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May 10, 2021

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Many Clark County office workers have made the shift to remote. Will they shift back?

By , Columbian business reporter
6 Photos
After more than a year of remote work, many companies with Clark County offices are starting to think about a potential return to in-person work later this year. But several company leaders said they don't expect things to go back to exactly the way they were before, and a couple companies have even elected to ditch their physical offices permanently.
After more than a year of remote work, many companies with Clark County offices are starting to think about a potential return to in-person work later this year. But several company leaders said they don't expect things to go back to exactly the way they were before, and a couple companies have even elected to ditch their physical offices permanently. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Most Vancouver office workers remember the last normal day of 2020.

It wasn’t the same day for everyone. At Slumberkins and WellHaven Pet Health, it was Wednesday, March 11. It was Thursday, March 12, at Ginn Group. At GTMA, Hubb and Columbia Credit Union, it was Friday, March 13.

“I remember the day well; it was the day Tom Hanks announced he had (COVID-19) and they shut down the NBA season,” WellHaven CEO John Bork wrote in an email. “Once that happened, we put our heads down and got to work.”

By Monday, March 16, professional offices all over Clark County had switched to work-from-home models or were scrambling to finish the transition. It would still be another week before Gov. Jay Inslee issued his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order that shuttered non-essential businesses, but the writing was already on the wall.

The various anniversary dates have come and gone in the past three weeks, and a large swath of Clark County’s white-collar office operators now find themselves looking back at a full year of an unprecedented remote work environment. They wonder what’s next.

Abrupt transition

Several Clark County company leaders recalled announcing in early March 2020 that individual employees could choose to work from home if they felt unsafe. But in most cases, there was a broader and faster transition a week or two later when whole offices suddenly found themselves making the shift.

Nanci Meadows of Hubb said she and her fellow company leaders began planning for the virus in early 2020 when they realized that Hubb’s main event-planning software product would need to be retooled for virtual events during the pandemic.

Even so, the change in the office itself came abruptly. A companywide email on Friday afternoon, March 13, still left the remote work decision up to individual employees. A follow-up email early Monday morning announced that the office would be closing down.

GTMA had started making contingency plans for a shutdown by early March, according to CEO Joshua Swanson, but the digital marketing agency’s leadership team thought they’d have several more weeks to prepare based on the relatively low case numbers in Clark County at the time.

The change felt like it happened practically overnight, Swanson said, starting on March 11, when Twitter switched its staff to mandatory work-from-home and then announced the following day that the policy would be in place “forever.”

That decision sent shockwaves through the tech world, Swanson said, and prompted many digital-focused companies to consider following suit. Inslee’s March 13 announcement closing all schools statewide was the clincher; GTMA announced on the following Monday that it would go remote, and most of the staff had taken their computers and headed home by that afternoon.

ZoomInfo founder and CEO Henry Schuck described a similar pattern – at the start of the week, he was still telling staff that the marketing data company would follow CDC guidance and send daily updates to employees about the situation. By Friday, he had announced a remote work transition.

“It was a bit of a wild week, because offices around the country really started, in a more accelerated fashion, closing down,” he said.

Early hurdles

Many Clark County companies said the hardest part of the transition to remote work came down to one of two things: technology or company culture.

“We had the infrastructure to support the transition, but not to the scale we needed,” said Dameon Pesanti, media specialist at Clark Public Utilities. The utility employs about 400 people, 60 percent of whom needed to quickly go remote.

Columbia Credit Union already had a business continuity plan that accounted for the possibility of a pandemic, according to senior vice president and chief marketing officer Colleen Boccia, so the pivot was relatively easy from an organizational standpoint.

The challenge was that everyone else in the business world was going remote at the same time, so hardware and software vendors were overloaded with requests for remote tools – particularly tools for secure digital communication, which were essential for the credit union.

The Washington State Department of Transportation had sent all of its non-frontline employees home by March 16, according to Tamara Greenwell, communications manager at the WSDOT Southwest Region office, creating some connectivity problems for agency employees in rural parts of the state without high-speed internet access.

Hardware was less of an issue for Clark County’s creative and tech sector companies. GTMA employees were simply all able to take their computers home, but Swanson said the harder part was replicating the company’s highly collaborative in-office atmosphere.

“There were just sincere doubts as a creative agency that we’d be able to function as well, being remote, so we resisted it at first,” he said. “But I’m happy to say the work performance from the team has been stellar.”

The company used Google Meet to create specialized rooms and channels for its various departments, and instituted daily video check-ins to keep the teams in touch. Some departments turned to drop-in, open-ended video work sessions to keep up the collaboration, he said.

Schuck described a similar conundrum at ZoomInfo. Of the 1,300 employees who needed to go remote across the company’s various offices, only about 200 needed to be supplied with new laptops or other hardware. Schuck said the bigger issue was that “we viewed our in-office culture as a meaningful competitive differentiator.”

Schuck said he thinks the company was ultimately able to replicate that culture in a remote work environment, but added that it might have been more difficult to pull off if the in-person office culture hadn’t already been in place to serve as a foundation.

Indefinite timeline

The remote work shift was made more difficult by the fact that no one was sure how long it needed to last. Several companies described their initial transition as a short-term plan that didn’t become the so-called “new normal” until around the middle of the year.

Hubb initially posted a sign on its front door declaring that it would return from remote work on March 30, Meadows said. That quickly proved to be overly optimistic.

“I think a lot of people thought like, ‘We’re going to go home for two weeks, and then we’ll be back in the office,'” Schuck said.

ZoomInfo announced in June that its work-from-home format would persist through the end of the year. In October, it announced that in-person work wouldn’t resume until at least July 4.

“It was definitely one-week-at-a-time for a few months, until we finally just decided, ‘Let’s do summer remote,'” said Vanessa Holfert, senior vice president of marketing at Slumberkins, which makes books and plush animal characters intended to help young children with emotional skill building.

School closures were a big part of why the remote-work plan became indefinite, she said. Slumberkins employs a lot of parents with young children, and it became clear that many of them wouldn’t be able to come back until schools reopened.

GTMA treated the lockdown as a strictly limited event during the first couple months, Swanson said, with new update emails going out to staff every Friday promising that staff would be able to come back as soon as possible. But the uncertainty left the company in a state of limbo.

“By early summer, I was exhausted with giving company updates that say, ‘We’ll see what happens,'” he said.

At that point, he and the company’s other leaders decided to declare themselves “remote forever,” and fully retool GTMA for remote work with the intention of staying remote even after the pandemic.

Columbia Credit Union initially announced extensions to its remote work setup in three-month blocks to help staff plan ahead, according to chief human resources officer Jim Wood. The company’s leaders initially hoped they might be able to return in the fall, but later extended remote work through at least June 2021.

Plans for the future

The full year of remote work has led to permanent changes at many Clark County companies, and even as the end of the pandemic starts to come into view, the leaders of those companies said they expect to adjust to yet another new normal rather than return to the old one.

ZoomInfo is still eyeing a July return date for the time being, but Schuck said the office structure will become more flexible than before the pandemic. Employee schedules will likely still involve some part-time remote work, he said, and some office desks might become unassigned workstations where an employee can just plug in their laptop for the day.

The desire to return appears to vary by region among ZoomInfo employees, Schuck said. The company’s office in Israel is already opening back up due to the country’s high vaccination rates, and employees at the Grand Rapids, Mich., office are eager to get back because the office had just completed a state-of-the-art renovation about a week before the shutdown began.

Staff at other office locations like Vancouver and Boston appear to be in less of a hurry, a difference that Schuck speculated could be partially due to the amount of traffic those employees face on their regular commutes.

Slumberkins experienced explosive growth due to high demand for its emotional skill-building creatures during the pandemic, Holfert said. The company’s staff has almost doubled since early 2020, and nearly all of the new hires had to be onboarded remotely.

The company has grown too large to fully consolidate back into its physical office, she said, but it won’t need to; the remote work environment prompted Slumberkins to start looking beyond the Pacific Northwest for new hires, and it now employs multiple out-of-state core team members. The wider physical presence has helped the company adapt as it enters new geographic markets, she added.

At Hubb, remote work became so smooth that the company ultimately opted to give up its downtown Vancouver office – which it had just opened up in early 2019 – and go permanently remote. Meadows said the decision came after the team realized that it could still work collaboratively on the “very level playing field of the internet.”

GTMA made a similar decision, although Swanson expressed regret about the timing; the company had just signed a five-year lease for a newer, bigger office in the Columbia Tech Center in December 2019.

Much of that office now sits empty, although some of the space has found new use as a video production studio, and Swanson intends to use it as a meeting space post-pandemic. Still, he said he wouldn’t have sought the larger office out if he’d known how the following year would unfold.

Despite the bad timing, Swanson said he considers himself lucky. The initial months were painful and some of the company’s existing clients disappeared, but GTMA was able to pick up new clients and build a successful remote model in the past year, and Swanson said most of its pre-pandemic workforce is intact.

“One year later, I’m proud to say that we adapted,” he said. “We’re still in the game.”

This story has been updated to correct the title of ZoomInfo founder and CEO Henry Schuck.