Local employers are moving forward, cautiously, with plans to resume workplace operations as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, though some expect that remote work will continue to be prevalent.
Main Street America, a national insurance firm with approximately 270 employees in Keene, is planning a “soft” reopening at its West Street office early next month, according to spokesman Steve Gerrish.
Nearly all Main Street America staff have been working remotely since last spring to help reduce viral spread, a company official told The Sentinel previously, though Gerrish said some essential employees have been in the Keene office throughout the pandemic. As part of the July 6 office reopening, workers will be invited to return for optional on-site meetings, he said.
Main Street America isn’t using that as simply a trial run, but Gerrish said the company hopes to “learn from employee interactions and further configure office spaces” for its Sept. 13 full reopening. Even then, Main Street America staff won’t be required to work on site for a minimum number of days each week, he said, adding that employees have been discussing their personal work preferences with managers for months.
“Our intent is to be thoughtful and intentional in the manner by which we transition employees back into the office in either a full-time or hybrid capacity,” he said.
The Masiello Group, a real estate firm with offices across northern New England, is “rapidly moving back to pre-pandemic conditions” in its Keene office, spokeswoman Kristen Diamond said Tuesday.
Masiello agents conducted client meetings and many home closings remotely for much of the pandemic, according to Diamond. Since the company relaxed its in-office mask policy after New Hampshire’s mask mandate expired in April, however, she said its agents and staff have been working on site more regularly.
Even before the pandemic, Diamond said relatively few of the 50 people based out of The Masiello Group’s office on Island Street were there at a given time, as many agents worked from home or conducted regular site visits. With people coming and going all day, she said activity in the company’s conference rooms is a good measure of office use.
“Now we are seeing the conference rooms filling up again,” she said. “A true sign that we are steadily moving back to our new normal.”
At least one large manufacturer in the area, which continued on-site operations during the pandemic, is preparing for a return to more typical workplace conditions.
MilliporeSigma, the biotechnology firm with more than 1,000 workers at its Jaffrey facility, has operated at 70-80 percent of its normal capacity at that location to keep staff safe from COVID-19, according to spokesman Jeffrey Whitford. Any employees at the Jaffrey plant — which the company announced last year would add nearly 300 new jobs — who could work remotely during the pandemic have been doing so, he said.
But those workers are starting to return to the office “in small numbers,” Whitford said Wednesday, adding that MilliporeSigma has no mandatory timeline for that process.
With on-site activity rising, he said the company has left in place a number of COVID-related protocols, including regularly sanitizing the facility and also asking staff — even people who are fully vaccinated — to wear masks and keep a safe distance from each other. MilliporeSigma isn’t requiring its employees to get vaccinated before returning to work, but Whitford said it is strongly encouraged.
Despite federal guidance last month that employers are legally permitted to require that their workers get vaccinated, many large organizations in the area say they’re also leaving that choice to their staff.
Cheshire Medical Center, a Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health affiliate, does not mandate staff to be vaccinated for COVID-19, according to spokesman Matthew Barone, who said a “significant number” of hospital employees have gotten the vaccine.
Some Cheshire Medical staff continues to work remotely, which Barone said will likely continue for the near future because “it worked so well for many teams.” All hospital patients, visitors and anyone working on site outside of a private office must still wear masks, he said.
“Regardless of vaccine status, all the protocols we have in place are followed to keep our staff and patients safe,” he said.
Keene State College spokeswoman Kelly Ricaurte said the college doesn’t require that faculty, staff or students get vaccinated but that it encourages them to do so. Anyone who provides proof of vaccination does not need to quarantine after exposure to someone infected with COVID-19 or after traveling, she said, in addition to being exempt from regular coronavirus testing on campus and the college’s outdoor mask mandate.
Main Street America is taking steps to make employees feel comfortable in its Keene office as it prepares to reopen, according to Gerrish, including offering sanitizers throughout the building, using social-distancing signage and cleaning the facility each night, he said.
Like many other local employers, Main Street America isn’t requiring its staff get vaccinated before returning to the office, Gerrish said. However, he said the company is asking workers to enter their vaccine information — when they were inoculated and with which vaccine — into an internal database that will be “an indicator of [the] overall health and safety of our employee population.”
“As we prepare to reopen our offices, protecting the health and safety of our employees remains paramount,” he said.