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NH businesses discover advantages, challenges after switch to remote work

  • Joe Bills works at Yankee Publishing remotely from his Jaffrey comic book shop Escape Hatch Books.

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 9/12/2020 9:50:28 PM
Modified: 9/12/2020 9:50:50 PM

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, industries around the region were left scrambling to figure out how to make the switch to working remotely.

For those companies that had dedicated office space where employees would come to work every day, they were forced to get things in order for people to work from home. And over the last almost six months, the transition to remote working has proved to be effective in some cases, while creating challenges in others.

How it’s gone

For Tom Strickland, co-founder and president of Sequoya Technologies in Peterborough, N.H., the quick transition was double-sided. Not only did Strickland need to ensure that his employees had all the tools necessary to work away from the office, but also set up Sequoya’s clients to be able to make the switch — and quickly.

Security was the major hurdle, Strickland said, because most of Sequoya’s clients weren’t set up to work remotely. It was about more than employees having a computer they could use from home; that computer had to link to the network without compromising the safety of the system.

“You have to be really careful with that,” he said.

For Strickland and his employees, the transition wasn’t all that difficult. A handful of years ago they began using Slack, a communication platform, and it allows everyone to stay connected just like they were in the office. And they had already been conducting meetings virtually.

“When we shifted most of what they were doing, they can do remotely,” he said. “It really puts a different perspective on working remotely.”

Strickland said they’ve been rotating two employees in the office each day — one on the administrative side and another in the technical service area — in what he considers a hybrid model, and “for us it’s been pretty seamless,” he said.

When the state’s stay-at-home orders went into effect, Yankee Publishing President and CEO Jamie Trowbridge said his company made the decision to go fully remote from their Dublin, N.H., headquarters. Even though journalism, deemed an essential business, didn’t require a shutdown of office space, Trowbridge said company leaders decided it was the right choice.

“There were enough employee-owners here that were concerned about their safety in the office,” Trowbridge said.

They have since reopened the office but have made returning voluntary.

“We didn’t want to put anyone in an awkward position,” he said. “So for those who want to come back, they can.”

Trowbridge made the decision to return full-time himself and said he is very comfortable in the office and “the safety conditions are very high.”

Laura Akerley, vice president of Bellows-Nichols Insurance, said her company too made the decision to go remote when the stay-at-home orders were issued.

“We were able to do that very quickly and overall I felt it went well given it was a very quick decision,” she said.

Akerley said the company, which has five locations in the Monadnock region, was fortunate that they were able to make the transition.

“Everything the agents were able to do from their normal workstations they were able to do from home,” Akerley said.

Lack of connection

Trowbridge said the downside to remote working is missing the daily inter-office interactions necessary for a publishing company.

“There’s a lot of questions about the long-term value of remote work,” he said.

While it’s worked so far, he said, incorporating new people, like they did last month, into the mix could present a challenge.

“All those remote relationships are built off face-to-face relationships,” Trowbridge said. “And the biggest challenge that remains is just communication and staying in touch.”

He said a large portion of his day is now spent communicating with staff who are working remotely, which wasn’t the case when everyone was in the office.

Akerley said the biggest challenges were reliable internet and cellphone service, as well as adjusting to a new way of conducting business.

“A lot of what we do is face-to-face interactions,” Akerley said. “We’d certainly be open to change if that makes the most sense, but face-to-face is definitely what we prefer.”

Strickland said the No. 1 issue with working remotely is access to good internet and thus connectivity.

“I’ve been on the broadband bandwagon for a long time,” Strickland said.

He said small New Hampshire towns are missing the boat not finding ways to build out better internet capabilities for residents.

“It’s as important as roads and it costs less than roads,” he said. “I like to say a mile of fiber optic cable is way less than a mile of asphalt.”

Trowbridge said if this happened 20 years ago, there was no way they could have shifted to working remotely. But thankfully they’ve been able to do it for now.

“What we have is not ideal, but we’re getting by,” he said.

Future

Strickland said a lot of businesses who made the switch to remote are realizing they may not need a big office space. Working remotely can be more cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

“The upside is that it’s a whole lot more convenient,” he said.

He sees the development of remote work centers as a possibility, where businesses sign on as part of a collaborative to use a central space.

“We’ll look back at this point and say that was a seismic shift,” Strickland said.

He expects to continue the practice, even when things start to get back to normal.

“And there’s not much downside for us continuing this. I think we will probably continue that at least through the end of the year and possibly until there’s a vaccine,” Strickland said.

Akerley said they have yet to fully reopen the office and are taking it month by month right now “because there are so many variables.”

She said just two people are in the Peterborough office, so it’s a bit of a hybrid approach at present.

Trowbridge said at some point they will want to fully reopen the office and ask everyone to come back.

“We’ve told people that time will come, but we haven’t set that time,” he said.




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