DOVER — Companies big and small throughout Delaware have had to rethink the way they conduct business, and even how they set up their workplaces, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Representatives from three different industries in the First State shared their perspectives on some of the changes that have taken place over the past year and a half during the virtual Central Delaware Economic Summit, which was aired from Delaware Technical Community College in Dover on Tuesday morning.
Martha White, of Wilmington-based construction company EDiS; Tammy Ordway, of Faw Casson Accounting, with offices in Dover, Rehoboth Beach and Ocean City, Maryland; and Ted Werner, of Post Acute Medical Rehabilitation Hospital of Dover, shared the challenges their industries have faced at the summit — and also discussed some of the COVID changes that could become permanent.
Ms. White, a senior project manager with EDiS, has an insider’s perspective when it comes to office space setups. After all, she has spent the last 25 years working on complex occupied sites, to phased construction plans, to fit-outs and refreshes of large spaces and small.
She said the pandemic threw many recent plans for a loop.
“Over the past decade or so, we’ve been seeing what’s been referred to as densification in corporations that are here in Delaware that have an international or national presence, and even some of our more local companies have started to create workspaces that are very tight, very mobile and not very individual,” Ms. White said. “They are just workbenches where you come in and you sit down, and we saw this intense effort to maximize rentable space.
“And then we come right up to this pandemic, and you see what’s going to happen now and how tight everything is. Do you really want your people sitting next to your neighbors if your only separation is a (computer) monitor?”
Ms. White said EDiS didn’t foresee the pandemic coming and is rethinking best uses when it comes to office space.
“Oddly enough, EDiS did its own renovation, and we did a version of densification and had to give serious consideration to how we placed people,” she said. “We were considered an essential business and we continued working through the entire pandemic.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Werner noted that hospitals and rehabilitation centers such as the one where he works ad to reimagine everything they were doing.
“I can tell you that we have certainly seen challenges that I think we didn’t dream of,” he said. “Two years ago, we went into looking at not only social distancing, but making sure that we have the resources in a hospital setting that we had to take care of the patients that we’re tasked with taking care of, and making sure that those patients are safe as well as our staff, making sure that we have the appropriate resources and staffing levels that we can take care of, so that we could make a difference and continue operations.”
Mr. Werner said it wasn’t just about wearing facemasks and social distancing. There was another component the rehabilitation hospital had to take care of and that was their employees’ mental health.
“We all went into modes of how we’re going to handle staff that have children in school settings or daycares and that certainly impacted our operations,” he said. “We all worked together to solve that. So we’ve come a long way in a short period of time.”
Ms. Ordway said the COVID-19 pandemic hit Delaware right in the middle of tax season in March 2020, which put a great deal of stress on everyone at Faw Casson Accounting.
“It was a unique time because as a business – we have three offices across two states – and we were also considered essential, so we were open. Not only were we open and essential, but we were in the middle of tax season,” said Ms. Ordway. “So that is one of our biggest production seasons and March is one of our biggest production months.
“So, this was thrust upon us like it was everyone, and I think you could have had two different thoughts. One was just to basically cry in a corner like a lot of us probably felt like doing, and the other one was, we’ve got to dig deep, and we’ve got to figure this out.”
Ms. Ordway said just like hospitals, her accounting firm had to keep its employees’ mental health in check, which she said helped the company pivot quickly to new realities such as letting employees know they were sanitizing regularly and encouraging minimal client contact.
“Luckily, before the pandemic, we had invested in a resource of being able to be remote,” said Ms. Ordway. “We have a very secure portal, we have a remote desktop situation where our staff can log in and continue to work. So, we had already implemented that.”
Faw Casson employees went back to work in June 2020. However, most of the company’s staff have their own individual offices, which is the ultimate in social distancing.
All three members of the summit panel agreed that things like Zoom meetings and Microsoft Teams program helped them press on throughout the pandemic.
Not only are the new work-meeting technologies such as Zoom and Teams expected to remain when the COVID-19 pandemic finally wanes, but an intense focus on employee well-being is also expected to continue.
Mr. Werner said PAM Rehabilitation Hospital has also developed a working relationship with Delaware Technical Community College during the pandemic in which it utilized students to fill in when needed. He hopes the hospital continues that practice.
“One of the things that I was really appreciative that we had was the ability to work with institutions such as DelTech and other schools where we have the blessing of having a pipeline of students that come through for clinical rotations that are able to add direct support and help to our overworked staff, as it is with the pandemic,” he said. “It really gives them a taste of what to expect, and for them to be able to see that.
“I think that’s fantastic to be able to keep students here in Delaware, and that will help give them opportunities for them to be able to see the real-world environment. I think that’ll help position a lot of health care facilities in the future and I fully think that that’s a fantastic idea.”
Ms. White said that the construction field has had to kind of “reluctantly” embrace technologies such as online meetings and such.
“I always love going to the job site,” she said. “I’ve been doing it for 25 years and we learn a lot. You kind of get to touch and feel and then you can explain it to your clients if they’re misinterpreting something or just don’t get it. So, it’s nice to have that opportunity to visit the site.
“On the other side of that coin though is the benefit of, well I’m still in the office, I could still turn this out. I don’t have to find a parking spot, pack up my job bag and get out on the site with the superintendent. So there’s pluses and minuses to how we’re evolving during this pandemic.”
Faw Casson discovered it could pull employees over all three of its offices via Microsoft Teams meetings.
“We did convert to Teams and we still to this day have our staff meetings on Teams and one of the benefits of it now is that we can have all three of our offices on that meeting,” Ms. Ordway said. “So now we’ve brought in more interaction, more involvement. So that is a positive thing that’s come from that.”
She added that Faw Casson is also focusing more sharply on employees’ mental well-being.
“Also, arming your employees at home who are already stressed out when it comes to their mental health during this time was a huge consideration because you’re asking them to attend a meeting (online), and they’re worried about the two dogs and three kids (in the house),” said Ms. Ordway. “And I can’t tell you how many times on a meeting you see a kid doing this (waving or talking), and you have to embrace that.”
Prospective employees have been able to be more selective of their potential workplaces during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the stresses that it has caused and the demand for workers it has created.
Mr. Werner said companies have to be able to show that they can be flexible, and that PAM Rehabilitation Hospital is doing just that.
“Sure, it certainly has flexibilities, especially in clinical positions,” he said, of the hospital. “Certainly, we all have responsibilities at home, we all have things that we need to do, and being flexible and allowing our staff to realize that having positions that may cover on a per diem basis or weekend coverage – really being creative – and making sure that we’re meeting the needs of potential employees.
“What are those barriers or challenges that would prevent you from being able to take a professional position that could make a difference in our community? Is that something that we as an institution can help with, such as childcare, transportation — those things that we can do to help make that easier for you to be able to succeed.”
Ms. Ordway said Faw Casson has continued to hire employees throughout the pandemic. As accountants, she added they realize the staffing troubles that many of their clients are experiencing.
“I don’t think there’s any client that says, ‘Yeah, I’m fully staffed and I’m happy,’ so I think right now we’re trying to, even within our own organization, help clients with efficiency, how can they do more with less,” she said. “It’s really sharing with them now more than ever, how we take care of our employees.
“We might have talked about how we like to relieve stress during tax season and now it’s giving them the comfort of knowing that we take their safety very seriously because the employee safety also extends to their families, elderly parents and the community.”
To these local businesses, surviving through the COVID-19 pandemic has simply been about adjusting with the times.
“So, before the pandemic, we would bring puppies in during tax season from a local shelter, and we would have happy hours and we would be gathering, often,” Ms. Ordway said, “and instead, we didn’t want to lose that, we still wanted to bring that (to relieve) that stress, especially that stress that tax season can bring and then, you know, throw a pandemic on top of it. So, we had to get creative.
“We would bring in a food truck, and our after-tax season party was a block party outside instead. We had an ice cream truck pull up in our parking lot. That was one time we had to definitely think outside the box of creative ideas that still embraced that culture of togetherness when you couldn’t celebrate that physical togetherness, but how could we still celebrate it?
“We also did have virtual happy hours, but again, that seemed to have some hype in the beginning and kind of lost its luster, so you constantly have to think of new ways and as a result, you know that is something we still maintain here as we are closing our second tax season during this pandemic.”
“It’s just like anything else. You have to work at it. It doesn’t come naturally, and you have to work at it and so I think companies definitely have to put it first of mind all the time.”