HOLLY HUDSON HILL For the Mail
When Diane Popelka tidied up her office in March 2020, she thought it would only be for a few weeks. Popelka, director of finance and human resources at the Grout Museum District in Waterloo, was advised by doctors to work from home as the number of COVID-19 cases rose in Black Hawk County.
Popelka, from the Clutier campaign, has health issues that compromise her immune system. Contracting the virus could have serious consequences for her. She was unable to return to work for 14 months.
With cases of the omicron variant recently on the rise, the scenario repeated itself recently as Popelka loaded up his car with office equipment and supplies for another drive home.
“I hope it won’t last long this time,” she said.
Popelka comes to the office once a week to return and pick up work she has finished. She loves the fact that she only does the 70+ mile round trip once a week now.
“It’s especially nice in the winter,” she says.
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When Popelka initially approached Grout’s general manager, Billie Bailey, about working from home, Bailey didn’t hesitate to support Popelka. “She told me to pack my bags at the end of the day and go home. I’m grateful.
Providing OptionsLocal businesses are increasingly offering their employees the option of working from home.
Sara Laures is the human resources director of the VGM group. His duties include talent, recruiting and human resources for the operations of the Waterloo facilities.
According to Laures, VGM currently has 450 of its 1,100 employees working from home. “And we have another 250 with hybrid working arrangements,” she said. These employees divide their work time between home and the office.
Laures said that before the pandemic, around 150 employees had the option of working remotely.
“After the pandemic hit, we had to pivot and think differently,” she said.
“In April 2020, when the (COVID) numbers in Black Hawk County started to rise, we told employees, if your job allows it, we suggest everyone work from home,” said Laura said.
“Our employees were grateful,” she said. “We have a family-friendly culture and we need to keep our employees and customers safe.”
The changes have worked well for the company and its employees. The benefits for employees have been a better work-life balance, Laures said.
“They appreciate the flexibility,” she said. “If working parents need to drop off or pick up their children from daycare, they have the option to do so.
“We also saw an increase in productivity and performance in a number of cases, likely due to fewer distractions and interruptions in the workplace. This came as a surprise to some of us. We have seen good numbers coming from these people.
Safety Concern Another big positive for employees in outlying communities is the elimination of the commute to the office, especially in winter, Laures said.
“It can be a safety issue for them,” she said.
Additionally, by offering a remote option, companies can attract more people from these communities if commuting is not a consideration for accepting a job offer.
“That’s probably the most important thing,” she said. “We have changed the way we approach recruiting and hiring. We can look nationwide instead of just looking in the local area. We were able to enlarge our pool.
There have been a few barriers to shifting employees to remote work.
“We had to invest in company-provided equipment to get people to move into their homes,” Laures said.
For workers dividing their time between the office and home, VGM offers reduced prices on office equipment.
“So they don’t carry equipment back and forth,” Laures said.
Missed interaction A downside of working from home is missing out on that face-to-face interaction, Laures said.
“People need to take ownership of staying in touch with their supervisors and colleagues from home,” she said.
For a few, distractions at home have made remote work difficult.
“That can definitely be a factor,” she said. “We have had employees with young children who have chosen to come back to the office to work.
“But I think as a business and as a society we’re more understanding in giving them more grace if there’s a pet or a child in the background in a meeting.
“There may be instances of employees not managing their time well, but that’s rare.”
Internet connectivity and speed can also be a challenge at times.
“We had a few internet outages, frozen video calls and technology challenges,” she said. “But overall, our employees have adapted quite well and they are grateful for this opportunity.”
In 2020, VGM employee Jenny Hughes thought she would be working remotely for a few weeks.
“Two years later, I’m still at home,” she says.
Hughes is an Account Director for Moxie, a marketing agency under the VGM Group umbrella. She serves as a liaison between the VGM creative team and clients.
“I am 100% distant,” she said. “I worked from my kitchen table for about six months because I didn’t know how long it would last. Now I have a small home office.
Hughes lives in Independence with her husband, who also works from home.
She can’t see herself going back to work in the office.
“It’s been pretty nice,” she said. “I have more time with my family without the travel, and I find there are fewer distractions.
“I miss seeing my colleagues face to face, but when the COVID numbers are down, we still meet and do things together.
“I’m really grateful that they gave us the option,” she said. “I think it’s a benefit that you can extend to your employees, one more tool in the bucket to keep them.
“We have an incredible IT team. The amount of hours they put in when we first went remote was amazing. They were pretty amazing. Not all companies have such a team. We are very lucky.
While some remote workers in Cedar Valley may experience technology challenges when working remotely, such as spotty internet connections, slow download times, or frozen screens, Cedar Falls Utilities customers benefit from much greater reliability.
“We’re lucky here at CFU,” said general manager Steve Bernard. “We continually reinvest in our system to increase our speed and reliability. In 2013, we moved to the entire fiber optic network, which is connected to every home and every business. It’s available to everyone, and almost everyone is hooked up.
“In June 2020, we increased our speed to 250 megabits per second. It was just when everyone was staying home due to the pandemic. Looking back, it was pretty good timing.
“People were staying home for work, for school, and accessing streaming platforms for home entertainment and exercise systems.”
“While this is important for businesses, we also heard from the Cedar Falls School District and UNI about the value this has brought to their students’ remote learning and the smooth transition it has brought to their teachers and staff.
Bernard said other communities in the area offer around a quarter of the bandwidth, and some are as low as 10%.
“We have incredible capacity,” he said. “It’s a world-class system.
Kaplan, a remote work expert, is co-founder of LIFTinnovate, a company that helps businesses and organizations deal with sudden change.
“Employees are renegotiating their relationship to work,” he said. “Two of the most important things for employees are compensation and flexibility. They want work-life balance. Even before the pandemic, there was a trend towards remote working. The pandemic has just accelerated it.
“Employers never had a real incentive to offer the option,” he said. “There was a natural reluctance. Employers said, “Show up, shut up and do it my way.”
“But with remote work, we have the same or higher productivity. Employers and employees are happier.
Kaplan said that instead of funding physical locations for offices, companies can focus those funds on their core products.
“They don’t waste money. It will lower the cost of goods.
Kaplan said remote work will last long after the pandemic is over.
“It’s here and it’s here to stay,” he said. “You can’t decipher an egg.”
Kaplan said the challenge will be keeping pace with people in terms of technology.
“We cannot leave the technically disabled behind us. It’s really important.