In the coming weeks, many CT companies are expected to implement long-term return-to-office strategies

With the days warming and COVID-19 waning, the next few weeks will show how much of the state’s white-collar workforce will eventually return to centralized offices, especially in downtown Hartford.

Large employers who have not yet ordered an end to the COVID-19 home office exile should decide and implement their long-term office strategies this spring, experts and employers have said.

“From what we’re seeing, it looks like a lot of places have been closed, if they’re going to reopen, that’s happening this month, next month, and in the spring,” said Abby M. Warren, partner and labor lawyer of the law firm. Robinson+Cole.

Like other major law firms, Robinson+Cole has advised clients on workplace policies throughout the pandemic. Now many employers are surveying returning staff to understand and address the challenges of returning to the office, she said.

With COVID-19 waning and flu season ending, there’s no more reason for companies to delay implementing more permanent work models, Warren said, than it means requiring that workers are in the office full-time or part-time, or not at all.

Clear guidelines

Warren advises employers to have clear guidelines about work expectations and ongoing precautions. Consistency between employees is important, she said.

Morale is a big concern and companies returning staff will want them to feel valued, with welcome gifts or celebrations, she said.

Leaving workplaces in March 2020 was a difficult transition. Conversely, employers need to recognize the “huge transition” of a return to the office, she said.

Peter Murphy, a partner at Shipman & Goodwin, said his clients have either sent full-time or part-time workers back to the office or developed a return-to-work strategy. He stressed the need for clear policies and expectations.

“People who have been working remotely for a long time want to know what they’re coming back to,” Murphy said.

Patricia E. Reilly, a partner at law firm Murtha Cullina, said she continues to field questions from employers ready to send staff back to offices. Some customers still need help finalizing hybrid work policies that allow employees to split their time between the office and home.

The effort includes formulating guidelines on how to log hours, when employees should be available, and how to maintain data security, among other things.

Reilly sees hybrid working models as the new normal. The data seems to support this.

Globally, around 38% of workers said they were already in a hybrid work environment, up seven percentage points from a year earlier, according to the 2022 Labor Trends Index from Microsoft: annual report, published on March 16. About 53% of people are likely to consider going hybrid this year, according to Microsoft, which surveyed 31,102 full-time and freelancers in 31 countries.

“I don’t see the floodgates [opening] and everyone is going back to work 100% of the time, like before the pandemic,” Reilly said. “I don’t think that’s happening because the labor market has tightened up dramatically and employees are demanding some flexibility in their lives.”

Happy to see you again

Some of the largest companies in the Hartford area have announced plans to bring staff back to their offices in March and April using a hybrid model.

The Hartford, with 5,500 employees in Connecticut, will “significantly increase” the number of employees returning to offices beginning April 4, company spokeswoman Suzanne Barlyn said. Currently, more than half of the company’s employees are working remotely, although many had already done so before the pandemic, Barlyn said. Part of the staff will work on a hybrid basis.

Health insurer Aetna began welcoming employees into company offices in mid-March under a hybrid model, according to Erin Shields Britt, spokesperson for Aetna’s parent company CVS Health. .

Denise Raphael, human resources director at Hartford-based JCJ Architecture, said her company of around 125 people has been working with a “3-2-2” policy since last summer. That means three days in one of the company’s seven offices, two working from home and two days off at the weekend.

Staff are allowed to determine which three working days are best for their project teams, Raphael said. The majority choose to be in office the first three days of the week, she said.

The hybrid model is no longer focused on COVID-19 prevention, Raphael added. Today, it is a powerful tool for recruiting new workers. The presence of a flexible working environment has become one of the standard questions for job applicants – along with holidays, retirement and health benefits, Raphael said.

Andrew Lattimer, managing director of the West Hartford office of auditing and business advisory firm CLA, said that at the start of the pandemic, his company allowed its 7,500 employees into offices on alternating two-hour shifts. days. This helped to space out staff for social distancing.

From January 2021, these office presence restrictions have been lifted, he said. However, CLA staff have retained the option of working from home. Lattimer said his company is still allowing staff to work remotely.

“We think we’re better off together in that you can learn so much more being in the office,” Lattimer said. “But we also understand that there are fears that we have never faced before.”

CLA has approximately 300 employees in Connecticut, with offices in West Hartford, Shelton and Marlborough.

“If we normally let 100 people in [to the office] on a daily basis because the rest were at clients, it wouldn’t surprise me now if it was at 60 people,” Lattimer said. “I don’t think our policy has changed. It’s just that more people take advantage of it.

The job is done

Regional accounting firm Whittlesey gave staff the option to return to the office last summer. CEO Drew Andrews expected a flood of returns. That never materialized, but the company still saw productivity increases in each of the past two years, he said.

“There are probably about eight of us here today, including me,” Andrews said, speaking March 15 from his office on the 24th floor of the downtown Hartford skyscraper at 280 Trumbull St. “ So people don’t come in and the work begins. ended. We are not going to force people to come on a certain day. We will continue in this mode for the foreseeable future – come when you need to and work where it works for you.

Whittlesey currently occupies approximately 25,000 square feet of office space in Hartford accommodating 100 employees. The company employs a total of 165 people with two further offices in Hamden and Holyoke.

Andrews said he hasn’t decided whether the company will consolidate its offices. There will at the very least be a reconfiguration, setting up more group activities rather than individual desks or cubicles.

Andrews said he thinks more of his staff will return to the office once activity resumes in downtown Hartford.

“Our employees love being here when they can walk around and see other people and talk with friends who work in other offices,” Andrews said.

Whittlesey doesn’t just crunch numbers for other companies. It helps to advise on business policies and practices.

Andrews said back-to-office advice really needs to be tailored to each company’s work culture. Most are keen to stay competitive when it comes to attracting new employees.

“What they’re still wrestling with is whether they’re going to be competitive in an environment where they’re forcing their people back when their competitors aren’t demanding their people back,” Andrews said.

Michael J. Chiaramonte