By Matt Glynn | The Buffalo News | Nov 19, 2021, Updated Nov 23, 2021
As workers return to offices, hybrid schedules take root
Hybrid work schedules appear here to stay as workers come back to the office. Rich Products and KeyBank are remodeling office space in anticipation of more workers returning – but not all at once.
M&T Bank will bring employees back to the office, for at least part of the week, starting in January.
Delaware North says its employees have embraced a flexible work schedule.
Around the region, employers with a lot of office workers have taken a gradual approach toward answering a long-standing question: When is the right time to bring workers back?
They have weighed a number of factors, from Covid-19 cases – which are surging again – to worker productivity and comfort.
More broadly, issues like the worker shortage and child care availability are still affecting hiring and retention, too.
Employers generally say they like the results they have seen while employees have worked from home, but also see value in some in-person interaction, especially for bringing new employees on board.
Yet as workers have grown more comfortable working from home – and employers more comfortable with them doing so – businesses also are trying to strike a balance between returning to what was normal before the pandemic and a new dynamic in the labor market.
Companies requiring workers to come back to the office risk alienating employees who want to work remotely and might leave if they were forced to return to the office at a time when there are plenty of companies looking to hire.
But even as more workers return at least part time to Buffalo’s downtown offices, it creates an economic spinoff effect. Michael Schmand, executive director of Buffalo Place, said he has noticed parking ramps and lots getting fuller, and lunchtime lines at delis getting longer.
“You can see the uptick,” Schmand said. “But when we have more people down there, it will be even better.”
Along the way, employers are balancing what they have learned since March 2020 about how to manage their workforces with their plans for the future.
As Rich Products workers trickle back to the office, they will see plenty of changes at the food company’s recently renovated Niagara Street offices.
Rich Products’ offices in the United States and Canada have been open to fully vaccinated workers since September. Vaccinated workers have had the option of working remotely, too. About 750 Rich Products employees are based at its headquarters; since September, those offices have had an occupancy of 15% to 20% during an average week.
Rich Products has poured $4.5 million into renovating office space at the headquarters to support its transition to a hybrid work environment, said Dwight Gram, a company spokesman. The next phase of its return-to-office plan is set to kick off in March.
Rich plans to hold an in-person Founder’s Day celebration on March 2 – health and safety conditions permitting – for employees at its headquarters, to showcase the freshly renovated office space.
The renovations include collaborative spaces, “nomadic” work stations – for employees not assigned to a specific spot – and technology that will make it easy to connect with employees who are located elsewhere, Gram said.
The company doesn’t view a hybrid work schedule as an “either/or” proposition for workers, Gram said. “There are benefits of spending time together in person and in working remotely.”
Employees will choose a work location – on-site or remote – where they can perform at their highest level. Gram said. But the company also says there is value in employees spending quality time in the office and at other Rich Products sites on a regular basis, to promote collaboration, relationship building and team building.
“We certainly expect to learn a lot around ‘what’s working’ and ‘what needs to improve,’ and we will continue to evolve our approach to hybrid work as we move forward,” Gram said.
In September, Delaware North held an event to welcome employees back to its 250 Delaware Ave. headquarters in a bigger way.
The hospitality giant has rolled out a “flex@work” program. Employees, in discussion with their managers, determine how often they will be in the office. (Employees must be vaccinated in order to come in.)
Even before the pandemic, some Delaware North employees already were working remotely or traveling frequently for their jobs, said Glen White, a company spokesman.
“We probably have a few more now that the remote work option is there,” White said. “I think there’s more of a realization that not everyone has to be based in Buffalo in joining Delaware North.”
About 25% of Delaware North’s headquarters employees are “anchored” – meaning they are in the office at least four days a week – 50% are hybrid, and 25% are remote, White said.
The number of people working in the office varies from day to day. On some days, for instance, all the members of a particular department might come in to meet in person.
“There’s a good presence, but it’s certainly not a full house like we had in the past,” White said.
Delaware North has just sent out a survey to employees, to get their thoughts on what’s working and what isn’t under the new schedules.
“It seems like flex@work is here to stay,” White said. “But could there be changes to it in the future? We’ll continue to assess that.”
Lawyers, paralegals and other professionals have been flowing back to the law firm’s Canalside offices to work, even though the vast majority of employees are not required to be there, based on their job classifications.
Why have so many returned? The law firm’s offices are spacious, giving employees plenty of room to safely spread out, said Kevin Hogan, the managing partner. Hogan also thinks it’s a profession that lends itself to face-to-face contact, and that the firm’s employees enjoy each other’s company.
“It’s the kind of job where people at some level still need to interact,” he said.
Younger lawyers in particular have been interested in being back at the office, to work alongside their more-experienced colleagues and develop those relationships, Hogan said.
Employees have to wear masks unless they are at their desks and must fill out a symptoms self-assessment each day to come in. Unvaccinated employees – only 5% are – must undergo weekly testing. When the firm’s executive team meets, they do so on WebEx – even if all of the members are in the office on a given day.
Phillips Lytle will eventually implement flexible work arrangements centered on a “routine office presence.” Employees in eligible roles who want that type of schedule will identify which days of the week they will be in the office and which days they won’t, so that their teammates are in the loop.
The firm will implement that plan “as soon as safety allows” based on pandemic data, but has not set a start date for it, Hogan said. He believes the plan will help the firm recruit talent and create a good work-life balance for employees.
Hogan feels the firm will be in a good spot when the time comes, given that the vast majority of Phillips Lytle’s employees are already back in the office at least part of the week. “We don’t have to tie it to a back-to-work date,” he said. “We’re already back.”
KeyBank will launch its back-to-office plan for non-branch workers starting in January. Its branch employees have kept working at branches throughout the pandemic.
Under Key’s plan, half of Key employees across its territories will be in the office four to five days a week, 30% will be in the office three days or less and 20% will be fully remote. It depends on the category of the job, and where those employees perform their duties.
Key is wrapping up the remodeling of its office space on Ridge Lea Road in Amherst. The changes there include implementing social distancing throughout the facility, both for workers who are assigned to a space and those who are “mobile,” meaning they don’t have an assigned workspace each day, said Matt Pitts, a Key spokesman.
Key has also made changes to common areas of the building, Pitts said. There are open gathering spaces for employees to collaborate, individual phone booths to make private calls and single-seat lounge chairs for employees on break.
The changes reflect how Cleveland-based Key is adapting its offices across its operations heading into a new year.
“We’re looking forward to getting to what I call our ‘future state,’ and we’re moving in that direction,” said Chris Gorman, the bank’s chairman and CEO, in a recent interview.
M&T plans to bring non-branch employees back to the office, on hybrid schedules, starting Jan. 10.
That includes its $58 million tech hub inside Seneca One tower – high-profile, renovated office space that the bank hasn’t yet fully taken advantage of.
The bank will also bring back employees in larger numbers to prominent buildings like its One M&T Plaza headquarters and its corporate offices just up Main Street at M&T Center.
Many M&T employees will be in the office three days a week: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and one other day of their choice. In some cases, employees and managers may decide on a different schedule, said Julia Berchou, a bank spokeswoman.
M&T has a mask policy for employees when they are in the office, but it is not mandating that workers be vaccinated to be on-site.