With the first Granite Staters receiving the COVID-19 vaccine this past week, the promise of a “return to normal” could imply, for some, reopening corporate offices in the near future.
But several large employers in the Monadnock Region pumped the brakes on such expectations this week, saying they are still developing return-to-work timelines and will continue to prioritize employee safety.
All of the businesses do, however, plan to reopen their offices for at least limited capacity, if they have not done so already — contrary to some predictions that the pandemic will permanently end corporate cubicle culture.
Liberty Mutual Insurance, which employs approximately 75 people locally, plans to begin reopening its offices nationwide after April 1, company spokesman Glenn Greenberg told The Sentinel in an email. At that point, Liberty Mutual staff in the region will have the option of returning to the company’s new office in Fairbanks Plaza on West Street — where it moved after selling its longtime 62 Maple Ave. location this summer.
Greenberg called it “premature” to say whether employees will be required to get vaccinated before returning to work. But, he said, they can choose to work remotely until at least the end of June.
About half of the staff at Electronic Imaging Materials, a Keene-based label manufacturer, has been working at its Forge Street headquarters this year, EIM Vice President Heather Bell said Tuesday. Most of the 15 to 20 employees on site make up the company’s manufacturing personnel, while people from departments like sales, accounting, marketing and human resources are primarily working remotely, according to Bell.
She said the system is working well for EIM, which has rebounded after its sales dropped by 20 percent last spring and managed to retain all of its full-time employees.
“We found that actually prioritizing those employees who have to do their work on site, those hands-on employees, and giving them as much space and safety as possible … seems to be the best direction for us,” she said.
Given the uncertainty of when vaccine doses will be available to the general public, Bell said EIM is unlikely to require that its employees get inoculated before returning to work. However, she added, the company will encourage staff to do so, planning to offer a monetary incentive for getting vaccinated — similar to the $100 it gives each year to anyone who receives a flu shot.
EIM will evaluate productivity along with employee safety while determining when and how to boost its on-site staffing, according to Bell, though she said that evaluation process likely will not begin until the spring. She said the company will also consider letting some employees continue working remotely based on their individual circumstances, noting that working parents’ child-care responsibilities are unlikely to end soon with many students attending school virtually.
“I certainly want to be cognizant of employees’ needs around those areas,” she said. “… The business has to run, but I think we really value our employees and what they bring to the table, so we’ll consider everybody’s circumstances.”
C&S Wholesale Grocers — which counted more than 1,100 employees in Keene as of December 2019, a spokeswoman said at the time — has given employees the option of working remotely during the pandemic. It has also let staff return to its multiple Keene offices, spokeswoman Lauren La Bruno told The Sentinel in an email.
The company has “gone over and above” safety recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as state guidance, for anyone working in person, La Bruno said. That has included providing masks to employees, increasing sanitization measures, encouraging social distancing and instituting no-contact visitor and delivery policies, she said.
“As the situation continues to evolve, we remain committed to maintaining a safe workplace for our employees while we continue our important work of keeping communities across the country fed,” she said.
La Bruno declined to say whether C&S will mandate that its employees get inoculated before returning to work, explaining that the company is still evaluating the vaccination timeline.
That is also the case at another national insurance firm, Main Street America, which employs approximately 270 people at its West Street office in Keene, according to company spokesman Steve Gerrish.
Nearly all Main Street America staff have been working remotely since March to protect them from the coronavirus, Senior Vice President Dave Medvidofsky said in a written statement. Despite “encouraging” vaccinations, he said, the company has not decided whether to require that employees get inoculated before returning to its offices.
Main Street America has heard from both its workers and customers that the company has remained productive this year, according to Medvidofsky, which he said could mean a slower “return to normal” — or, at least, to the old normal.
“[M]any of our employees prefer working from home; therefore, we don’t feel the need to rush employees on site,” he said.