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Returning to work: Some big Spokane employers plan new hybrid policies for mix of remote, onsite

Cathie Winegar went back to a downtown Spokane workspace in May after COVID vaccinations and nearly 14 months of working at home. Yet she and roughly 20% of Washington Trust Bank workers in certain roles won’t return to all five days in the office.

She’ll keep some remote hours because her employer is implementing hybrid work options, allowing a mix of days at home and in the office when positions allow that, such as bank administration. Other support employees will stay in remote work.

Winegar, vice president division operations, wants focus days at home to finish projects but have in-office days for collaboration. She works in the Washington Trust-owned Wells Fargo Building, on a floor remodeled this past year with open collaboration spaces, small huddle rooms, more temp workstations and fewer dedicated offices.

Winegar won’t be alone in this new world of hybrid work.

“I think what a lot of organizations and employees are going to expect after COVID is having the expectation if you have to work on a project where you’d prefer not to be interrupted – just need heads-down, quiet time, space to focus on something very technical – it might be a great opportunity to work at home that day,” Winegar said.

“But if you have other days when you’ve got meetings and you want to collaborate, then it’s great to come into the office. People have gone through so much this past year. I think businesses that take the firm stand of, everyone comes back to the office on a particular day, it’s going to cause some angst for people, because people have adapted.

“I think hybrid is probably a really elegant solution to what we’ve all been through.”

Other large Spokane employers with traditional offices are adopting or reviewing hybrid policies – depending on employee role – under an expected ease back to workspaces this summer or fall. The list includes Avista, Premera, NAC Architecture and STCU, among others.

Many business leaders say a hybrid option is likely here to stay, and that workers are in different places: Zoom-weary ones eager to return full-time, others who see merit in home-office mixture and employees solidly remote with proven productivity.

When possible, such flexibility will be key for retention and recruitment ahead, leaders said, while admitting it’s a management and facility-use puzzle. Hybrid is even on the table in some highly collaborative fields, said Dana Harbaugh, NAC Architecture president and CEO in its Spokane office with about 70 employees.

“We’re planning to embrace a hybrid model going forward post-pandemic,” Harbaugh said. The office here is under a remodel, so onsite may wait until September.

Working virtually, NAC found better technology and software, such as electronic pinning up of graphics and drawings for colleague feedback.

NAC is reviewing flex policies to meet workers’ needs and stay competitive in recruiting, he said. Guidelines will consider cultural and geographic drivers among locations in Spokane, Seattle, Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio, such as commute times and collaboration.

Harbaugh has sought employee ideas, and in some cases heard from younger workers concerned about missing mentoring access along with work culture, he said.

“The way we’re approaching it is to allow most of our employees flexibility in where they are working, whether that’s at home or in the office, but we are asking that people do work predominantly from the office because it does benefit that office culture and getting to know people. It helps us mentor and share information better.”

“With all that said, we have seen the benefits of working from home, so as we move forward, we’re not planning to set any clear sort of requirement of hours in the office. What we want to do is to build a real culture of trust and accountability where as long as you’re getting your work done, helping the team and moving the process forward, you’re good and we’re happy.”

Integrus Architecture’s Mark Dailey, Spokane principal and president, said it’s reviewing return-to-work for about 65 employees likely in mid-July. Its Seattle site has about the same number of workers.

“We’re a creative human endeavor, and I think that most folks are going to be back in the office because of the strong team relationships and creativity that’s so critical for our work, but we’re going to have to look at any unique and special situations one-on-one,” Dailey said.

While virtual work became more effective, it’s had challenges, and some loss of creative, spontaneous ideas in passing a colleague’s desk. “That doesn’t happen if someone is home on Zoom.

“The technology allowed us to do things we didn’t expect and, oddly in some aspects of the firm, it brought us closer together, particularly with two locations. We’re trying to be flexible and accommodating, but also recognizing that because we’re so team-built, the real-life collaboration is great, too. There’s no owner’s manual for this.”

David Condon, Premera Blue Cross vice president in Eastern Washington, is leading its Spokane campus with an expected July 6 opening. The insurer has about 700 employees in and around Spokane, including account managers, sales, support services and marketing.

Premera had remote options before the pandemic, but hybrid policies are getting refined, said Condon, who is Spokane’s former mayor.

“We have formalized the hybrid arrangement more than we have had. Our customer service, our sales are about really being out there with customers, so traditionally it has been flexible, but now we’ve put definition around hybrid,” Condon said.

“We too have been strategically looking at that and what are the key components of a workday that are collaborative in nature and those that are more production and individual workdays. Over the last 15 months, we’ve been able to look at that in-depth, and as we’re opening up the campus, we’ll respond that way.”

The owner of Freeform Interiors in Spokane is basing his entire showroom starting this month on hybrid and flexible work spaces, because Fernando Jauretche is convinced they’ll grow post-pandemic. His company sells office furnishings and offers design support mainly for businesses, working with architects and interior designers.

“We’re showing more collaborative spaces, which is going to be required in hybrid spaces, aesthetically pleasing permanent dividers, and multipurpose furniture in spaces – so it can be this or it can be that,” Jauretche said. “It can be two workstations, it can be a meeting room, it can be a private office or it can be a free-address workstation.”

Jauretche is watching U.S. surveys on workspace returns. While some companies might take a slow, wait-and-see approach, he thinks worker flexibility is inevitable “because employees are empowered.”

“As companies that are competing for talent try to bring people back more, I think they’re going to find if they don’t allow a hybrid work environment, then they’re going to be at a disadvantage,” he said. “Employees now know they can work from home, and before it was like, you can’t work from home because the copier is here, we have meetings and customers come in. Well, everybody has been doing otherwise for X amount of time.”

“It’s driven a lot of positive innovations, made us more paper-free, brought virtual collaborations and made hybrid work a lot more possible than it was before.”

Hybrid would work best for Mandy Lagerstrom, a STCU remote services manager for a contact center to support customers’ online banking. She and husband Robert Lagerstrom, a STCU senior facilities technician who can’t work remotely, have a daughter, nearly 3, and son, 10.

“For me, there is a lot of value in going into the office and also a lot of value of working from home,” around kids’ schedules, Lagerstrom said. “It’s also good for my mental health to go into the office and see my peers.”

While branch workers must be onsite, about 750 at STCU include a mix of roles from lending officers to support services, said Marty Dickinson, chief marketing officer.

“STCU knows we’re going to be flexible, and we know we’re going to have a hybrid model available for the appropriate employees that it works for, ” Dickinson said.

That STCU hybrid model might mean two days at home and three in-office to keep “real estate” at a permanent desk, Dickinson said, though flex workers can access temporary workstations, called hotelling. Blending full-time, hybrid and remote is a challenge to ensure collaboration among teams, she said, along with other factors.

“How do we ensure business continuity to stay at the level of service we strive for with our members, and then, how do awe ensure we continue to evolve our culture so that our culture remains strong and relevant?” Dickinson said. “By no means is creating the hybrid the easiest option for the employer.”

After checking on employees’ welfare the past year, she said STCU will use the next several months to talk to individuals and confer with managers if roles fit three options – work at home, hybrid, or all-office.

Of Avista’s 1,800 employees, about 1,200 are working from home, some likely to return to the office voluntarily in July, said Heather Rosentrater, a senior vice president overseeing COVID response.

She said Avista has told employees that if they’re still uncomfortable because of community risks, they don’t have to return earlier than September. In surveying workers, there’s interest in flexibility.

“We are looking at providing some type of hybrid option for some of our employees based on their roles and responsibilities and looking to the leaders of each of the areas to help us identify where that makes sense,” she said. “We have a wide range of employee interests.”

“We have some who really want to return to the office and some enjoying the no commute and the level of flexibility they have while working at home. We’re having a lot of discussions and doing a lot of planning to determine what that will look like.” Onsite workers are needed to support multiple field employees. “But we’ve learned a lot over the last year, and I think employees’ perspectives have changed.”

Washington Trust president Jack Heath sees a shifting landscape. Among its 1,100 workers, sending about 700 of them home to work went better than imagined, he said. Employee surveys show ongoing concerns about childcare, school schedules, public transportation and populated spaces.

“All of us as employers and employees need to keep a very open mind, and if we can accommodate our employees and have them work remote or hybrid, and it still allows for us to function and preserve our culture and continue to service our clients, we’re happy to explore that,” Heath said.

There’s reinventing spaces, furniture and schedules, but it won’t change the bank’s commitment to downtown properties, including its Washington Trust tower, Heath said.

“We will continue to be committed to a campus environment, but the way that we’ll work going forward has changed significantly because of COVID. For the most part, that’s all a very positive change to allow maximum flexibility for our employees.”

“I think we’ll find ourselves competing for talent not only in Spokane, Washington, but throughout the world for key positions today because of the ability of people to work remote.”

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