Article by Elon Glucklich | Photos courtesy of Feynman Group
Melissa Vigil remembers the early March meetings with the executive team at Northwest Community Credit Union as the start of something unprecedented. Like employees in offices everywhere, Vigil, the Eugene-based credit union’s chief operating officer, took in the warnings as the flood of news reports charted rising COVID-19 cases across the country. “It seemed like a defining moment was about to occur,” she said.
NWCU has long planned for the unknown, drilling its technical team on emergency response scenarios and changing staff work arrangements based on weather conditions at its 14 locations across the state. But with the coronavirus pandemic forcing employees at financial and professional services companies to work out of their living rooms, organizations like Northwest Community Credit Union have adapted to keep serving Oregon members during the worst public health crisis in more than a century.
“Early on we tallied which employees could work from home immediately, which ones could work from home with some additional tools and resources, and which positions were prohibited from working from home due to the nature of their role and responsibilities,” Vigil said.
Those efforts took NWCU’s contingency planning to a whole new level when the credit union formally sent employees home March 14. Credit union leaders worked department by department to shift workflows from the office to remote. They mobilized “critical services teams” to equip more than 100 call center, loan office, accounting and other employees with equipment like laptops, phone connections and headsets.
“By the end of March, we had almost 80 percent of our support center staff working remotely,” Vigil said. For some Eugene companies, especially the region’s growing cluster of tech firms, the shift to remote work has been less of a sea change than a continuation of trends several years in the making.
At the cybersecurity, IT and software development firm Feynman Group, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the company’s migration from physical infrastructure to cloud-based technology into hyperdrive.
“The lockdown was just the catalyst that accelerated us along our remote-based trajectory,” Feynman Group Brand and Business Manager Justine McConnell said.
CEO Scotty McConnell had already envisioned a future largely without office spaces, giving workers greater flexibility and reducing company overhead. So the shift to a work-from-home model that began March 11 was seamless, with employees collaborating using platforms like Microsoft 365 and Cisco communication tools. “Our team went from partly remote to fully remote within an hour,” McConnell said. “We had the workflows, processes and technology in place. We were ready.”
For more customer-facing businesses like Northwest Community Credit Union, staff have largely figured out how to engage virtually with each other and with members in a socially distant environment, said Vigil. The biggest challenge for the credit union has been meeting the needs of members that have been hit hard by the largest economic disruption in generations.
“We saw the task of providing full scale teams to respond to these needs, as well as maintaining members’ access to cash and credit at a time of high need as central to our mission as a credit union,” Vigil said. Nearly 900 customers filed loan payment extensions the last week of March, and the credit union has responded to nearly 350 small business Payroll Protection Program applications—processing them with remote teams.
The success of companies like Northwest Community Credit Union and Feynman Group in the remote workspace raise questions about the future of the office building. Credit union employees no longer have to fight for parking spaces downtown and productivity is higher at Feynman Group today than when employees shared a physical office space.
Meanwhile, nationwide commercial office leasing activity dropped more than 20 percent in the first quarter of the year, according to the real estate research firm JLL—a stunning drop considering most offices didn’t start sending employees home until March, the final month of the quarter.
So is the future of the workplace in the living room? Some Realtors aren’t entirely convinced.
“I would say there will be a period of time that goes by before people realize they want to be back in an office space,” said Stephanie Seubert, partner at the Eugene commercial real estate firm Evans, Elder, Brown & Seubert. Still, she and other Realtors predict a lot of non-renewals this year, as commercial property tenants face deadlines to extend their leases or move out.
“It’s still too early to tell, but I think we’re going to see a lot more office space come available in the market before it’s all said and done,” Seubert said. “I think if they end up developing a vaccine, it will kind of normalize, but I don’t know if by that time folks will have made big enough changes where if they convert back, it will be to the old normal, or some form of new normal.”
Those are the kinds of questions executives at NWCU are asking themselves. Employees have adapted to financial services in the remote work world, and members have given positive feedback about booking in-person appointments in advance, Vigil said. Some support center staff have gradually returned to the company’s downtown Eugene headquarters over the past three months.
An eventual end to the pandemic may not mean the end of remote work at Northwest Community Credit Union, other companies across Lane County, or the country as a whole. But how those changes play out remains to be seen.
“We are trying to take this opportunity to solve for our future by creating a hybrid remote staffing environment for support center employees,” Vigil said. “We also recognized in the relocation and return setup of our call center, that we not only benefit during the safe distance requirement from having a work environment where employees have more space, it enhances productivity.”
“It’s still too early to tell, but I think we’re going to see a lot more office space come available in the market before it’s all said and done.” - Stephanie Seubert, Evans, Elder, Brown & Seubert
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