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May 26, 2022

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Clark County’s 2022 business model: Here & There

As employees embrace working from home, many companies opt for hybrid offices

By , Columbian staff writer
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4 Photos
Stephanie McClintock of United Grain Corporation looks over some of the new desks with acrylic partitions for COVID-19 protection in the company's downtown office.
Stephanie McClintock of United Grain Corporation looks over some of the new desks with acrylic partitions for COVID-19 protection in the company's downtown office. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

It was close to a year ago when the leadership at Vancouver’s AHA Marketing made a bold announcement: The company would continue to operate as a hybrid office indefinitely, with no in-office requirements.

Many companies around the country were still working to bring employees back into the office full time or hadn’t made any commitments. But the AHA leadership saw the desire among its employees to work remotely.

The company conducted a survey of its employees every six months during the pandemic. In the last two surveys, 35 percent to 45 percent of staff wanted to continue to always work from home and come to the office only when necessary. And in none of the surveys did a single employee express a desire to go into the office every day.

“That’s significant,” said Betsy Henning, managing principal and founder at AHA.

And so the changes began. The company downsized its office, designing a space with fewer individual desks, more small meeting rooms and more collaboration tools.

“Our needs are changing and have changed,” Henning said, adding that AHA’s office requirements are different than they were just four years ago. “We also felt like it was important to have an office and have a place for those who want that environment or need that environment.”

Businesses across the country have been working to get employees back into offices, though some like AHA will be adopting hybrid schedules for many employees. Some signs seem to point to more people returning to offices in the fall, but the rise in COVID-19 cases with the omicron variant may affect those plans.

Reinventing workplaces

AHA will be moving to its new office in February; Henning and her team plan to have an office indefinitely. It will be a place for staff to be able to come together and collaborate. There will be no dedicated workstations, meaning — except for the technology and finance staff who will sit in certain areas — employees will be able to work at any of the desks.

Nautilus will begin implementing its own new hybrid work model in April.

The fitness equipment company’s Vancouver employees have been working remotely since the pandemic began, aside from a handful of staff who had to be on site to do their work. And while some have begun returning to the office voluntarily, the office doesn’t plan to bring everyone back until April. When they do return, they’ll be back one day a week and will eventually go back two days per week. The leadership is redoing the office to be a place for collaboration.

Some divisions, like the customer service department, won’t be back at all.

Barr praised the culture at Nautilus and said the company wants to return to getting the best out of that culture.

“We want to create an atmosphere where employees want to come back,” said Jim Barr, chief executive officer at Nautilus. “We’re trying to balance the benefits of face-to-face” interactions.

Nationwide trend

The trend to bring people back to offices is not just local. Corporations across the country have been making such plans throughout the pandemic.

Bank of America started bringing corporate employees back to the office last fall. The ridesharing company Lyft is planning to bring employees back in February.

Some are seemingly embracing a hybrid model. Airbnb, for instance, will not bring employees back until September and will not require them to be in the office every day. Amazon announced in October that it’s letting individual managers determine if its corporate employees come back to the office and how often.

Locally, Intel will allow most of its employees to work in a hybrid manner, with others needed in manufacturing roles to be required to work on site and a small number who can continue to work fully remotely.

Tracking traffic

There are signs that more and more employees have begun returning to offices.

While traffic congestion in Portland declined in 2020 and remained steady through most of 2021, it started to climb last fall, according to the TomTom Traffic index.

The national number of transit passenger trips, which plummeted in 2020, also rose. In the third quarter of 2019, there were 2.5 billion estimated trips, whereas in 2020 there were only 950 million. In the third quarter of 2021, more people seemed to be hopping on transit. There were 1.3 billion estimated transit passenger trips, according to the American Public Transportation Association. A similar trend has also been seen on C-Tran.

Employers also had less of a need for space through much of the pandemic, but now more are finding offices.

Office vacancy rates rose nationwide as the pandemic took hold. The rate was just 9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2019 before jumping to 13 percent in the first quarter of 2020. It continued to rise through the pandemic and peaked in the second quarter of 2021 at 17.2 percent, according to the Statista Research Department. That rate dropped in the third quarter of 2021 to 12.4 percent, during a time many businesses began planning a return to in-office or hybrid work models.

Staying remote

Not all companies are bringing staff back to the office. Both Vancouver’s ZoomInfo and marketing firm GTMA are continuing to have employees work remotely.

“At this time, the majority of ZoomInfo’s employees are working from home, although our offices do remain open to vaccinated employees who wish to come in for any amount of time,” Rob Morse, communications manager at the Vancouver company, wrote in an email. “However, we have no current timeline for requiring their return to the office, even on a hybrid basis. We’ll continue to follow local, state, and federally recommended guidelines before setting our return-to-office plan.”

The company’s not alone. “At this point, I think we are going to stay remote,” said Jason Naumann, chief creative officer and one of the owners at GTMA.

Balancing needs

Other local companies already have embraced a hybrid model. United Grain Corp., for instance, has three groups of employees. It has a corporate office in downtown Vancouver, a facility at the Port of Vancouver where staff work 12-hour shifts, and longshoremen who load and unload grain.

The longshoremen and the employees at the port have to work on site. Both of the groups of employees have to report to a nurse’s station to check in before each shift and have their temperatures taken. This was one of the things United Grain added for employees during the pandemic.

An outbreak at the port facility early in the pandemic caused a shortage of staff needed for all of its shifts. That made the company more cautious, both for the health of its employees and for its business.

“We have a responsibility to get these vessels out,” said Stephanie McClintock, a spokesperson at United Grain Corp. “We are literally feeding the world.”

So the company’s leadership formed a COVID response team, brainstorming ideas for what needed to be done to keep United Grain safe and reliable.

The port facility underwent a renovation, with brand-new workstations brought in that were COVID-compliant, with acrylic plastic barriers around workspaces so employees don’t have to wear masks at their desks. Furniture was upgraded or refurbished to match the office’s new look. And circadian lighting was added to the facility. The lighting changes depending on the time of day.

“It works with your natural body rhythm,” said McClintock. For the staff who are “working a 5 p.m.-to-5 a.m. shift, once they get off work, they can go home and go to sleep because the lighting is special for those guys working all through the night.”

United Grain’s corporate office also underwent changes. The office, which opened in July, is operating in a hybrid work model, with staff coming in three days a week and working from home two days a week. The model was created after the company surveyed its employees, who overwhelmingly sought time to work from home and time to work from the office.

“The consensus was we liked both,” said McClintock. The company has employees working in the office Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and at home Wednesdays and Fridays.

“We decided to do that so we’d all be in the office together on those office days to collaborate and see each other,” she said.

Omicron complications

United Grain’s corporate employees have temporarily been working from home, however, because of the rise in coronavirus cases caused by the omicron variant. Company leadership will evaluate when employees can come back within the next week.

Before bringing staff back into the corporate office this summer, United Grain worked with a space-planning company to create a post-COVID work environment, complete with new coronavirus-compliant workstations, a collaboration room, and a non-traditional conference room where employees can sit and meet but in a distanced manner. Work was also done to the office’s ventilation system. And just like at the port facility, employees must have their temperatures taken and check in before entering the office.

“We liked spending time at home to kind of just focus and get stuff done and in between throwing in a load of laundry,” McClintock said with a laugh. “And we liked connecting back with our coworkers.”

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