W orkers might never have to get out of their sweatpants.

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed about 2,500 employees tied to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, its related clinics and physician groups to work remotely — a situation that will persist into 2021.

What's Working

What’s Working

For many, it could be even longer.

“It’s probably a couple thousand that we’re talking about permanently remote” across Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, which includes system member hospitals, said Brenda Blair, a vice president at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, in a recent interview.

“As a long-term strategy, I think it’s going to give us an edge over other competition” as far as retaining and attracting employees, Blair said.

As more Granite Staters have returned to the workforce in recent months after being laid off or furloughed, more also are working remotely, according to Brian Gottlob, director of the state’s Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau.

“Businesses are being cautious and limiting workplace contacts, and more workers are opting to work from home for health reasons and because of child or family care issues,” Gottlob said.

Employees at Northeast Delta Dental have seen the coronavirus pandemic scuttle their annual employee picnic in June and their upcoming holiday party in December — events to be replaced with gift cards.

So far, next year’s employee picnic and a high-level planning session slated for Vermont remain on the June 2021 calendar.

“We have not ruled out either yet,” said Tom Raffio, the company’s president and CEO.

Much of the space in the insurance company’s two Concord buildings is unoccupied — with no rush for workers to return.

“There’s no need for them to come into the office,” said Raffio, who says about 75% of the workforce is working remotely. “We’re more efficient than ever.”

A return date is unknown.

“Until there is a vaccine that’s implemented, we’re not even thinking about bringing people back,” Raffio said.

It’s possible some won’t return even at that point, but no decision on that has been made, he said.

Dining room ‘call center’

Joseline Gonzalez had worked at a call center in Bedford for Dartmouth-Hitchcock, but for the past six months, she has been answering calls at her dining room table in her Manchester apartment.

She’s in no rush to return to the office, enjoying the extra time working remotely brings.

“On breaks, during the peak of summer, I got to go out and work on my gardening,” said Gonzalez, 27.

She also can do dishes and the laundry on breaks or when she would be normally commuting. “That leaves me more time to sit down and get more relaxation time” after work, she said.

She also gets to stay home with her 5-year-old son, Jay, who is doing remote learning in an adjacent room.

“I feel safer that way, and I do enjoy having him home with me,” she said.

U.S. Census data shows many parents grappling with children learning at home. For the week ending Sept. 12, almost 46% of New Hampshire parents reported that their child had no in-person contact with a teacher in the previous seven days, according to Gottlob.

“That means a lot of kids are learning from home and a lot of working parents are affected,” Gottlob said.

Fidelity Investments said 90% of its U.S. workforce is working remotely full-time today, compared with an estimated 10% on any given day before COVID-19.

“Safety is dictating every decision we make about whether or not our employees work in the office or remotely,” said Mike Gabree, head of the firm’s advanced process solutions and the New Hampshire regional leader. “We will continue to put the safety of our associates and customers first when considering how and when to return to working on-site.”

Fidelity, which employs more than 5,300 in New Hampshire, surveyed employees about working from home and rolled out new benefits, including a one-time $300 payment to help with home office expenses and financial help for child care.

“In that survey we found that the large majority of our employees were feeling productive at home,” Gabree said. “When a return is deemed safe, it will happen at a gradual pace, starting small before building over time.”

Among those Fidelity staffers working at home is Josie Corneau, 24, an executive assistant who performs her work in a dedicated desk area — or the dining room “just for a change of scenery,” she said.

“I find myself even more productive, at least for me,” the Merrimack resident said.

“No people will walk up to my desk all day.

“At home, I can put my head down and do work,” she said. “Personally, I’m really loving working from home.”

Not everybody has the option of working from home, including those in the manufacturing and hospitality industries.

“To the extent their employees are hands-on fabrication, that doesn’t lend itself well to remote working,” and “if you’re running a restaurant or hotel or some type of lodging, you obviously need your employees to serve your customers or clients,” said David Juvet, senior vice president of public policy at the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.

But can workers get as much done at home as in the workplace?

“It’s not something people are reporting to me as a concern,” Juvet said. “In terms of my work, working remotely, if anything, it allowed me to get more things done. There were less distractions.”

Virtual campus

At Manchester Community College, “our staff is almost all remote,” said President Brian Bicknell.

Less than a quarter of the college’s part- and full-time faculty is working on campus.

About 20% of its 100 staffers work on campus on a regular basis, with another 10% who come in at least once a week.

“Most of our classes are remote, so most of our faculty is remote,” he said.

Some workers wanted to return to campus in April.

“It’s kind of when you’re in a habit of doing something, coming in to work and you have a routine. You get your coffee at the same Dunkin’ Donuts. People were longing to get back to that routine, and we had to say no,” Bicknell said.

“People working remotely developed new routines. Then all of a sudden they didn’t have to commute. They saved money on gas,” he said. “People kind of adapted to it quite well.”

On coming back this fall, employees were split: a third wanted to return to campus, a third wanted to remain remote and a third didn’t have a strong opinion.

“There’s two fundamental guideposts we’re going to follow,” he said. “The first one is safety and the second is academic integrity.”

Students and faculty are conducting labs on campus with precautions. “You learn to weld by welding. You don’t learn by PowerPoint or YouTube,” he said.

Bicknell said the fall semester will remain remote for students, and decisions on bringing back faculty and staff will depend on the virus.

“The flu is going to throw us a curveball. We’ll deal with it,” he said. “Some people are going to have the flu and have symptoms similar to COVID.”

Remote working has caused some tasks to take longer.

“I would say on the workers’ end, the productivity side is for some people they’re working harder to get the same amount of work done,” Bicknell said.

But the mainly remote workforce produced another benefit, when a recent faculty development meeting saw record attendance.

It was held via Zoom.

What’s Working, a series exploring solutions for New Hampshire’s workforce needs, is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and is funded by Eversource, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the New Hampshire College & University Council, Northeast Delta Dental and the New Hampshire Coalition for Business and Education. Contact reporter Michael Cousineau at mcousineau@unionleader.com. To read stories in the series, visit unionleader.com/whatsworking.

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