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Editorial: Remote work is a plus going forward

JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM G70
                                Architecture President Charles Kaneshiro used a digital temperature scanner Friday at the firm’s offices. The firm recently installed the scanner as one of many facets to provide a safe work environment as businesses begin to open up.
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JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM G70

Architecture President Charles Kaneshiro used a digital temperature scanner Friday at the firm’s offices. The firm recently installed the scanner as one of many facets to provide a safe work environment as businesses begin to open up.

As more and more Hawaii businesses reopen and head up the learning curve toward the “new normal,” many are realizing that the “old normal” might never entirely return. And some of that could be a good thing.

With the lifting of shutdowns compelled by the COVID-19 pandemic and others nearing their end, some people are resuming work routines, gradually. To a large extent, these are businesses of close contact — restaurants, shops, personal services — where jobs don’t easily allow for working from home.

But in Hawaii as in communities worldwide, workplaces have made adaptations to the social-distancing imperative, whether it’s restaurants that have expanded into takeout and delivery or boutiques that have turned to online sales. Those were adaptations made by necessity, a crisis move in an effort to maintain operations.

What will be telling in the coming months and years is how many of those changes become permanent, or at least permanently available as options. It’s going to be hard to gauge immediately — business activity in our tourist destination won’t approach pre-pandemic levels for some time — but there are already hints of a long-term shift.

For example, office staffers have had the experience of working from home in the months since the first stay-at-home order in mid-March, many for the first time. Even teleconferencing novices have become experts in online platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet for regular staff conferences.

There could be a variety of reasons to be called back to the business office, such as resources that are hard to access remotely, or the basic challenges of managing a home-working staff. But many executives will now see occasional remote working as enabling greater efficiency.

Just to cite one example: This pandemic will be a reality until there’s an effective vaccine and there still will be times when an employee will need to self-isolate. And there are other cases in which work can be accomplished easily, but working in a given place may be difficult.

In reporting by Honolulu Star-Advertiser writer Nina Wu, the changed landscape is coming into view. At the design firm G70, for instance, new scanner technologies and Plexiglas dividers are in place to lower contact risks; rotating work schedules keep some employees home — and office workspaces less crowded.

The broader benefit will be the staggered commuting times, easing rush-hour traffic congestion. “Flex time” is something advocates have pushed for years, but the lockdowns may have forced the issue.

For some government services, access to office databases is essential; but even there the workarounds could be made permanent. Making appointments for things such as license renewals or permits has become more common, saving time for all concerned.

One sector of government that still needs adjustment: the Legislature, and other agencies that conduct public meetings. Since Gov. David Ige’s first emergency order suspending the norms of open-meeting laws, hearings and briefings have moved online. It has made public connections to the meetings easier to view.

But it won’t do much longer as the sole window into the law-making process. When the Legislature reconvenes next week, there should be in-person access provided to the state Capitol, even if numbers must be controlled. If gyms and theaters can operate safely, so can business being conducted in “the people’s house.”

The social experiment spurred by the pandemic is still playing out, but the ultimate “make it work” moment has arrived. It’s time for a welcome return to what’s familiar, while embracing new methods that, somewhat unexpectedly, have proven to be an asset.

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