How COVID-19 has Changed
the Way We Work
By Jean Murphy
When COVID-19 struck in March 2020, employers of all kinds were largely caught unaware and they had to scramble to reinvent how they did business. Desktop computers on desks in offices were quickly replaced by laptops in employees’ homes and video conferencing software programs became businesses’ lifelines and the best way to communicate with both customers and employees to conduct business.
Most limped along as they tracked down enough of the equipment everyone needed and then learned to operate in a new, necessary environment as the world waited for vaccines and medical treatments that would confront this dangerous threat.
“At The Daily Herald our print center continued to operate with in-person workers, of course, but all of the editorial, advertising and business employees immediately began working from home,” Eileen Brown, Vice President/Director of Sales for the The Daily Herald Media Group, recalled.
“Everyone had to rally quickly and figure out how to work from home, stay in touch with one another and connect their home equipment to the ‘mother ship,’ so to speak. And I am happy to say that we truly never missed a beat. We held our meetings on Zoom, texted each other and worked from kitchen tables and dining room tables, in some cases next to children who were learning from home,” she recalled.
“Some of us liked working from home and decided to keep working that way while others wanted to be back in the office with others. They missed the camaraderie. But we all learned to work around our own pets, kids and spouses, as well as everyone else’s pets, kids and spouses.”
“It was an ‘all hands on deck’ time and because we didn’t have to commute every day, many of us found that we suddenly had time to go off on tangents and share cooking tips at the tail end of meetings,” she continued.
And they found new ways to connect with readers through online and Facebook Live programs and through socially-distanced events like a Disney princess parade. Print center employees were the company heroes because they had to work in person throughout the crisis and the company made sure that all employees had access to vaccines as soon as they came out, bringing in practitioners to give them at the print center.
“As the pandemic progressed and we had vaccines, some of my extroverted sales reps started calling on customers once again in person while others continued to interact via Zoom,” Brown stated. “And while we held most meetings via Zoom, eventually we had some in-person meetings in our office.”
“The main thing I learned is that it is easy to measure an employee’s output, even when you aren’t seeing them face-to-face and I never would have imagined that possible,” she added.
The Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr law firm, based in Chicago, had a similar experience. According to firm Partner Jason Tremblay, partners and staff in their 15 offices continued to collaborate with one another using video conferencing software and generally worked from home. They also made court appearances via Zoom and other platforms, so they managed to advance clients’ cases through the system, albeit more slowly at first.
As time went on and the pandemic got more under control, the firm’s leaders implemented what it calls a 4-4 Hybrid Program which encourages every employee of the firm to come into their home office every Wednesday and then pick at least four other days in the month to also come into the firm’s office. To encourage this program, which continues to exist today, the firm regularly brings in breakfast and lunch on those Wednesdays to feed staff members and attorneys willing to work in the office, Tremblay said. And while not prohibited, Zoom conferences on those in-office Wednesdays are discouraged to promote reconnecting and interacting with co-workers. This program has really been embraced and the numbers of those employees returning to the office on a more regular basis has been increasing as a result.
“Many court appearances, especially routine status hearings and case management conferences in Cook County and federal court, are still held virtually and I can see many courts continuing that practice going forward and making all routine hearings virtual in the future and only have contested hearings and trials in person,” he continued.
“Everyone had to flip the switch overnight when the pandemic hit and catch up technologically, but now that we have the infrastructure in place, I can see people wanting to continue it in some form going forward.”
At the same time, however, Tremblay also sees a growing number of workers at the firm really yearning for the personal interaction and connections that come with working in a professional, service-oriented business.
Smaller law firms went back to the office much more quickly, but larger firms like Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr may never again see every employee in the office five days a week.
“On many levels, law firms have found there are a lot of efficiencies and benefits to working remotely at times and giving employees the flexibility to come into the office when needed, but also to work remotely as needed.”
But activities like in-person conferences and firm retreats are coming back because members of the Firm find them worthwhile, he added. In fact, they just had a three-day all-attorney retreat in Washington, D.C. where over 90 percent of the attorneys (350+) attended.
Businesses that regularly interact with customers and need to do so face-to-face, like Itasca Bank & Trust Co., had to contend with the pandemic differently than the Daily Herald and Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr.
The locally-owned bank is almost 75 years old and it is now managed by Jim Mensching, a member of the fourth generation of his family to lead the bank.
“We came through the pandemic really well,” he said recently, “but it really was a challenge to manage through it. Fortunately, we had a pandemic plan included in our business continuity plan and that included remote access for employees. And we had actually turned it on in January of 2020 because we had one employee who retired and moved to Indiana but wanted to work remotely a few hours a week.”
So, when the pandemic struck about two months later, they were somewhat prepared. But they still had to send employees home and race out to a nearby office supply store to buy up their stock of laptop computers and order cameras, headphones and speakers for all their desktop computers.
“Getting the technological equipment was a huge challenge,” he stated.
They immediately closed their lobby and sent a majority of their approximately 100 employees home. About 40 were able to work from home, Mensching said, while others simply waited in the wings (with full pay) until they were called back or rotated in and out to create two separate teams in most departments.
The bank is considered an essential business so they opened the lobbies as soon as they were permitted.
Pandemic work-from-home formally ended over a year later, in June 2021. And over that summer they reworked and updated their work-from-home policy because they had discovered for which departments work-from-home was truly possible. After the policy was reworked, they approached between 35 and 40 people who were offered a hybrid work schedule. Work-from-home schedules vary by position.
“We also have two employees who have chosen to move out of state and they have continued with us full-time working entirely from home,” Mensching stated. “But we are only allowing that with long-time, existing employees and not looking to hire new full-time remote employees.”
“Looking back, I believe that we rose to the occasion and performed well. We still continue with Plexiglas on desks, two people per lunchroom table, limited use of conference rooms and increased use of e-sign technology and other customer-friendly software. Our management team knows that we can cope with anything,” he concluded.