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Remote-working trend for Honolulu employees is here to stay — one year later

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Atlas Insurance practices social distancing in the lunchroom of its office in City Financial Tower on Merchant Street. Ken Fujiwara, left, and Shane Choi sit at opposite ends of one table and Nicole Balai and Kristen Ribilla do the same at another.

    CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Atlas Insurance practices social distancing in the lunchroom of its office in City Financial Tower on Merchant Street. Ken Fujiwara, left, and Shane Choi sit at opposite ends of one table and Nicole Balai and Kristen Ribilla do the same at another.

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Bettina Mehnert, CEO of architectural firm AHL, stands in the middle of the firm’s empty office at the Pacific Guardian Center. Most of the employees continue to work from home.

    CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Bettina Mehnert, CEO of architectural firm AHL, stands in the middle of the firm’s empty office at the Pacific Guardian Center. Most of the employees continue to work from home.

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The office layout at Atlas Insurance had to be reconfigured to create more space for physical distancing. Joey Barroso, risk consultant manager, and Chason Ishii, president, stand behind Plexiglas barriers installed between desks.

    CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    The office layout at Atlas Insurance had to be reconfigured to create more space for physical distancing. Joey Barroso, risk consultant manager, and Chason Ishii, president, stand behind Plexiglas barriers installed between desks.

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                At architectural firm AHL, CEO Bettina Mehnert works with Nathan Saint Clare, a principal at the firm. Mehnert left it up to employees to decide whether to continue working from home.

    CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    At architectural firm AHL, CEO Bettina Mehnert works with Nathan Saint Clare, a principal at the firm. Mehnert left it up to employees to decide whether to continue working from home.

Is work-from-home here to stay?

The answer is yes, but the extent of it will depend on employers. More than a year after most companies sent office employees home to work remotely to comply with COVID-19 government mandates, many continue to do so, even as vaccinations are well under way.

“I think businesses have obviously had to adjust,” said Michele Kauinui, director of human resources services for Altres. “They’re pivoting as these conditions pivot. As the economy has started to reopen many employers have worked through the logistics and have worked out what has worked well for them.”

Some companies are requiring employees to continue working from home to maintain safety, Kauinui said, while others have requested a full return to the office. Many others are choosing a hybrid model, where employees work from home but report to the office part of the time or for scheduled client or staff meetings.

If anything, she said, the pandemic forced employers to give work-from-home a try, including ones that would never have given it a chance otherwise.

“I think many were pleasantly surprised by the results,” Kauinui said, “and it really boils down to a number of factors. For example, the operational consideration. It’s obviously more conducive in certain industries than others.”

The company needs to have the necessary tools, and the employee a designated, distraction-free work space at home. Remote work is also more ideal for some positions than others.

At Altres, for instance, the majority of information technology workers are now working remotely. The concept used to be a deal breaker, she said, resulting in the loss of potentially good candidates, but is now commonplace.

“I think employers have to strike the right balance for their company and culture,” Kauinui said.

As the reality of the pandemic’s duration set in last year, companies were forced to make adjustments abruptly, and Honolulu’s financial district became a ghost town. Then when Honolulu offices were permitted to reopen over the summer, many opted not to. The few that did had to create a new normal for Honolulu offices that included staggered shifts, enhanced cleaning, Plexiglas barriers and temperature scanners at the entrance.

Using new tools

Bettina Mehnert, CEO of architectural firm AHL, clearly remembers March 13 of last year — the day she ordered nearly 100 employees to vacate the office on the top floor of the downtown Pacific Guardian Tower and start working from home.

She asked the head of the IT department that morning if it was possible, and by the end of the day, it was done.

“And we pulled it off,” she said. “Actually, without a hitch. The credit goes to every single person in the firm … . If you had told me that day we’d still be working remotely after a year, that would have been absolutely overwhelming.”

A year later, Mehnert realizes it can also work going forward.

Architecture is a “highly collaborative” profession, according to Mehnert, involving numerous design meetings with clients and consultants, but it is possible to do this all remotely via videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom.

“One thing we learned is that technology is our friend,” she said. “We are now using tools we never needed to use.”

The office reopened over the summer, with temperature scanners and Plexiglas in place, plus arrows directing foot traffic in one direction. The building’s elevators transitioned to a touchless system.

But Mehnert left it up to employees to decide whether to continue working from home.

Some go in to use the interior design library, or enjoy the quiet. Initially, she was concerned about maintaining physical distancing, but only a few workers go in at a time.

Mehnert said a big part of remote working was also learning to trust employees to get their work done — and they did.

The firm not only continued its work without pause during the pandemic but took on more projects and hired a few more employees.

Although there have been discussions about reducing office space, Mehnert says AHL wants to keep a meeting place that represents the firm’s design aesthetics.

Office adjustments

At Atlas Insurance Agency, which takes up 20,000 square feet on two floors of the City Financial Tower on Merchant Street, the mood is upbeat as the company orchestrates the return of its employees.

Management returned to the office full time in mid-March, a year since nearly all transitioned to remote work, and drew up a detailed plan on bringing employees back in phases, complete with a virtual “back to the office” training session. The goal is to safely bring everyone back by June, according to President Chason Ishii.

Atlas already offered its 120 employees the option to work from home before the pandemic hit, and only about 10% did at the time. Now, about 25% have taken that option, while 75% want to return to the office.

Ishii said Atlas makes sure employees who decide to stay home have a properly equipped work space with high-speed Internet, even ensuring that it is ergonomically correct.

The highest priority is to enable employees to offer clients high-quality service, wherever they work.

Atlas is keeping its two floors because it needs more space to maintain physical distancing. The office layout has been reconfigured, Plexiglas dividers installed between cubicles and temperature checks required at all entry points.

While working remotely, Atlas kept its employees connected by holding daily virtual meetings and delivering essential needs packages to each one.

As the pandemic wore on, Atlas began to offer a webinar series for the community at large on topics such as applying for the federal Paycheck Protection Program as well as virtual pau hana concerts with The Makaha Sons and other musicians to benefit Hawaii nonprofits.

Fortunately, Atlas did not have to let go of any of its employees during the pandemic.

“At the very beginning in March we made a commitment to our team that we will get through this pandemic together as one Atlas and as a family,” he said. “I was so proud that in my January address … I was able to announce we had the exact same amount of employees that we had back in March 2020.”

The office rental market, meanwhile, has been severely impacted by the economic recession, according to Mike Hamasu, director of consulting and research at Colliers International.

The vacancy rate for Oahu office space in 2020 had jumped from about 10% to 12% at year’s end, and is expected to rise to nearly 13% by mid-year, reflecting a loss of some 161,000 square feet of occupancy in a quarter, according to Hamasu’s preliminary statistics.

“It appears a number either reduced their size requirements or just closed up shop in total because it’s been a challenging year,” he said.

There is a cost for ending a lease early. Tenants breaking a lease a year early, for instance, are generally obligated to pay the full year’s rent.

Colliers International found in a survey that productivity levels did not change for many while working from home, and that the trend is here to stay, but a physical office is still necessary.

Many tech companies last year decided to embrace remote work on a long-term basis, and others followed suit, resulting in the consolidation and emptying of offices in metropolitan cities.

Whether Honolulu follows suit remains to be seen in coming months.

Pros and cons

Kauinui said there are some advantages for employees who work remotely: skipping lengthy commutes, the stress of traffic, and a better work-life balance, particularly for parents.

From a sustainability point of view, Mehnert said she no longer prints 400-page documents but now marks pages digitally. The work day, minus the commute, also reduces carbon emissions. At home, she has learned to work with a lot less space.

There are also disadvantages, however, including the lack of spontaneous collaboration and social interaction.

“Zoom meetings can work, but you still have loss of that human connection,” Kauinui said. “It’s not quite the same in video conference, although you can collaborate effectively. The feeling of connection with others is different on Zoom and online.”

In addition, employees working from home can feel isolated or disconnected.

Ishii said he believes most of Atlas’ employees chose to return because of the collaborative nature of the insurance business, and some felt too distracted at home. It could also be a testament to the positive office culture that Atlas provides.

If anything, according to Kauinui, the pandemic has shown most employers the importance of flexibility.

“The most important thing was to remain flexible,” said Mehnert, reflecting on the past year. “Moving forward, that will stay with us. There is value in what we just experienced.”

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