video chat and talk about the daily game plan, says Arabia, who also oversees the state’s Telework!VA initiative to encourage businesses to adopt telework programs.
And with no clear indication as to when the crisis may end and work will return to normal, businesses may need to put additional effort into honing worker skills and preserving workplace culture.
“For Genworth right now,” says Hodges, “with telework in the foreseeable future, [we] encourage employees to keep fresh and keep up their habits.
Follow the links below to read the rest of the stories in this Virginia Business special report about the impact of the coronavirus crisis: