By nearly any measure, the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic has been severe. U.S. gross domestic product fell in the first quarter by nearly 5 percent, and many economists predict the second-quarter contraction could hit 30 percent. Since mid-March, the number of initial unemployment claims nationwide has soared to more than 36 million and April’s jobless rate hit 14.7 percent; in the Finger Lakes region, the tally of filings is nearing 100,000, and the jobless rate now could be 20 percent.
Yet the economic numbers would be even more grim if not for this fact: Faced with an indefinite lockdown, many businesses swiftly and effectively made the shift to operating remotely.
Not all businesses, to be sure. In some industries, telework is difficult or simply not possible for most workers. But many firms have undergone a transition unthinkable just a few months ago.
Before COVID-19 struck, about 6 percent of Paychex’s employees worked from home. Today, CEO Martin Mucci says, “more than 95 percent of our workforce is telecommuting. That’s more than 15,000 employees companywide.”
At Innovative Solutions, less than 3 percent of the employee base telecommuted full-time prior to the pandemic. Now, that figure is 90 percent. Says owner and CEO Justin Copie: “I am grateful every day that our business, being tech-centric, enables our team to continue to deliver solutions to our customers.”
Growth of telework
Telecommuting was not born yesterday. The emergence of the internet three decades ago made it possible for many jobs to be done remotely. But relatively few companies jumped at the opportunity. In 2018, research shows, less than 4 percent of the U.S. employee workforce worked from home.
The 2019 National Compensation Survey from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics found that roughly 7 percent of private-industry workers had access to telework. The Pew Research Center says access varied widely by industry—it was as low as 1 percent for service-sector and construction workers. What’s more, wage level mattered.
“Telework varies sharply by income,” Pew notes. While 25 percent of workers in the top 10 percent of occupations by average hourly wage had access to telework, only 1 percent of workers in the bottom quarter of occupations did.
New research shows the stunning change that’s occurred since the coronavirus forced the business lockdown. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology survey conducted in early April found that approximately half of Americans now are working from home—including 34 percent who did not telecommute pre-COVID-19.
With this rapid, dramatic shift have come questions such as: Are companies prepared to manage the sudden move to working from home? Can employee productivity and morale be maintained? And when the crisis finally ends, will business as usual resume?
To get a sense of how the great leap to telework is playing out in the Rochester region, I posed questions to a number of area business leaders and managers across a range of industries. Their responses, in most cases, were strikingly positive.
At Paychex, Mucci says, the IT infrastructure and operations team of more than 1,500 employees was able to get the firm’s systems set up to remotely support employees and nearly 700,000 payroll, benefits and human resources customers in less than a week.
“The transition was somewhat challenging,” he notes, “but as a result of great preparation and investments we made over the last few years and a supportive employee team, it went relatively smoothly.”
The digital tools Paychex uses include virtual private networks, multifactor authentication and Webex Teams, a platform for video conferencing with collaboration tools. Mucci says standardized desktops with remote support tools also are critical.
In addition, Paychex has a unified communications system that “keeps all of our client interactions connected and integrated no matter what form the communication takes—phone, email, chat.” And “soft”—or programmable—phones are tied into the unified communications system so that client calls and interactions can be transferred based on the staffing that is required.
“We have used this technology in the past when we had to close a regional location for issues like hurricanes, flooding or fires in California,” Mucci notes. “The client calls were handled by other locations seamlessly.”
Even with the preparations and investments made in recent years, he says, “what has surprised me is that it has gone as smoothly as it has, given the large numbers of employees we now have working remotely.”
Carestream Health is another big local employer. A Rochester-based maker of medical imaging systems solutions and other products that operates globally, Carestream had a “very low percentage “of employees telecommuting prior to COVID-19 outbreak, says Robert Salmon, the firm’s corporate communications director. Now, 40 percent to 50 percent of its staff—Carestream employs 1,250 here and more than 5,000 worldwide—is working from home due to the pandemic.
“We were able to make this shift in just a few days,” he says. “Everything has gone very smoothly. … We were very pleased that we have had few issues emerge that had a negative impact on the ability of our teams to work remotely.”
Like Paychex, Carestream uses multiple solutions to ensure limited business interruptions and heightened cybersecurity, including VPN and multifactor authentication, along with tools such as Microsoft Teams and Microsoft 365 for effective remote collaboration.
Smaller firms with manufacturing operations also have moved quickly to adapt to lockdown conditions. At Clerio Vision, a maker of vision-correction solutions headed by CEO Alex Zapesochny (who also serves as Rochester Beacon publisher), the share of employees telecommuting jumped from roughly 10 percent before the pandemic struck to more than 70 percent now.
“(It’s) basically everyone except people that need to be in the office, such as those manufacturing and shipping out contact lenses, and those that do research on laser equipment,” he says.
Adds Zapesochny: “It was not difficult technologically (in terms of putting in place tools for remote work and collaboration). Since we already had some telecommuters and we operate from multiple physical offices, we were already used to interacting with some of our colleagues remotely. The difficult part was figuring out how to adjust some of our priorities and activities that had previously been done on the assumption that people would always have access to the office and some of our key laser systems.”
What has surprised him most about operating remotely?
“I had assumed that most video-based calls would feel less personal and productive than their in-person counterparts (and) would result in less-effective discussions and meetings,” he says. “Yet I have found that this is often not the case. … I have found them to be a very conducive mechanism for thoughtful and important discussions.”
Sydor Optics now has 20 percent of its employees working remotely—up from zero before.
The transition took one day, says Matthew Sydor, sales account manager. Adapting to different technology was not a big challenge, but a new approach to communication was needed.
“Learning to write concise and thorough emails to your colleagues was a difference,” he says. “You couldn’t just go down the hall and check in, but had to write everything down and get your point across to prevent the endless back-and-forth email chain.”
Innovative Solutions also moved with lightning speed to make the WFH pivot.
“It was literally an overnight transition for us,” Copie says. “We were criticized (by some) for moving to a work-from-home model sooner than almost any business locally in Rochester, but we knew that we could do it quickly, and that it was the safest measure for our employees and customers at that time.”
Innovative Solutions is a tech business—it provides IT and application development services and consulting—and its customers and partners require it to use a range of digital tools including remote-meeting platforms—Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Amazon Chime, GoToMeeting—as well as VPN, Amazon Workspaces, Sharepoint Online and other services.
He knows not every company was in a position to adapt quickly to the stay-at-home order.
“I have a tremendous amount of empathy for business owners and employees who are not as fortunate,” he says. “It’s a big reason I think we’ll all find a great deal of perspective through this difficult experience.”
Businesses that offer professional or financial services may have had an advantage—so long as they had invested in technology infrastructure before the pandemic hit.
“Fortunately, our technology made for a fairly easy transition for our attorneys and legal staff at every level to continue serving our clients efficiently,” says Ed Hourihan Jr., managing partner at Bond Schoeneck & King’s Rochester office.
“(We) only had a handful of attorneys who spent a majority of their time telecommuting,” he notes. “Our telecommuting ratios have completely flipped now. We only have a few people going to our offices for facilities-focused tasks like handling our incoming mail or extremely large copy or scan jobs in our print shop.”
Hourihan says Bond Schoeneck’s technology infrastructure was designed to accommodate a shift to telework. “We were also fortunate to have just completed a round of laptop upgrades across all our offices,” he notes.
Even so, he adds, “I was surprised how easily everyone adapted and the low impact we saw on productivity.”
At ESL Federal Credit Union, the portion of the work force telecommuting has increased to roughly 54 percent from 3 percent before. A financial institution with more than 800 employees here, ESL could not make the transition overnight.
“We made the shift in phases, with the total process taking between two to three weeks to get all current employees where they are today,” says Faheem Masood, president and CEO. “As an essential business, we needed to ensure the integrity of our business operations would not be compromised during this migration, while also upholding proper social distancing guidance from the county and state health authorities.”
The transition, he notes, “was somewhat challenging due to the rapid speed at which everything was changing. We have a business continuity plan in place for events like this, which we routinely test, but this was the first time we needed to execute it for a real-world event.”
Adds Masood: “Our IT and telecommunications teams did a phenomenal job getting employees set up with work-from-home capabilities. … This was a significant change for how we conduct business and it all happened so fast.”
Telework is not an effective solution for everyone. Although 30 percent of Gallina Development’s staff now works from home, compared with zero before the pandemic, “only a small group can work productively from home,” President Andrew Gallina says.
“I actually thought that we could be more productive, but working remotely has not been that easy in our industry,” he says. “Being a real estate development firm, we are doing quite a bit of construction/remodeling in our properties, which has come to a grinding halt. We only have one ‘essential’ project that is moving forward presently.”
Like Gallina Development, Rochester’s Cornerstone Group had no one working from home before the coronavirus crisis, President Roger Brandt Jr. says. Now, roughly 20 percent are telecommuting daily.
His firm, a leader in affordable housing development in Western New York, began making preparations for remote-work options the week of March 9. When the lockdown order was announced, “we immediately shifted to telecommuting for all corporate staff. We were able to have all staff members operating remotely within 48 hours.”
The transition to telecommuting “has varied in its level of difficulty and complexity given the nature of each employee’s position,” he adds.
Is this the future?
With the phased reopening of New York’s economy slated to begin May 15, we may begin to find out soon if the shift to telework during the lockdown marks the start of a permanent transformation—or will recede along with the virus eventually. The views of the business leaders I contacted were mixed.
“Probably not, says Gallina, responding to the question whether telework would play a larger role in his business strategy going forward.
Sydor echoes him. “I don’t think so. We’ll still continue to work from the office like we did pre-COVID, but maybe a longer vacation will be OK since working remotely has gone so well.”
But others plan to explore how a lasting pivot might work for their business.
“I feel that perhaps we shied away from telework in the past due to fear of the unknown,” Brandt observes. “We have now had to walk boldly into that challenge and have seen it be a successful option. Though I don’t believe we will use it as a primary choice for doing business, we may be more open minded to it in the future.”
Says Zapesochny: “We were always open to having remote workers, especially for work that is highly specialized, (and) I believe we will be even more open to telework in the future.”
At Carestream, “we are looking a number of learnings we have captured from this challenging time,” Salmon says. “For example: which functions can work effectively from a remote location and which cannot? Can we obtain cost savings by maximizing the use of remote technologies? There are likely some opportunities to change how we operate as we manage our way through this new way of working—and at the root of all this is the commitment we have to keep our employees safe.”
Seeing how successfully people are working remotely, Bond Schoeneck’s Hourihan says, “I think all businesses need to evaluate how the role of telecommuting could impact their business strategy. … I know we will be taking our experience from this crisis and doing all we can to leverage lessons learned from the current ‘normal.’”
For business continuity purposes at ESL, Masood says, telework “absolutely” will play a larger role in business strategy. In addition, he believes it “certainly helps in terms of offering work-life balance options for our employees. While we have several positions that cannot be done from home, the option to telecommute for those who can provides helpful and productive options for us.”
Innovative Solutions’ Copie believes the future has arrived: “No question. We will never work like we used to. I believe that no company will. It’ll forever be different, and I genuinely feel that businesses will look for more remote-work strategies … and become more comfortable with integrating a remote-work culture into their business.”
And what about Paychex, with its more than 15,000 employees companywide? “I believe it will play a larger role in our strategy in the future,” Mucci says, “not 95 percent of our employees, but higher than 6 percent for sure!”
Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.