Will telework replace the office?
Lessons learned from working remotely during pandemic
We’ve all gotten used to dog, kid and even outdoor bird interruptions of Zoom conferences, and some of us are not quite ready to start wearing pants with zippers and belt loops every day. Still others miss having doughnuts in the breakroom with work mates.
Telework is the way many Virginians with office jobs work now. So, what have we learned over the past two months?
Virginia Business spoke with three teleworkers this month, addressing what has worked well, what needed to be tweaked and how remote work may become part of life for many office workers post-pandemic.
Sonu Singh is CEO of 1901 Group, the Reston-based information technology services federal contractor that also has presences in Blacksburg and Abingdon.
Robyn Sidersky is a reporter at the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, which recently vacated its longtime building in downtown Norfolk after its owner, Tribune Publishing, sold the office to developers earlier this year. Matt Pinsker is a Henrico County criminal defense attorney and manager of a small law office.
Singh’s workforce ordinarily collaborates remotely, although certainly not to this extent. Sidersky, by contrast, won’t have an office to return to when things are back to normal. Both left their usual work environments behind during the second week of March.
“In some regard,” Singh says, “productivity is up.” 1901 Group employees don’t have to commute anymore, and as a result, many work an hour or two more during the day, he says. “I’d say I’m probably at 90% productivity.”
Some parts of Singh’s job, and that of the other executives at 1901, are sometimes “best figured out face-to-face,” he says.
Sidersky, too, has adapted well to working from home. Her job, as part of the Virginian-Pilot’s digital news team, starts at 6 a.m. weekdays.
“I can sleep a little bit longer,” she says, a welcome development since Sidersky is expecting her first baby in July. Her routine is to set up a daily COVID-19 story on the website, updating it throughout the morning and afternoon, as well as covering any other breaking news.
Both say there are pluses and minuses to teleworking. Sidersky misses the simplicity of walking over to someone’s desk, and her longtime editor left the paper in mid-March, so she’s working with a new editor now without the benefit of being in the same place.
“It feels a little disconnected,” Sidersky says, but she stays in contact with coworkers via Zoom, Slack, texting and email. She’s also having a virtual baby shower this month.
One thing that has helped a lot is setting up a desk at home with a good chair, an extra monitor and a power cord, Sidersky adds. She even bought Starburst and Jolly Ranchers candy for her desk to remind herself of her former office.
Singh says that 40% of his staff “loves” teleworking, and 40% are positive and negative about the experience. “I’d say probably 20% want to be back in the office,” he adds, because they miss the camaraderie.
Technologically speaking, everything has worked relatively smoothly for 1901, although workers who live in Southwest Virginia sometimes need powerful hotspot devices to boost internet access and speed.
Many 1901 Group workers have either borrowed monitors from work or purchased them with funding from the company; the average number of monitors per employee is four, Singh says. “They’re working and looking at customer environments, running code, manifests,” he explains, and many use 3-foot curved monitors. Singh, however, is an outlier: “I always work with my laptop. I’ve never had a monitor or a mouse.”
The company manages workflow with GoodDay and Microsoft Project programs and an automated ticket system, plus other internal software to measure productivity.
Singh’s company also has hired 30 people over the past two months, plus conducted hundreds of job interviews virtually. They use WebEx for job interviews, and the entire onboarding process is done remotely.
“It’s certainly not as warm a welcome as meeting someone face to face,” Singh says, noting that 1901’s pre-pandemic procedure was to pair a new employee with another worker who checks in with them regularly during the first 60 days of employment. Usually they go to lunch together during the first week.
Some companies nationwide, especially in the tech industry — including Facebook — are already considering having more workers work from home.
Pinsker says his office of five already worked remotely a lot before the pandemic. During quarantine, his workload has declined dramatically because the courts in Virginia have continued thousands of cases, except for those involving emergencies. Pinsker is able to read legal opinions “in my house or in my backyard,” and his employees all use DropBox for assignments.
The main thing managers should strive to do is maintain separation between home and work, Pinsker adds. “Try not to call employees at 9 p.m., say.” He moved his law class at Virginia Commonwealth University online, relying on his experience of teaching virtual courses in earlier semesters.
By April, he and some of his staff were coming into the office on staggered days and times, allowing for social distancing. Although Pinsker is a self-identified introvert, seeing his colleagues even at a distance is “very nice. It was too much isolation, and there’s no substitute for in-person.”
As for Sidersky, she and the Pilot no longer have a true home base.
The former Virginian-Pilot headquarters on Brambleton Avenue, which was handed over to its purchasers in early May, was sold for $9.5 million to Richmond-based developer The Monument Cos. in January, which plans to turn the building into residential and retail space. Sidersky will have the option to work at the Virginia Beach printing plant, where newsroom staff will have a dedicated area, and some staffers will move to sister publication Daily Press’ offices in Newport News.
But, she says, “Most of the Pilot’s newsroom will be at home. You don’t have a permanent desk [in Virginia Beach].” Also, she’ll have 12 weeks of maternity leave from July through October.
Sidersky says she’s learned a lot about herself and her work habits during the quarantine. “When I was in high school or college, I couldn’t study at home. I like working in coffee shops,” she says. “I’m adapting better than I thought I would. Creating a space helps with that.”
Singh, whose company is putting finishing touches on a new 45,000-square-foot office in Blacksburg designed for its specific needs, says his staff will gradually come back to work, probably in July or August. Hiring continues in Abingdon and 1901’s new office at the Virginia Highlands Small Building Incubator is still being prepped for in-person work this summer.
“Obviously we’re going to follow the public health guidelines,” he says. “We’re not backing away from our plans at all. We know we’re going to need that space. It may mean that we don’t need space for a while, but we’re building a growing business with a radically different business model for the federal government.
“I could be kicking myself down the road,” Singh says of the decision to build more office space, “but I don’t think so.”