Spokane Journal of Business

Return Policy: Large employers strategize about transitioning back to offices

Executives eye plans to start bringing workers safely back into offices

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-NATASHA NELLIS
Avista Corp.’s Heather Rosentrater stands in the power company’s nearly empty corporate headquarters building, near Spokane’s University District.

As vaccine distribution ramps up in Spokane County, some companies with large numbers of employees in conventional office settings are working toward a return to something resembling normal.

Many are in the early planning phases of bringing employees back, with some planning to begin as early as next month, while others have set their sights on late summer or early fall. 

“Without a doubt, employers’ goals throughout this entire pandemic have been to keep their business operating and thriving while protecting the health and safety of employees,” says Kelly Drew Folger, a partner at Spokane-based Paine Hamblen law firm. “Those two goals and objectives need to continue to be met when enforcing these back-to-business plans.”

At Avista Corp., company executives have implemented a staged approach since the start of the pandemic, says Heather Rosentrater, senior vice president of energy delivery. The Spokane-based power company and utility is in what it calls its critical phase, where it has been for over nine months. The critical phase has the offices closed to the public and most employees working remotely.

“We do see, based on vaccination ability, community spread levels, as well as how we’re doing internally, that we are ready to start planning to move to the recovery phase,” she says.

Currently, the plan is to begin bringing employees back to the office in July, though Rosentrater says that is a moving target that’s dependent on vaccine rates and what COVID-19 case numbers are at that time. 

“We’re in the middle of that planning process,” she says. 

Of Avista’s 1,800 employees, about 1,200 currently are working from home.

The company is working to ensure workspaces are compliant with social distancing guidelines and that conference rooms and common spaces are used at reduced capacity, Rosentrater says. In addition, each employee will be required to do a health check before coming into the office, to wear a mask, and to practice social-distancing protocols.

The company also is examining its technology to ensure that those working in the office and from home are both able to access virtual meetings effectively.

As of April 19, over 4.4 million doses of the vaccine had been given, according to the state Department of Health COVID-19 dashboard. In Spokane County, 32% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 22.3% have been fully vaccinated. 

Based on Phase 3 limits in Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan for the state, most professional service companies in Spokane County currently can operate at 50% capacity, though state guidance notes that those who have the ability to work remotely should still do so.

“Returning employees back to work after the pandemic has created a whole new set of legal compliance challenges,” Drew Folger says. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, about 2.3 million adults in Washington are currently working remotely, and that might not be a temporary trend.

A recent study by shared-working commercial real estate company WeWork and human resources research and advisory company Workplace Intelligence found that 95% of employees want some level of control over how, where, and when they work, with 96% of companies willing to allow employees some control.

Additionally, the study found 75% of employees are willing to give up at least one benefit or perk, such as healthcare coverage or paid time off, for the ability to choose where to work. The study, which surveyed 2,000 employees and executives of their views on post-pandemic work preferences, also found 79% of executives plan to let employees adopt a hybrid model of work and split their time between offices and remote working.

Spokane-area companies contacted by the Journal that independently have surveyed employees say they’ve heard mixed reviews on what employees would like to do. However, most of the companies intend to offer a hybrid model to employees whose positions allow for such work and who wish to do so.

“We’ve definitely learned so much over the last year about the pros and cons of having more of our workforce offsite,” says Rosentrater. “We’re evaluating the pros and cons of having that hybrid workforce and determining what that will look like for us in the future.”

The company’s final return-to-office, or resumption stage, was initially envisioned to be the return to normal, but that stage is still evolving, Rosentrater says.

“We’ll have to figure out if we’ll ever get back to normal as a society,” she says.

Richard Denenny, president of Spokane-based intellectual law firm Lee & Hayes PLLC, says the company’s offices will remain closed to the public until at least June 30. The company still is developing its reopening plans, and no formal decisions have been made, he adds.

Lee & Hayes currently has about 150 employees throughout its four offices. At its Spokane headquarters, which can accommodate about 80 of those employees, only five to 10 people are in the office on the average day, says Denenny. The firm’s other locations have been “100% vacant,” as paralegals and attorneys that were based in them now have the capability to work from home, he adds.

The firm’s reopening policy will take into account local, state, and federal compliance guidelines, as well as what will work best for employees, he says.

The pandemic showed Denenny that working from home is a viable option for Lee & Hayes employees. Moving forward, he expects the company will employ a hybrid approach that will provide employees with flexibility.

“We’ll make a decision in the next month to either extend work from home or return to the main office,” he says. “Our main concern is the needs of employees from a practical and health perspective, and we want to be as accommodating to those as possible.”

At Washington Trust Bank, Katy Bruya, the bank’s chief human resources officer, says the company anticipates bringing all employees back by early fall, with phased returns starting in May.

“We have been pretty conservative as far as having employees on site so far and have had the majority of our workforce work remotely from home and have found that to be very successful. However, we are excited, and our employees are excited to get back onsite in our various locations,” says Bruya.

Of Washington Trust Bank’s 1,150 employees, close to 700 are currently working remotely, she adds.

The company plans to offer hybrid work options to eligible positions, and a limited number of positions will be eligible for permanent work-from-home status, she says.

“Our industry can be successful in a remote environment,” she contends. Prior to the pandemic, the company, and the banking industry in general, didn’t have a lot of remote positions. Adding such positions will make Washington Trust more competitive with other organizations, she adds.

Employees will work with supervisors and human resource management to determine if their roles are eligible, Bruya says. For example, mortgage underwriters, information technology positions, and back-office operational and finance positions could be eligible for remote work, she adds.

With this shift to a hybrid model, it’s possible the company will reduce its total office square footage, though the company has no intention of selling “any big building in Spokane.” Bruya notes.

“We anticipate we can have a smaller footprint, and possibly use what they call ‘hoteling space’, where you have shared offices,” she says.

At Bank of America, Kurt Walsdorf, president of the Spokane market, says, “Our plans are for employees to return to their offices in phases, depending on employees’ roles and local health guidelines.”

Employees will receive a 30-day notice before they are expected to return to the office, and they will be required to use face coverings and practice physical distancing, he adds.

None of the companies contacted by the Journal will require employees to be vaccinated before coming back to the office, though most say they were encouraging employees to do so.

However, under guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers are allowed to require employees to be vaccinated, if they allow exceptions for employees who, for medical or religious reasons, would not want to be vaccinated, Drew Folger says. Those exceptions would include employees who are pregnant or breastfeeding, who have received guidance from a doctor not to receive the vaccine for medical reasons, or who have religious beliefs that would prevent them from getting the vaccine.

To accommodate privacy concerns, she cautions, “Employers should not inquire about medical conditions specifically or any genetic information” when employees request vaccine exemptions.

Employers with unionized employees should review their collective bargaining agreement before instituting a vaccine mandate, she adds.

As employers make their back to office plans, it’s important to consider whether employees are ready to return to work, Drew Folger says.

“A lot of issues have stemmed from employees not wanting to come back to work yet and whether an employee can be terminated. Those really are fact-specific issues,” says Folger.

She adds, “Employers really have to consider all the reasons an employee might refuse to come to work before taking disciplinary action.”

Natasha Nellis
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Reporter Natasha Nellis joined the Journal in May 2018 and covers real estate and construction. Natasha is an avid reader and loves taking photos, traveling, and learning new languages.

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