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Pandemic pushes remote work into the long term

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Trish Jackson is the new interim head of development for The New School in New York City.

She leads a team of 21 employees and spearheads the 9,150-student university’s fundraising — from a spare bedroom at her home in Norwich and without having set foot in Manhattan.

Nor is Jackson sure she ever will as part of her new job.

“I hope I’ll get to the campus at some point, but I may not,” said Jackson, who previously held development positions at Brown University in Providence, R.I. — where she had to live during the week and commute home on the weekends — and at Dartmouth College. “I don’t think development officers, especially for fundraising, are going back to offices.”

Jackson’s observation goes for workers beyond academia, too.

The COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping the workplace for both employers and employees by upending what has been a daily ritual among white-collar workers dating back to tie clasps and stocking garters — going into an office — into a dispersed, off-site model where people work remotely from any place they wish.

Bolstered by technology, from high-speed internet to advances in communication platforms that enable easy conferencing and collaboration, entire segments of the Upper Valley workforce are now working from home. And many may be staying there.

Major Upper Valley employers such as Mascoma Bank and Lebanon manufacturer Fujifilm Dimatix are not only letting major portions of their office staff work from home but are hiring new employees from outside the Upper Valley without the expectation that they will relocate. The moves are part of a trend that has been growing for years but has accelerated during the pandemic.

“For some of our hard-to-fill positions, we found hiring (someone) to work remotely is a great opportunity to expand our network of potential employees,” said Melissa Carlson, vice president of human resources at Mascoma Bank.

She said the bank, where “nearly all” of its 370 employees not in retail branch positions have been working from home since March, recently hired a specialist to work in the bank’s residential mortgage lending division from his home in Connecticut.

Mascoma is also retaining a key employee who works on the projects team but who is moving to Washington, D.C., where the employee’s partner is taking a position to support President-elect Joe Biden’s administration. The same is the case with a mortgage loan assistant who relocated outside the Upper Valley but can keep her job by now working remotely.

Trish Jackson, of Norwich, Vt., walks in a back parking lot in Norwich, on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020. Jackson, who works from home, often walks when on calls for work. Photo/Jennifer Hauck Valley News

“In the old days, we would have lost some really great talent,” said Carlson, who noted that distant workers at the bank are still “the exception, not the rule.” Nonetheless, she added, because “the majority of us in the organization are having to work virtually, it’s feeling very normal to have people in multiple locations working on projects together.”

To be sure, the switch to remote work involves mostly employers and employees in desk-bound positions and does not extend to jobs on a manufacturing or warehouse floor, dealing directly with customers in retail or other “front-line” capacity.

But when the job entails working in front of a computer screen and communication can be conducted via email, teleconferencing platforms like Zoom and real-time texting channels such as Slack and Google Chat, working from home becomes a viable option.

Dartmouth College expects that about 2,700 faculty and staff who are currently working remotely will continue to do so through March, and about 2,000 Dartmouth-Hitchcock workers are also likely to continue telecommuting for months to come.

With the exception of only necessary office visits, all 30 employees in the White River Junction office of Resource Systems Group, a consulting firm that advises municipalities and public agencies on transportation and land planning, have been working from home since February, CEO Stephen Lawe said.

“The nature of our business is one that lends itself well to people working remotely,” said Lawe, explaining that RSG consultants pre-pandemic were frequently traveling to meet with far-flung clients or to collaborate with other RSG teams at one of the firm’s seven offices around the country.

In the aftermath of COVID-19, however, Lawe foresees “some changes in our hiring processes a little bit.”

“We’ve always hired people from anywhere in the country, but in the past we generally expected them to gravitate toward one of our offices,” he said. “I think expectations may change around people coming into the office versus working from home. … We may have over-emphasized travel.”

Tim Marcoux, a software controls engineer at Fujifilm Dimatix who traveled extensively for a former employer, said he appreciates that he no longer has “has to drop everything and spend the weekend away from my family.”

Marcoux was hired by the Lebanon designer and manufacturer of industrial print heads in May but works from his home in Bennington, Vt. And whereas before he’d sometimes be on the road “for weeks,” so far he has had to make only about five day trips to Lebanon when required to test-run the equipment.

And contrary to common belief that people who work remotely from home experience the job bleeding into all hours of night and weekend, Marcoux said he is actually more in control of his time with a regular 40-hour week. He has set up a home office where he works an eight-hour day — breaking for lunch and a walk outside — writing code and holding meetings over Zoom with colleagues.

“The next thing I know, 5 p.m. rolls around and I’m done. The day can go really fast,” Marcoux said.

Fujifilm’s vice president of resources, Karen Hebert, said the company also recently hired an IT specialist to work from home — in Texas.

“We’re definitely more open to it,” Hebert said about Fujifilm’s willingness to remote employees outside the Upper Valley. “We’ve kind of proven we can work from home. I don’t know what will happen once we have a vaccine, but I think we’re headed (more) in that direction. … From my perspective in recruitment, it opens up a bigger pool” of job candidates.

And from the perspective of the new remote workers, there is no place like the home office.

Jackson, the New School development officer, said she has fitted out the spare bedroom by arranging bookshelves and filing cabinets that came from the office of her husband, a retired professor at Mount Holyoke College. It all feels like a workspace, except for one missing item.

“I’m going to get a whiteboard,” Jackson said. “I don’t have one yet. That’s one of my Christmas gifts.”


These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org

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