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Remote work explosion is changing our workplaces

COVID-19 did not invent at-home work, but it has surely pushed the conversation forward. With millions of Americans working at home for the past several weeks, the global pandemic is forcing firms to adopt what was recently a nuance in the digital work age.

Prior to the social distancing and shelter-in-place orders, American workers had already begun to conduct their professional lives remotely to their office desk space.

“There was a push for remote work before the virus,” says Amit Batabyal, the Arthur J Gosnell Professor of Economics at Rochester Institute of Technology. “Primarily because some employers are moving toward a direction of greater flexibility.”

According to Global Workplace Analytics, 5 million American employees worked at home or half-time at home as of 2018. The remote working experiences of the Great Pause are likely to only increase the number and frequency of that type of flexible employment.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul.

In a webinar with members of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce last month, New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said she thinks smart businesses will adapt more flexibility going forward, and that that flexibility will be especially beneficial to working mothers who are trying to juggle a career with raising a family.

“I think smart businesses are evaluating what the new normal looks and feels like,” Hochul said during that webinar.

But it won’t necessarily be an easy transition for some companies.

“The culture of some businesses is that you come into the office,” says Iconic IT CEO Mike Fowler. “That’s what you do and the culture of other businesses has always been that there is some flexibility and you work from home when you need to. And I think that culture change is the biggest challenge facing businesses.”

But more flexibility will be a good thing for workers, Batabyal says. He says he considers more remote work a shift for greater labor mobility in the U.S. economy going forward, and it will help a lot of people, especially those in the gig economy. He says he believes that anything that promotes job flexibility — and remote working is certainly in that category — ought to be a good thing, not only for employees but for the economy as a whole.

Batabyal suggests certain sectors of the economy are better poised to handle the shift of labor to virtual. Almost any task that requires a computer screen and an internet connection are the most amenable for remote work, he says.

Businesses that were already equipped with the tech can breathe a sigh of relief, but even they face some changes.

“Never for a million years would I have thought this is the reason we would need to have everyone work virtually,” says Mike Della Porta, vice president of Business Operations & Technology at Rochester-based firm Butler/Till Media Services Inc.

The communications company would routinely operate out of its 1565 Jefferson Road location, but its cloud-based infrastructure and tools like Office 365 and OneDrive have allowed its staff to snap into remote work quickly.

“I’m glad we’ve done all of that. When we had to make the decision to go remote it was a relatively seamless transition. No one really skipped a beat,” says Della Porta.

Over a month ago, Butler/Till was ready to respond to COVID-19 when it brought 165 employees into the virtual work environment in a matter of 24 hours. Quality bandwidth and redundant internet service providers help make that sort of pivoting possible, while also being critical to its usual operations as a communications firm.

Melissa Palmer

Melissa Palmer

“We don’t have desktops here at Butler/Till. Everyone has a laptop. We even have VPN licenses for everyone in the organization,” says Melissa Palmer, the firm’s CFO. Still, she said she has begun to see a shift in the way remote work is done.

“What I find is that historically, you would be having a conference call and maybe half-and-half of the people would be on video or over the phone. Now I feel everyone is joining the video aspect of conference calls.”

Fowler’s Iconic IT LLC, 656 Kraeg Road, is another local firm whose business does not just depend on technology but is the tech itself. The IT company went by the name Capstone Information Technologies until last July.

The same tools made the virtual transition easy for it as well.

“Iconic IT is completely in the cloud. There is nothing we need in our infrastructure, in our building to provide services to our clients. It’s a great place to be. We simply told our employees, ‘work from home tomorrow’,” says Fowler.

Both firms get the full use out of programs like Microsoft Teams that enable workers to expedite their collaborative capacity through video meetings and workplace chats. Iconic IT helps firms get set-up with tools like Teams or Slack and via other measures that allow its clients to work from home.

“We support over 500 businesses,” says Fowler. “They are all over the place; we’ve got nonprofits, medical firms, dentists, law firms, manufacturing, schools, and houses of worship.”

With the nature of different kinds of labor, however, not all work can become remote work.

Amit Batabyal

Amit Batabyal

“Any situation that requires face-to-face interaction with a client is hard to outsource to remote work,” says Batabyal. “Even more difficult are tasks that call upon physical interaction, like out-patient care, emergency medical services or law enforcement.”

Some of Iconic IT’s clientele fall into this category.

“Technology doesn’t solve all problems,” says Matthew Topper, CTO of Iconic IT. “We’re seeing that with dentists. At the moment they are operational for emergencies only, so their offices are closed.”

Only people in the bookkeeping and administrative positions of health care are capable of remote access. Even then, it’s not always possible. Many of Iconic IT’s clients are concerned about data security in their remote work operations and the health care providers in hospitals are chief among them.

“The clients that we have been working with really take the security aspect of it seriously. What they want is secure remote access, not just remote access,” says Topper.

Because hospitals are obligated to carefully handle protected health information, or PHI, in compliance with HIPAA and other regulations, remote work cannot be an option. Hospitals would be inviting lawsuits and all sorts of liability by allowing a home-owned remote device to gain access its data.

“It’s a pretty significant risk as far as protection because you can no longer say that this information was only ever on the company or corporate-owned PCs,” says Topper.

In spite of all the caveats that roadblock employers, it seems that the most ubiquitous concern for these firms is a sense of continuity in their work culture. Butler/Till and Iconic are ensuring they care for the wellbeing of their employees and do not buy into any idea that remote work suggests a decline in productivity.

“I’m not so concerned about getting what we should be getting out of our workers. I’m concerned they aren’t stopping!” says Fowler. “Folks start their day at their computer, and it’s getting dark and they’re still at their computer — they’re even having meals in front of their computer. We want to make sure that they’re getting up and getting out, taking care of themselves. Frankly, if you are worried about your employees not putting in the effort that is a concern, to begin with, you would be having that in the office.”

Marc Gabriel is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

Includes reporting by RBJ reporter Kevin Oklobzija.

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