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Omaha Magazine

Back to the Office? Working from Home Continues into Spring and Summer

Jan 18, 2021 08:50AM ● By Niz Proskocil
OBI Creative founder/CEO Mary Ann O'Brien

Photo provided

It’s not uncommon for businesses to allow employees to work from home during unsafe weather, a personal emergency, or to care for a sick child. Some employers offer remote work opportunities as a perk that demonstrates flexibility and enhances company culture. Nearly a year into the coronavirus pandemic, however, working from a home office instead of a traditional one has become a new way of life for some.

As return-to-office dates get pushed to spring and summer 2021, employees at several Omaha-area companies, from small businesses to large organizations, are still doing their jobs primarily from home. Once offices fully reopen, flexible working plans—including a hybrid approach that combines home and office working—could become more prevalent in the post-COVID future.

At OBI Creative, a full-service advertising agency based in Omaha, the majority of employees have been working from home since mid-March. Company officials don’t expect this arrangement to change until at least late spring.

“I want my team to feel safe and be comfortable,” said Mary Ann O’Brien, OBI Creative founder and CEO.

Even before the pandemic, the ad agency, which employs 40 associates spread across four U.S. cities, was accustomed to communicating and collaborating with colleagues and clients in multiple locations. The shift to telecommuting has been a smooth process for the most part, and the OBI staff has continued to be effective and productive while working from home.

“We were able to pivot pretty quick,” O’Brien said. “We really didn’t skip a beat.” 

Remote work, however, is no replacement for the collaboration offered by in-person interaction. There’s an energy and knowledge exchange that happens face to face in the office, said O’Brien, adding that she misses her colleagues.

“We see each other every day on Zoom, but it’s not the same,” she said. “We’re just trying really hard to make sure that our team feels connected to one another.” 

A few OBI associates opted to keep going into the office, while others stop in every now and then. Directional arrows on the floor, hand sanitizer stations, and other measures help promote a safe workplace. Plus, the company’s 10,000-square-foot headquarters makes social distancing easy.

Of course, not all jobs can be done from home, such as retail, construction, health care, transportation, and other industries. Companies like ECS Technology Solutions that offer services to customers find that a fully remote working arrangement isn’t always feasible. The family-owned small business, based in Elkhorn, provides IT services to residential and commercial clients.

The number of ECS associates working remotely has decreased since the start of the pandemic, when roughly 75% of the company’s 26 employees worked from home. By November, the number had dropped to about 50%, according to ECS President James Thompson.

Employees have adjusted well to the pandemic-related changes and are equipped with tools to support a productive work-from-home environment, such as laptops with docking stations. Additionally, Thompson noted, ECS was fortunate in that they already have the infrastructure in place to make for a smooth transition to remote working.

Going forward, ECS employees will have the option to work from home, when able. But, Thompson added, “We would still want them to come in every once in a while to ensure that they get the team interaction to help spark innovation and improve culture.”

WoodmenLife has pushed its return-to-office date to June 2021 in an effort to keep employees safe. The company, whose downtown Omaha headquarters is home to about 550 workers, adheres to local and national health directives and has a medical director on staff.

Founded in 1890, the organization has always had some employees who worked remotely, but the pandemic prompted most associates to work from home. Only a fraction of the WoodmenLife workforce (about 35 associates) continued to work onsite, said Chief Operating Officer Denise McCauley.

While one advantage of working from home is losing the commute, McCauley said, a downside is losing in-person interactions. “It isn’t a fit for everybody,” she said of remote work.

WoodmenLife has had to make adjustments to certain processes, and some associates have taken on new roles during the pandemic. The company routinely keeps employees in the loop via email with information about safety procedures, coronavirus-related issues, and other updates.

“We’ve been really transparent with our communication,” McCauley said. “Communication is very important.”

A September 2020 Gallup poll indicates that nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers who have been working remotely during the pandemic want to continue doing so. In all, 35% of those who have worked remotely would simply prefer to do so, while 30% would like to do so because they’re concerned about COVID-19. Another 35% say they would like to return to the office. 

OBI’s O’Brien is open to trying to find a solution that works for both employees and clients—perhaps a blend of remote and traditional onsite work. Whatever the post-pandemic workplace ends up looking like, O’Brien said the company is equipped to adapt and thrive in times of change. 

“My goal has always been to emerge stronger from this,” she said.

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