“There’s an element of learning to live with some version of what COVID is,” said TrueNorth Companies CEO Jason Smith. The Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance’s Nov. 30 panel on COVID-19’s effect on local business operations recounted work routines disrupted by the summer’s emergence of the Delta variant and the more recently identified Omicron strain. […]
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“There’s an element of learning to live with some version of what COVID is,” said TrueNorth Companies CEO Jason Smith.
The Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance’s Nov. 30 panel on COVID-19’s effect on local business operations recounted work routines disrupted by the summer’s emergence of the Delta variant and the more recently identified Omicron strain. With office staff continuing to work through a range of remote and hybrid schedules, hopes are to return to something like normal in early January, although those plans remain subject to change.
“We’ve not set a date for everyone to come back,” said Patrice Carroll, CEO of ImOn Communications. “Every time I’ve set a date, we’ve postponed it.”
Ms. Carroll said employees who install ImOn equipment and maintain its network saw little change beyond enhanced safety protocols. Some customer service and other office staff returned in mid-summer, although it’s not mandatory for many.
COVID-induced staffing issues and what’s dubbed the “Great Resignation” have employers reassessing compensation and benefits, although local companies’ turnover rates show little immediate effect. Randy Ramlo, CEO of UFG Insurance, said the firm’s long experience recruiting new hires to Cedar Rapids leaves it well-positioned to retain staff despite the pandemic.
“We’ve always tried to make it a really good place to work,” Mr. Ramlo said. “People don’t tend to leave good bosses. We try not to use the words ‘Great Resignation’; We’re trying to call it the Great Opportunity. We’re not seeing what I would call a crisis.”
ImOn Communications has added 35 employees since March 2020, Ms. Carroll said.
“We create an environment where people feel like they belong,” she said. “What we have seen is the stress of working in isolation.”
Ms. Carroll noted not all employees enjoy working independently, and the company has seen some “COVID casualties.”
“We ended up losing people because of performance,” she said. “To work remotely, you have to be able to self-lead. Some employees were unable to do that. That’s probably been a bigger issue for us than losing people to other jobs.”
The utility transmission network ITC Midwest saw increased retirements among veteran employees, said Cydney Lovell, area manager of local government and community affairs.
“It has been very significant,” Ms. Lovell said. “We’re losing a lot of knowledge that has been in our company for many, many, many years.”
Improving communication within the company has helped, but keeping employees engaged remains a challenge when they work from home or through an office and home hybrid work model.
“We definitely have seen a toll in our culture,” Ms. Carroll said. “Those teams that are not in the office now are actually anxious to get back.”
Online meetings can’t replace the creativity of an in-person workplace, Ms. Carroll has found.
“It’s really hard to brainstorm,” she said. “We have learned that we really need a whiteboard. If we have some kind of plan we want to put together, it’s best done in the office, even if you have to stay six feet apart.”
The traditional 8-to-5 workday is likely to change or even end entirely, depending on the industry, although leaders have to manage the shift carefully.
“There are a lot of colleagues who really appreciate the flexibility,” Jason Smith, CEO of TrueNorth said. “They’re creating their own hours. I’m OK with that, but that presents another problem” as staff tries to accomplish tasks that may come in around the clock.
“It can drag down our energy and drag down our culture if we’re not careful,” he said.
“It has become flexible and less strict,” Ms. Lovell said of work-hour practices.
“There were many of us who had difficulty managing our day,” said Ms. Carroll. “Giving people flexibility, that’s going to be our challenge.”
Employer support for at-home staff has included company assistance in purchasing office chairs (UFG) and allowing staff to take home monitors and other computer gear (ImOn and TrueNorth).
“We are better together,” said Ms. Lovell. “There’s a lot of us that get energy from being around people. Regardless of what hybrid situation we may encounter when we go back, optional remote work is here to stay. I think it will be permanent as long as it goes well.”
“We always intend to have an office,” Mr. Ramlo said. “We’re big believers in being together, but we’ll probably also never pack 30 people in a meeting. There will probably always be some remote (participants).”
“Having that more flexible work schedule will be part of that office solution,” said Ms. Carroll.
Employers whose staff once worked downtown recognize the toll the loss of their workforce has taken on the city’s business central district.
“That’s a very big concern,” said Mr. Smith, who said employee gift-card incentives have shifted from Amazon to locally-owned businesses. TrueNorth also invites food trucks to its parking lots a few days a week.
“We’ve got to figure out how to make Cedar Rapids be a place where people want to work,” he said. “If our downtown is desolate, it’s not very attractive to us to try to bring college kids in” while recruiting new staff.
“That bothers us a lot,” Mr. Ramlo agreed, noting the closure of a downtown coffee shop favored by UFG staff. “It’s hugely important.”
“ITC’s been very strategic in making sure we stay engaged with folks working from home,” Ms. Lovell said. “We realized very early on that the touchpoints we had scheduled, even if they are virtual, made us feel like we knew what we were doing, and we had a game plan.”
“I’m always looking for, what are we for?” said Mr. Smith. “We talk a lot about connections.”
Salaries and benefits policies haven’t changed due to the pandemic.
ITC instituted a brief hiring freeze but quickly returned to pre-COVID practices, and ImOn awarded bonuses partly to support employees whose spouses may have lost income.
“We did not want any of our team worrying about their personal finances,” Ms. Carroll said.