‘Hybrid’ return to office gaining steam in R.I.

A LEADERSHIP TEAM MEETING held recently by Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island, led by its medical director Dr. Christopher Ottiano, was conducted using a hybrid format, with some people tuning in remotely and others in attendance at the organization's headquarters in Smithfield. / COURTESY NEIGHBORHOOD HEALTH PLAN OF RHODE ISLAND
A LEADERSHIP TEAM MEETING held recently by Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island, led by its medical director Dr. Christopher Ottiano, was conducted using a hybrid format, with some people tuning in remotely and others in attendance at the organization's headquarters in Smithfield. / COURTESY NEIGHBORHOOD HEALTH PLAN OF RHODE ISLAND

PROVIDENCE – Many Rhode Island employees have slowly been returning to the office over the past year, but the office hasn’t returned to normal due to the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At nonprofit health insurer Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island, which is based in a three-story office building in Smithfield, a return-to-the-office plan was under development for the past year and completed in late March, leading to a phased re-entry that’s bringing a growing number of employees to the workplace over the course of several weeks, said CEO and President Peter Marino. The company’s hybrid model now has 325 people working in the 910 Douglas Pike building on any given day out of a total of 600 employees, with a couple departments comprising 100 people working completely from home as part of an ongoing pilot program that started in November and will soon be evaluated, Marino said.

Neighborhood Health Plan said while some employees work full-time from home and others work from home for part of the work week, the organization is now in a “transition period” as it tries to define what a hybrid workplace should look like in the future.

“The truth is we are still at the beginning of understanding the full impact of the last two years on our workforce,” Marino said. “So, we are assessing what we learned as a full remote team and what we are currently experiencing with the return to working together in person. From there, we will determine what makes sense for the future of Neighborhood and its employees to ensure we remain a strong company driven by serving our members and providers.”

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The Woonsocket-based CVS Health Corp. said it welcomed employees back to its corporate offices on March 15. The company is using a hybrid work format, meaning that most office employees spend two to three days each week at one of the company’s office locations and work virtually on the other days.

“We recognize that the pandemic has changed the way we work,” said Tara Burke, a spokesperson for CVS, which announced a conference call earlier this year that it planned to reduce its office footprint by 30% without providing a timeline for downsizing.

CVS has also done away with assigned seating for some of its departments, replacing some office areas at its Woonsocket headquarters with four shared work spaces called “Colleague Connection Centers” that require teams to reserve desks.

“We invested time and resources to create new spaces in many locations to help employees collaborate – including new Colleague Connection Centers in Woonsocket and some of our other hub locations,” Burke said.

Many of the benefits of bringing workers back to the office are clear, Marino said. Those benefits include the “organic water cooler-type discussions,” as people gather around a table to solve challenges and provide emotional support in a more personal way.

“These are all things that speak to who we are. Neighborhood is about people, and people are about human connection,” Marino said. “As more and more employees returned during the transition, we could feel the positive energy as random collisions offered opportunities to break down silos and work collaboratively together. 

Marino noted that his leadership team has been back in-person since July 1 last year. About a dozen Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island employees have been working on site throughout the pandemic, including a rotation of members of the executive leadership team, along with employees in the organization’s claims, facilities and clinical teams. 

Some employees hired during the pandemic recently came into the office for the first time, Marino said.

“There has been a special buzz in the air as employees who were hired during the pandemic, when we were primarily a remote workforce, met colleagues for the first time face to face. I heard more than once, “Wow, it is so nice to finally meet you in person.” Or, “Is it okay if I give you a hug? I am so excited to see you other than on a screen!” … I also observed a number of employees who had initially expressed reservations about transitioning back to the building, have a change of heart after getting acclimated and remembering the benefits of being physically together.”

CVS also considers those in-person connections as valuable to company culture amid its hybrid return to the office.

“As dynamic and evolving as the workplace may be, we know that personal connections are critically important to innovation and helping to enable our culture,” Burke said.

Commercial real estate services and investment firm CBRE Group Inc. recently released results of a new survey of 185 companies of all sizes with offices in the U.S showing that most companies plan to allow their employees to work from home for at least part of the work week, with 73% supporting the hybrid approach, 19% to require all work to be done from the office, and 8% intending to remain fully remote.

The survey also found that 39% of companies plan to expand their office portfolios over the next three years, mostly due to hiring and business growth, up 10 percentage points from a survey conducted last year. At the same time, 52% of survey respondents said they intend to reduce their office space over the next three years, mostly to eliminate excess space that’s been freed up by remote work, up eight percentage points from a survey one year prior.

“Companies are moving forward on their real estate plans as their employees gradually return to the office this year, but we need to keep in mind that these types of changes take time to unfold,” said Manish Kashyap, president of advisory and transaction services for CBRE. “Companies will continue to study their new work patterns and experiment with various ways to support productivity and employee satisfaction. The results of those efforts might shift their sentiment on contraction or expansion as we go forward.”

Joseph R. Paolino Jr., managing partner of the real estate investment company Paolino Properties LP, said his 20-story office building at 100 Westminster St. is now at 35% to 40% occupancy. That’s based on reports from his janitorial company, a national firm that told him it was seeing similar numbers from the properties the company services in 22 states around the country.

“They said the banking industry still has a lot of remote work and alternate days coming to work,” said Paolino, who’s long been concerned about the economic impact of remote work on the downtown economy. “But with the law firms a lot of those people are coming back. On the elevator this morning, I was talking to a senior partner at a law firm who told me he was concerned that a lot of the younger workers enjoy working remotely. But they’re going to miss out on opportunities to get to know people. It won’t be the same quality of relationship with clients.”

Earlier this year, the Providence Foundation surveyed its 150 members, including many office employers, with about one third saying that they would not commit to returning to the office, while another third was dying to get back and the rest are having employees working in the office already. But Cliff Wood, executive director of organization, said he’s sensing that more companies are now getting on board with an office return.

“Some offices and individuals have been back in the office for a while,” Wood said. “Others have still not been back at all. And others kind of go in and out. People were going back more consistently and then there was a setback with the delta variant. People have been more emboldened since the stories about variants have dissipated.”

Bank of America, which has a corporate office on Pawtucket Avenue in East Providence, said it’s been “steadily returning employees to the office” following local and medical expert guidance.

“As of March, the majority of our employees across the country had returned to office,” said Tom Rottcher, a Bank of America spokesperson. “While we have not announced a hybrid structure, we have always had flexibility as part of our work culture.”

Marino said Neighborhood has been mindful that the return to the office “may be more challenging for some than others given personal circumstances and emotional responses” to gathering in large groups again. And the company’s continuing to hold hybrid meetings, with webcam technology in combination with in-person gatherings, when appropriate, he said.

“We are testing equipment to improve our ability to host hybrid meetings – with a group of people in a conference room and others working remotely,” Marino said. “We are also monitoring for which meetings are important to be in-person without a dial-in option, like leadership team meetings, and which benefit from remaining all virtual, like our monthly all staff meeting which gathers more than 600 people at once.”

Marc Larocque is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Larocque@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @LaRockPBN.

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