When the pandemic kicked into full swing in Hawaii a year ago, the daily commutes of thousands of Hawaii workers skidded to halt.

At the time, Amanda Jones, a partner at the Honolulu law firm Cades Schutte, was very concerned about the abrupt switch to remote work. She’s since changed her mind:

“I was very pleasantly surprised at how well it actually worked out,” she told Civil Beat in a phone interview, adding that she got much more work done in 2020 than in 2019.

Now, the law firm isn’t sure when or if all its staff will return to the office. While some employees whose jobs require opening mail, scanning documents and other in-person tasks are already back in the office, many attorneys have been able to work just as well at home.

“I don’t know that we will go back to how (things) were before,” Jones said.

Hawaii Electric Co.’s premises have largely been empty since pandemic shutdowns began last March. A spokesman said he doesn’t expect office life to go back to the way it was before the coronavirus pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The pandemic forced a massive shift in how work is done nationwide and Hawaii is no different. As the COVID-19 vaccine grows in availability, local employers that went fully or partially remote are debating how and when to bring workers back to the office — and if that’s even necessary.

Companies that do plan to bring employees back are grappling with how to do so safely.

Emily Marr, assistant general counsel for the Hawaii Employers Council, said a recent survey found 37.3% of its members who reported staff were working remotely in January planned to bring their workers back to the office by the end of June. But 47.5% remained undecided as to when they might bring their virtual workers back.

Several Hawaii companies — ranging from Alexander & Baldwin to tiny nonprofits — told Civil Beat they expect to maintain virtual work as an option for many of their employees.

Lisa Maruyama, executive director of the Hawaii Alliance of Nonprofit Organizations, said the pandemic has made her realize that she is personally way more productive at home. But not everybody on her staff feels like they get more work done outside the office.

Maruyama said she is in no rush to make decisions about the future workplace. “If we’ve learned anything in this pandemic it’s that you’ve got to kind of take things day by day,” she said.

Productivity

Going back to pre-pandemic life seems unlikely at Hawaiian Electric Co.

More than 1,100 workers — about half of the workforce of Oahu’s only electric utility — started working from home last March. Others whose jobs couldn’t be done remotely — such as workers in power plants — adopted new safety protocols such as wearing masks and maintaining safe distances to protect against the coronavirus.

“That was a massive transition,” said Peter Rosegg, spokesman for HECO, citing technology hurdles like getting employees on secure virtual private networks. He said employees won’t return to the office en masse until Aug. 2 at the earliest, and even then he expects the change to occur in phases.

Rosegg also said it’s possible many employees won’t be going back at all, or will remain working remotely at least part time.

Many workers may not return to working full-time at Alexander & Baldwin’s downtown Honolulu building. Flickr: billsoPHOTO

“Everybody now knows they can work from home without a great loss of productivity, maybe even an increase of productivity because there’s no wasted time at a water cooler,” he said.

He expects the company’s physical space to be permanently changed too: “You’re going to have fewer desks, fewer cubicles, more space will be possible.”

The same may be true at Alexander & Baldwin, a real estate company that, like HECO, has operated in Hawaii since before the U.S. annexation of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Nearly all of Alexander & Baldwin’s employees switched to virtual work when the pandemic hit, said Derek Kanehira, senior vice president of human resources. About 90% of the company’s 130 employees on Oahu are still working remotely and the remaining 10% are working remotely part time.

“We expect that remote work will remain an option for many or most employees and are working to develop policies to accommodate a hybrid model,” Kanehira said in an email. “We will modify our office design, if necessary, to accommodate that work model.”

Going Back

The possibility of returning to the workplace also poses logistical and ethical challenges such as rearranging desks for social distancing to addressing potential concerns about vaccinations among staff.

The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission has said that employers may mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, but possible exemptions for medical conditions, religious beliefs and other issues create a level of ambiguity.

Hundreds of companies have called ALTRES, a Hawaii human resources firm, to inquire about how to handle coronavirus vaccinations among staff, says Debbie Padello, the company’s director of operations.

Her advice is to treat the topic like politics or religion — don’t talk about it at work.

“We don’t want to distinguish who has or hasn’t taken the vaccine, that’s very dangerous,” she said, noting that people may have health or religious reasons for abstaining that they would feel uncomfortable sharing. “Don’t require anyone to be open about whether or not they’re vaccinated.”

Marr said just 1.8% of the 113 companies who replied to HEC’s recent survey plan to require the vaccine.

“What we’ve really seen is that there’s no need to mandate it,” she said. Instead, companies are providing information to employees about how to get vaccinated and when they are eligible. “The most important best practice for employers is good communication.”

Padello from ALTRES says overall, she’s noticed a trend among the 2,200 companies that ALTRES works with toward allowing a mix of remote and in-person work.

As for ALTRES itself, Padello said most of the company’s 180-person staff already has voluntarily returned to the office because the employees felt more productive and happier with their coworkers.

Downsizing

The shift to remote work has benefited some neighbor island residents who hope that the changes stick.

Barbara Franklin leads a small law firm with only two employees on Hawaii island. She misses some of the convenience of having a staff member handle the mail but overall says going virtual has made her work more efficient.

No longer does she have to fly to Honolulu for meetings or drive an hour to Kona or Hilo for court. She can just hop on her computer and get more accomplished during the day. Most of her clients are happy to meet over the phone or via Zoom.

“I haven’t had any problem feeling like my employees aren’t working,” she said. When it comes to remote work, “I think some of it is definitely going to be somewhat here to stay.”

Deborah Zysman, who leads a small nonprofit called Hawaii Children’s Action Network, said the pandemic has made it easier to conduct trainings and strengthen relationships with more people across multiple islands.

The pandemic has made her question whether they should extend the lease on their office, which comes out to $50,000 annually plus additional expenses for cleaning and internet.

“If we don’t have an office, I could maybe pay people more,” she said.

Larger companies may downsize too. Jones said Cades Schutte intends to survey staff about who plans to continue working remotely and who plans to return to the office. Whether to keep leasing the same amount of space in downtown Honolulu also is an open question.

“Office space is one of the larger expenses and if you don’t need as much space as you have, then why pay for it?” Jones said.

Zysman said that for her organization, the pandemic has created new opportunities. One of her staffers even moved to Virginia, the first employee to work permanently out-of-state.

“For many employers the fear is that if people are home, they will be less productive. I have not seen that at all,” Zysman said. “People I feel are realizing that you can get the work done and it doesn’t have to be between 8:30 and 4:30 sitting at a desk.”

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