Analysis: Work from home is here to stay, but it sure isn’t sitting still – Crain’s Detroit Business - Freelance Rack

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Sunday, August 9, 2020

Analysis: Work from home is here to stay, but it sure isn’t sitting still – Crain’s Detroit Business

Rocket Companies, the now publicly traded parent company of Detroit’s Quicken Loans, originated $72.3 billion in residential mortgages during the second quarter — a 40 percent increase from the first three months of this turbulent year.

They also added 100,000 clients to their portfolio of 1.93 million mortgages they service each month.

And the company’s 19,000 employees largely handled this growth from their home offices, basements, kitchen tables or wherever they’ve been encamped since mid-March to avoid contracting the coronavirus.

“Working from home has been demonstrated — it works and it can be very, very efficient,” Rocket Companies CEO Jay Farner said Thursday on CNBC just before the company debuted on the New York Stock Exchange. (See story, below.)

For a company that just reaped at least $1.8 billion in stock sales and is known for wringing out every bit of productivity from its white-collar workforce, working from home has been a success.

It’s also probably here to stay.

A recent Crain’s survey of metro Detroit C-suite executives found 53 percent of companies either haven’t asked employees to return to the workplace or are making it voluntary.

“It’s panned out well,” said Vince Mattina Jr., president and founding partner of the accounting firm Mattina, Kent & Gibbons, P.C., which has offices in Rochester and Lapeer. “I would anticipate this is going to be a more permanent situation with the ability to do less time in the office — virus or not.”

The big tech giants like Microsoft, Google and Facebook have announced plans to extend work-from-home into mid-2021. Twitter has told its employees they can work outside of the office “forever.”

When the coronavirus pandemic hit Michigan five months ago, most assumed that working from home would be a temporary phase until the public health threat subsided.

The virus would pass, we wrongly assumed.

We’ll get back to the office by summer. Wrong again.

In late March, I went into the Crain Communications office and packed up a monitor, keyboard, mouse and computer docking station for my home office, assuming I’d be working there until Memorial Day or Fourth of July at the latest.

Now I think it’s safe to assume we’ll be mostly working from home — or wherever there’s strong WiFi and strong coffee — until next Memorial Day.

The virus isn’t going away, in part because as a society we still haven’t come to grips with the necessary social distancing and human isolation needed to wrestle it under control.

With all of the rancor over mask-wearing in public, business travel looks highly unappealing and downright scary for some workers.

In the Crain’s C-suite survey, nearly 73 percent of executives surveyed said they were not comfortable attending a business conference.

The survey found 46 percent of executives said they’re not asking employees to travel and just 12 percent said they would reinstitute travel in 2021. Fewer than one in every 15 of the executives surveyed said they’ve taken a business trip outside of Michigan since mid-March, while less than 10 percent said they planned to reinstate company travel this calendar year.

The nearly nonexistent business travel also may be a result of cost-cutting measures to survive. About 82 percent of CEOs surveyed said their businesses had sustained a revenue loss of 10 percent of higher, while 58 percent said they’ve laid off workers. Another 23 percent said they’ve imposed across-the-board pay cuts to weather the pandemic recession.

While many jobs in the service industry, construction and manufacturing simply can’t be done from the comfort of home, office-based work can and probably should stay outside of the office.

The more than 50 cases of coronavirus linked last week to the Pontiac headquarters of United Shore Financial Services put a spotlight on how office spaces are not immune to outbreaks, no matter how many precautions companies take.

The open office layout that cut down cubicle walls and displaced middle managers from individual offices has been very trendy in recent years. It’s also the exact opposite of what’s needed for preventing the spread of a highly contagious virus. Just 11 percent of CEOs surveyed by Crain’s said they’re requiring employees to wear masks at their desks, while 40 percent said masks are required in meeting rooms and 49 percent require mask-wearing in common areas such as hallways.

In other words, a majority of businesses surveyed aren’t requiring masks in common areas or meeting rooms where space for social distancing is constricted.

Bob Walters, president and COO of Rocket Companies, told Crain’s on Thursday the Detroit mortgage giant is “pushing off” its plans from mid-June to have one-third of its workforce back downtown by mid-August.

“We’re watching how the virus is behaving,” Walters said. “And, you know … we’ve seen some stories about some other folks, in fact some other folks in our business, that have struggled with a high increase in infections. And that just can’t happen.”

The longer-term encampment of white-collar employees at home brings a host of complicating factors that business owners and managers need to stay attuned to.

The first is infrastructure. Employees with children or spouses at home are competing for internet bandwidth — the lynchpin of working from home — throughout the business day and sometimes well into the night.
Any company that hasn’t yet boosted payments to workers for subsidizing their cell phone bill, internet connections and other home office expenses, including electricity, is getting a free ride while the vacant office space remains dormant.

Mattina said his 30-employee accounting firm is investing in phone systems for his employees at home so that clients are not calling them on their personal cell phones at all hours of the day and night.

“That’s probably one of the biggest challenges is with working remote and having 24-hour access to cell phones and emails that here’s no structure to the beginning and end of the day,” he said. “I want to keep some privacy for the staff.”

The second big issue is employee productivity. Surveys of hiring managers offer a mixed review of whether employee output is meeting expectations.

“People that are younger and constantly looking for reinforcement and mentoring and coaching are not doing as well on productivity,” said Larry Malace II, owner of Malace HR, a Troy-based recruiting and staffing business that does about $40 million a year in sales. “That’s kind of the downfall of it.”

Veteran employees of the company are “working very effectively” from home because they need less support, Malace said.

Mattina and his partners also have been spending more time reaching out to employees at home to check on how they’re juggling the new work-life balance, especially those with children or elderly parents.

“It’s a tough situation for them and we’re trying to do whatever we can,” Mattina said. “We’ve got a great staff and we’re trying to keep them. Employee turnover is not good for anybody.”

With summer nearing an end, the uncertain restart of K-12 schools is going test work-from-home setups. In the spring, during the governor’s mandatory lockdown, parents working from home juggled running home schools.

Some schools are returning to full-time in-person instruction. Some are opting for starting the school year entirely virtual, while others are adopting hybrid schedules to split the school week and lower the density of students in school buildings. The latter two options will create a new slew of workload-juggling for parents working remotely.

Let’s not sugar coat how difficult this can be for the offspring of these tired masses of homebound office workers.

As Skillman Foundation CEO Tonya Allen often asks, “And how are the children?”

Every C-suite executive, department manager and supervisor in a metro Detroit business, nonprofit and governmental entity should be asking their employees this very question — sincerely.

Because the chances of burnout from home are just as high as burning out in a cubicle.



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