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Connecticut Telecommuters on Rise as Coronavirus Spreads

In the past decade, telecommuting has increased by 115 percent and many believe that it will continue to increase as states manage COVID-19. But telecommuting isn’t a permanent solution for everyone.

(TNS) — Telecommuting for work has historically had ebbs and flows: Now human resource experts are expecting another surge in interest as employers in Connecticut and nationwide look to cope with the coronavirus.

Telecommuting on a regular basis a regular basis grew by 115 percent in the past decade, according to Virginia-based Society for Human Resource Management. But even as the practice was growing across the board, some of the best known companies in this country were backing away from it.

Starting in 2013, six companies, Best Buy, Yahoo, IBM, Honeywell, Bank of America and Aetna, either ended telecommuting for employees or scaled back the practice, according to SHRM research.

But now, Jeff Kagan, a Georgia-based telecommunications analyst, says he expects “telecommuting to accelerate” as companies grapple with the virus.

“With the advances that have been made in software, there’s really no reason not,” Kagan said.

About 4.6 percent of all workers in Connecticut are full-time telecommuters, according to the web site Flexjobs. The state ranks 24th out of 50 states in terms percentage of telecommuters.

Mark Soycher, human resource council for the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, said with software offerings such as WebEx and GoToMeeting, people working from a remote location can largely do anything they would be able to do if they were in their office.

Since the coronavirus began spreading in the United States, Soycher said CBIA members that don’t already have some form of telecommuting in place have been contacting him.

“My view is that we have been here before, when there have been power outages, tornadoes and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome),” he said. “A lot of companies have embraced this work arrangement as a regular practice while some others have drifted into it more carefully.”

Important Considerations

Soycher is quick to point out that telecommuting “is not suitable for all jobs or all managers.”

“For employees, you need to be someone who is very focused,” he said. “Managers need an education as well: Some of them think if they can’t reach out and touch someone, then how will they know the employees is working.”

Officials at companies need to review telecommuting protocols to determine whether or not they are comfortable having employees do their work during off-hours.

“I think a lot of companies with millennial workers have embraced telecommuting,” Soycher said. “Millennials are more comfortable working at all different hours.”

Companies thinking about starting telecommuting programs have other considerations, he said.

“It does require some structure,” Soycher said. “There has got to an understanding about productivity. And there are issues regarding IT security and privacy of data.”

Employers need to be respectful of the health of workers who are telecommuting, he said.

“If they are home because they are ill, we might not expect them to be doing work,” Soycher said.

Kagan said one potential down side to telecommuting is “the lack of face time with colleagues and your managers.”

“Some people worry they won’t get promote if they telecommute on a regular basis,” he said.

In some cases, necessity is the mother of invention when it comes to telecommuting.

Jamison Scott, executive director of the New Haven Manufacturers Association and executive vice president of his family’s business, Woodbridge-based Air Handling Systems, said the closing of area schools for an extended period has forced company officials to quickly determine which of the jobs at the company can be done from home and those that can not.

“As a manufacturer, you still got to have people on the factory floor,” he said. “But what we’re dealing with, along with a lot of other small manufacturers, is that somebody has to be at home with the kids.”

Evolving Situation

Large employers like Orange-based Avangrid and Eversource Energy have offered some of their employees the ability to telecommute for many years.

But neither company could provide an estimate or range of how many employees it has telecommuting right now or whether there had been a surge in that activity.

Avangrid, whose energy companies in Connecticut include The United Illuminating Co., Southern Connecticut Gas and Connecticut Gas, has just under 1,700 employees in the state.

Ed Crowder, an Avangrid spokesman, said company officials are “closely monitoring developments regarding the spread of COVID-19.”

“This is a rapidly evolving situation, and as circumstances evolve, we will take additional measures if necessary, following guidance from local, state and federal public health authorities,” Crowder said, when asked about the company's employee telecommuting plans going forward.

“Because our companies provide critically important energy services to homes, businesses and communities, we routinely prepare for a wide range of emergency scenarios, and we hold regular drills to ensure we are able to maintain critical functions under adverse conditions,” Crowder said. “Many of our employees are already equipped to work remotely, and have experience doing so during storms and other emergencies.”

Mitch Gross, a spokesman with Eversource Energy, said that as a regulated utility, the company develops and updates “business continuity plans and pandemic plans on an annual basis to prepare for emergency response.”

“Since the emergence of COVID-19, we’ve reviewed and are updating our pandemic plan to specifically address the unique issues and potential threats that this situation presents, which includes an evaluation of options for employees to telecommute if necessary and when possible, keeping in mind that a large majority of our work requires employees to be in the field in order to reliably deliver electricity and gas, ” Gross said.

“While this is a constantly evolving situation, we will continue to focus on protecting the health and safety of our customers, employees and communities and ensuring that we continue to reliably provide our essential service,” he said.

©2020 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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