Remote work is here to stay. You can thank the pandemic for this

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At the Hawaii Economic Association’s annual conference last week, the CEO of one of Hawaii’s largest architectural firms shared a story that illustrates something that might have been anathema to senior executives: He employees don’t have to be in the office to be productive.

In fact, said Bettina Mehnert, CEO of Architects Hawaii, 2020, a year when employees worked from home, was the most profitable and productive in the company’s 75-year history.

“If you had asked me in the last week of March 2020 what my biggest concern for the future would be, it wouldn’t have been finding qualified employees and managing the workload,” he said. she said in an interview.

But that, in fact, was one of the biggest challenges. The company actually added 18 people during the pandemic, bringing its total to 102.

Hawaii Architects Ltd
Architects Hawaii closed its offices in Honolulu and sent employees to work from home in March 2020, starting what has become the most productive year for the 75-year-old company. Photographer: Max C. Kim / Bad M

Productivity, measured by the use of company resources, increased 3% from the previous year, she said, even though, “We were all working remotely. The 13the of March, I told everyone you have no choice, we are working from home.

Mehnert shared his story on Architects Hawaii at a panel discussion that also included insights from Honolulu economist Paul Brewbaker and John Fernald, senior research adviser in the Department of Economic Research at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. , who shared data that provided a statistical backbone showing Mehnert’s Anecdote was hardly out of place.

Panel conclusion: remote working is almost certainly here to stay.

And why not?

The conference itself – held remotely by Zoom – illustrated a main point: virtual meetings and conferences have become so common that attending one and sharing slides or screens using tools like Zoom is a must. about as complicated and new to most people these days as picking up the phone.

Peter Kay, founder, president and CEO of Cybercom Hawaii Inc., compared virtual meeting technology to something like science fiction: Now almost anyone can go almost anywhere almost instantly.

Bettina mehnert
Bettina Mehnert, CEO of Architects Hawaii, said embracing and making the most of technology has helped architects connect with clients despite social distancing. Hawaii Architects Ltd.

“We have the Star Trek teleportation room,” he said, adding that there are likely other things to come that will make working remotely easier. He used the term “Uber everything,” saying it won’t just be pilots who will be called by an app, but all kinds of professionals who aren’t usually associated with working together.

Even the stilted profession of architecture adheres to it.

“You wouldn’t think a company like ours could make this change,” Mehnert said. “It’s huge – it’s different – we’re reinventing ourselves, and I think the industry is reinventing itself.”

Mehnert and his team at Architects Hawaii saw the power of technology as they increasingly relied on tools other than Zoom to connect with clients. For example, she said, a tool that allows clients to take a virtual tour of proposed projects using their phones and QR codes gained traction when architects lost the ability to meet with clients. in person.

“We had it before,” she said of the possibility of leading virtual tours. “It’s just that you go further, you use it more. The reflection is there, you go to the next step.

While customers have come to terms with the changes, she said, employees appreciated having more flexible hours, including more time to spend with family, the ability to work nights and the absence of work. home-work trips. Employees living in Ewa and Kapolei could have spent up to four hours a day there and back before the pandemic, she said.

But does the experience of a Hawaiian company illustrate anything more important? According to Fernald of the Fed, yes. He showed how overall productivity during the pandemic increased even as hours worked declined. In other words, people generally spent less time at work but did more in their time.

Pandemic productivity
Workers during the pandemic worked fewer hours but were more productive, according to data from John Fernald, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. John Fernald / Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco

In fact, he said, productivity during the pandemic has increased more than at any time over the past half-century, except at the height of the information boom, when widespread adoption. Internet scale has changed just about everything.

Telecommuters always lack camaraderie, views, air conditioning

Of course, there are downsides to the work from home trend.

Kay, for example, said that since people tend to work remotely, it can be easier for bad ideas to spread or at least not be killed instantly.

Mehnert said people lacked things like beautiful furniture, views and air conditioning, not to mention camaraderie.

Another panelist, Mike Hamasu of Collier’s, a leading commercial real estate analyst, noted that the office real estate market is soft and likely will remain so for a while, in part because businesses need less. space if employees are working remotely.

But perhaps most disturbing was Fernald’s analysis of an effect of home educators. He pointed to data showing that students without access to technology or in unstable homes simply did not do as well as other students.

This, he said, is likely to lead to long-term decline in academic performance and productivity, as a massive cohort of people with stunted skills enter the workforce.

In the short term, he said, there could be a slight increase in GDP as students drop out of school and go to work instead of continuing to learn.

But the long-term negative effect could be staggering, he said, totaling $ 7 trillion in GDP lost decades later, when the current cohort of children reach their busiest working years.

“Today’s children are the workforce of tomorrow,” he said.

Despite these issues, the consensus was that remote working would not go away even when the pandemic was over. Mehnert said Archirects Hawaii likely wouldn’t have tried to switch to remote work without the pandemic.

In a profession that values ​​interaction with customers, no company would have unilaterally decided to walk away, she said, adding that neither company had much choice.

“It works because we were all in the same boat,” she said. “It’s something we have to do, and it made it acceptable. And that will make us better.

Hawaii’s Changing Economy»Is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.


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