• June 2020
  • A PUBLICATION OF THE GREATER SIOUX FALLS CHAMBER OF COMMERCE

Trends in remote work

By Rebekah Tuchscherer
for the Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce

In the weeks after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in mid-March, many Sioux Falls employees transitioned their work spaces from office buildings around the city to their home offices and kitchen tables.

An estimated 16 million knowledge workers, or employees that work with data, analyze information or think creatively, have been working from home since late March as businesses do their best to flatten the curve, according to a recent survey by Slack.

That number amounts to about a quarter of all knowledge workers in the U.S., and the number continues to grow as more and more employees opt to stay home. Prior to the pandemic, 7 million people were already working remotely according to a study done this year by Global Workplace Analytics.

However, local employers can’t help but look to a post-COVID world, as many continue to have daily conversations about what a transition back to the office — whether that be in the near or distant future — might look like for their employees. Some leaders anticipate a full transition back to how operations looked pre-pandemic, while others anticipate more flexibility as their workers have grown more comfortable working 100% remotely.

Technology allows for a seamless transition home

For David Doxtad, president at I+S Group (ISG) and his 17 Sioux Falls-based employees, transitioning home meant hauling dual monitors and setups from their downtown location in the Lumber Exchange Building to their residential homes to continue their full-service engineering, architecture and design work.

ISG has ten physical office spaces, and its Sioux Falls location just celebrated two years in the area. However, Doxtad said that even pre-pandemic some employees worked remotely full-time with projects spanning 42 states.

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For the past five years, ISG has operated in a virtual machine, or VM space, based out of their headquarters in Mankato, Minnesota. These VM spaces make it easy to move from place to place, as the computers and their files — including AutoCAD, Revit and Bluebeam programs for design — are easily transferable to anywhere with a WiFi signal. While the technology was originally helpful for logs at construction and design sites, it has now been a major contributor in the transition to working from home, according to Doxtad.

ISG also uses standard digital communication software, including Microsoft Teams, Office 365, OneNote and OneDrive for greater flexibility.

“Instead of reviewing a set of plans with clients in-person, we’ve helped them outline how they can leverage technology to review our sets of plans, so we can keep progress moving forward on design, development, and eventually into construction,” Doxtad said.

Other businesses have also leaned into technology for effective communication between teams and clients. For example, Meta Financial Group has leaned more heavily on Microsoft Teams, a communication and collaboration platform that has video, chat and file storage capabilities, while Sammons Financial Group has used GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar to more effectively communicate with their teams remotely.

Sammons Financial Group has also provided their previously in-office workers with a monthly work-from-home reimbursement to cover any costs associated with greater home technology, whether that include a boost to internet bandwidth, WiFi speed or a more extensive phone plan.

“It allows for more connectivity with one another to have video calls and see one another than we might have otherwise had,” Jessica Jones, a member of Meta Financial Group’s post-COVID task force said.

Uses like these of digital communication programs have skyrocketed nationally amid lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and work-from-home options. For example, Zoom, a cloud-based peer-to-peer software, ballooned from 10 million to 200 million users in March. Comparatively, Microsoft Teams had 44 million at the time, while Slack had about 12 million users.

More jobs moving home

In 2018, about five million employees, or less than four percent of the U.S. workforce, worked from home according to a Global Workplace Analytics analysis of American Community Service data.

Work-from-home options have grown substantially according to the analysis, increasing be almost 200% since 2005.

For Sammons Financial Group, 25% of their global workforce worked remotely prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, setting them up to effectively transition the majority of their employee base from office desks to their homes according to Rachelle Tieszen, Vice President of Total Rewards and HR Business Partner.

Currently, only about five percent of Sammons Financial Group’s 1,400 employees in the upper Midwest are considered essential and work in-office.

“Our call center works in phone queues,” Tieszen said. “That’s been fully operational in our remote working environment. Since we transitioned to telework, [we’ve had] a greater focus on e-delivery and the use of technology to process business and pass applications back and forth.”

Thirty-seven percent of jobs in the United States could be performed entirely at home, according to a study released this past April by the Becker Friedman Institute. Remote jobs based in Minnehaha and Lincoln counties account for about 0.6% of those total jobs and contribute similar percentages compared to many counties in the eastern half of the United States and along both coasts.

The study notes that most jobs in finance, corporate management, professional and scientific services could be plausibly performed at home, whereas few jobs in agriculture, hotels, restaurants or retail could feasibly be done remotely.

Jones with Meta Financial says the company’s work arrangements are driven by business and individual needs, meaning the business can provide a range of options for employees from fully in-office to 100% remote for their roughly 1,000 employees — about half of which work in the Sioux Falls area. Prior to the pandemic, about 13% of Meta Financial’s total employees were considered remote.

What do office jobs look like post-COVID?

Industry leaders anticipate a range of methods for returning to the office after the pandemic. Some are planning staggered returns, with employees returning in waves based on their individual risk levels, while others are clustering employees on teams to better trace and identify infections if they do happen.

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Some companies aren’t planning a return to the office for their workers, period.

Locally, companies are analyzing their post-COVID plans daily, prioritizing the health and safety of their employees.

“Since we’ve embraced technology in advance, we can come back in as needed and roll back as people are comfortable,” ISG’s Doxtad said. “How the office in Minnesota is being treated is significantly different than how it’s being treated in Iowa. Each one is going to have to roll back in a different fashion.”

Meta Financial and Sammons Financial Group have also expressed similar strategies to ISG. While both plan to return the majority of their employees to the office, they don’t intend to rush the transition, especially with strong advances in their digital communications platforms that have made working remotely on teams seamless and proved beneficial for business continuity.

Doxtad expects more flexibility for ISG employees moving forward, especially for those with family obligations or those who may need the occasional few hours to work from home.

“I don’t think we’ll have a significant amount of folks — if any — that will say “hey, I don’t want to come back into the office,” Doxtad said of Sioux Falls’s ISG employees. “So many folks see the value of comradery, mentorship and communication that’s different when you’re sitting in the same office.”

Industry experts have also noted that flexible working allows businesses to expand their talent pools, retain greater numbers of employees year over year, and improve overall work-life balance.

According to a 2017 Gallup poll, flexibility is one of the highest ranked work-related benefits for Millennials — higher than both student loan and tuition reimbursement. Additionally, it has been found that employees with more flexible work arrangements tend to be more productive and have higher morale than those who don’t, according to the International Workplace Group.

Finding community despite crisis

Sense of belonging for office employees can vary greatly for individuals, as some jump at the opportunity to live and work alongside their family members around the clock, while others prefer the comradery that in-office positions allow.

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Tieszen said that Sammons Financial Group has done its best to ensure regular, daily interaction between teams with daily huddles. Some, she said, have hosted video-based happy hours at the end of the day or even scheduled virtual break rooms throughout the workday, where employees can relax and interact with others, even if there isn’t a water cooler.

ISG has hosted similar events to maintain comradery and mentorship despite the pandemic, including regular 4:30 p.m. conference calls and cocktails.

Most recently, Tieszen hosted a Kelly Clarkson-inspired “Zoom Around the Room” with her team, a game where people rush to find specified objects in their home to win the game.

“We’re really intentional about our culture,” Tieszen said of Sammons Financial Group. “That culture is best when people are engaged and working closely. Having that face-to-face interaction really enables effective collaboration.”

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