By Betsy Bishop
Last April, I suggested positioning Vermont as a work-from-home capital to encourage people to live and work in our beautiful state and bolster our post-pandemic economic recovery. Since then, I spoke with hundreds of business owners, CEOs, and team leaders in Vermont that sent workers home following Governor Scott’s initial Emergency Order. I learned their responses to this grand experiment are quite similar, despite being from diverse sectors. When asked how remote work is impacting their companies and employees, leaders responded at length. Their experiences are summarized below in a few key areas.
• Seamless – Nearly every leader I spoke with described the transition to remote work as “seamless.” At times that was due to pre-pandemic efforts like at KeyBank, where Vermont Market President Don Baker said his company had a remote work policy and the technology in place to quickly and efficiently transition most employees to full-time remote status. Many businesses credited the seamless transition to employees and managers eager to do their part to curb the spread of the virus. Certainly, there were rushed expenditures for laptops and workarounds for connectivity, but, in the end, they experienced a smooth transition.
• Change for Good – Many employers see the COVID crisis as a catalyst for change in the future of work, encompassing how people work, where, and with whom. Most employers are committing to a hybrid work model, where employees work from home regularly and frequent the office less. Cheryl Allen, Vice President of Human Resources for King Arthur Baking Company, is a newcomer to Vermont, and she believes that the hybrid work model and more remote work positions will lead to a greater pool of candidates, which will help them reach their goals for greater inclusion and diversity in their workforce.
• Collaboration – Several employers identified a decline in collaboration opportunities, both random and planned. Rebecca Foster, Interim CEO of VEIC and Director of Efficiency Vermont, said her team is “hungry for collaboration.” She is restructuring their physical office space for greater teamwork with less individual desk space for when the work-from-home order is lifted.
• Productivity – Without exception, every employer said they saw productivity increase, and many expressed surprise at this. They admitted that had it not been for the pandemic, it could have been many years before this much of their staff could work remotely. At the Vermont Chamber, since our switch to remote work in March, we saw productivity spike and significant organizational success in 2020.
• Culture – The majority of employers I spoke with during the pandemic are concerned about a decline in corporate culture. They spent years building a business ecosystem that is integrated into their communities and that attracts and retains workers. They know this will require attention as they implement long-term remote working.
• Flexibility – The leaders I spoke with understand that remote work allows employees to tackle the personal challenges in their lives more easily, including caring for children or older parents. Allowing for flex hours helps accommodate employee needs, and the implementation has gone smoothly.
• Remote Management – Supervising remote employees created new challenges, but with productivity on the rise, managers are gladly adapting. Mari McClure, CEO of Green Mountain Power, has employees who are both in the field and working remotely. She shared that she now “manages her productive team by Zooming around.”
• Happy Employees – Business owners report that the vast majority of their employees are happier working from home. Workers report less pressure, less stress, and less rushing around, especially in the mornings while getting children to school or commuting to work. While they are giving up free coffee at the office, most employees are pleased that, without a commute, they have reduced their financial costs and environmental impact, while gaining more time in their day.
As we begin to imagine a mostly vaccinated population and think about economic recovery, remote work is on the minds of workers, employers, and policy leaders. We know that a widely implemented hybrid remote work model is likely and hope that remote work options will increase our talent pool in Vermont and help us attract new workers. While only 37% of U.S. workers can plausibly work from home, these jobs are a cornerstone of Vermont’s economy. Even though employers were forced to send workers home in March, they are embracing the change. They know that with increased productivity, lower environmental impact, and opportunities for collaboration come happier employees, stronger retention, and new recruitment opportunities.
The Vermont Chamber will continue to welcome people from all backgrounds to consider Vermont home, join our workforce, come to our colleges, live and work here, experience our world-class recreation, and both embrace and enhance our way of life. Ultimately, more people living and working here will help put Vermont’s economy back on the road to recovery.
Betsy Bishop is the President of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, whose mission is focused on creating an economic climate conducive to business growth while enhancing Vermont’s quality of life. She lives in East Montpelier.