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Honolulu Reimagines Workforce Norms amid Reopening

The novel coronavirus pandemic has become a catalyst for changes in many workplaces, which some experts say are likely to continue long-term. Offices in the central business district were permitted to reopen last week

by Nina Wu, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser / June 8, 2020
Shutterstock/Dmitrii Sakharov

(TNS) — Honolulu’s central business district these days is not hustling and bustling the way it was prior to when stay-at-home orders went into effect in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Friday, when offices were permitted to reopen, traffic continued to remain light.

Many companies with offices downtown are in no hurry to reopen, with some waiting until the end of the month, others until July and even others, beyond that. The pandemic has become a catalyst for changes to the workplace, which many say are likely to continue long-term.

Among those changes are limits on the number of employees in the office at one time, staggered shifts, enhanced cleaning, new barriers and safety measures — and in particular, a mind shift that embraces remote working.

Design firm plans to reopen its office today with a new temperature scanner by Pacific Digital Signs at its reception counter.

G70 President and COO Charles Kaneshiro said he’s tested it out and likes the hands-free technology. The scanner is set at 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, and if anyone exceeds it, an alarm will go off.

In March, Kaneshiro sent his staff to work from home and, fortunately, had technology in place that allowed for remote working to continue the past 11 weeks, along with weekly meetings on Microsoft Teams, pretty seamlessly.

A few weeks ago he began brainstorming how to bring employees back into the office. The firm’s 15,000- square-foot headquarters — in space formerly occupied by a Bank of Hawaii branch on King Street — offers an open layout, high ceilings, a cafe and local artwork.

On Friday, Kaneshiro hired a company to do deep cleaning in common areas, which will now take place monthly, while Plexiglas has gone up between some work stations, although fortunately, many were already spaced more than 6 feet apart.

In addition to getting temperatures scanned, Kaneshiro has new guidelines in place.

Office workers limited

To keep the staff of 109 spaced apart, no more than 50% will be allowed in the office at one time, which will be organized via an online sign-up list. Upon arrival, temperatures will be checked, along with sign-in and hand-washing.

Face masks will be required at all times unless sitting alone at work stations. The cafe will remain closed. Lunch will have to be eaten at one’s desk.

“In reality, we’re encouraging our staff to continue to work from home if they’re comfortable doing it,” he said. “Most of them will probably come in the office one to two days a week.”

Kaneshiro considers it phase one of the office reopening process. He believes collaborating in person is ideal, when possible, but meeting via videoconferencing has worked out fine.

While he loves the newly redesigned office — having just moved in two years ago — he admits that he now wonders what to do with the space.

“I think most people are uncertain about the future,” he said. “We’re calling it stage one of our return to the office. Stage two, when kids go back to school, is nebulous. There’s going to be a lot more working from home, and we’re looking to invest more in that and support our staff working from home.”

Likewise, Bettina Mehnert, president and CEO of , said remote working would be part of the company’s policy going forward.

She does not plan to bring her staff of 99 back to the top-floor office of the Pacific Guardian Center on Bishop Street until at least July.

“We’re erring on the side of caution,” she said. “I’d like to be the firm that maybe comes back into the office last because we didn’t want to risk anybody getting sick or doing something they feel uncomfortable about.”

AHL’s contemporary office features an open floor plan and collaborative workspaces — popular with many companies in recent years — and Mehnert will have to consider how to adapt it to address safety needs due to the new coronavirus.

She does not, however, envision returning to high partitions and individual boxes, saying that would be going backward rather than forward. She is considering Plexiglas dividers and revised seating arrangements.

In July it’s possible that half the staff would return on two days, while the other half would come in the following two days and nobody would be in on Fridays.

The measured approach is due, in part, to the fact that working remotely has worked out wonderfully, she said, using weekly Zoom meetings.

There are also other factors to consider, including employees with health concerns or kids, but no summer camp. She would consider letting some employees continue working remotely, if they wish to do so, for various reasons.

Many of her clients, as well, whether residential or commercial, are asking the same questions of how to redesign their projects with the pandemic in mind.

“The way forward now is still focused on safety,” she said, “but it is more about embracing technology that allows us to keep what worked with the open office but will now allow us to do it safely in this new world that we’re finding ourselves in.”

Many offices have sat empty for the past three months, and the office market is expected to feel the effects of an economic recession, according to Mike Hamasu, director of consulting and research at Colliers International, as firms downsize, consolidate or close down altogether.

He expects the office vacancy rate — slightly above 10% in the first quarter of this year — to rise to above 12% by the end of the year.

“The office market tends to be very vulnerable to changes in employment,” he said. “If a recession hits, you’re going to have a downturn in the economy, and you’re going to have layoffs.”

Approximately half of Oahu’s office inventory is in downtown Honolulu, offering about 8 million square feet. The bulk of offices downtown are used by professional service firms — such as finance, insurance, law and design — that support the hospitality and construction industries.

Any impact to those industries will affect them and, subsequently, the office market.

In addition, some federal guidelines may be difficult to implement. To keep a 6-foot distance, some elevators may be able to take only two people at a time, which could present long lines for those in high-rise offices.

Flexible schedules

At , employees already had flexible schedules, according to Melissa Miyashiro, managing director of strategy and policy.

The entire team is now working remotely and might return to their office downtown in July. New initiatives going forward might include “Work From Home Wednesdays” and more telework options. Blue Planet will also advocate for more telecommuting options for both government workers and private companies as a way to reduce carbon emissions.

From Hawaiian Airlines to Hawaiian Electric, longtime kamaaina companies are embracing remote working, where possible.

, as an essential business, did not have to close its office, but asked employees who could work from home to do so in March, and is now slowly welcoming them back in phases. Returning to corporate headquarters on Koa-paka Street remains optional. All sign a digital form acknowledging they will not go into the office when feeling sick.

Jim Kelly, vice president of corporate relations at , said about 1,200 employees are currently teleworking and that most will continue to work from home for the time being.

“To enable people to plan around family care and summer school, we have told employees they will not be expected to return to the workplace before Aug. 31 at the earliest,” said Kelly. “Depending on the situation at the end of the summer, that may be extended. We also anticipate that working from home for all or part of the workweek may become permanent for some employees.”

In August the utility announced plans to move about 700 employees to Alii Place starting in early 2021, reducing the utility’s office footprint by about 30% to reduce costs. The move, planned prior to the pandemic, will consolidate Hawaiian Electric’s workforce to two buildings, down from seven.

“With the success of teleworking, we’re also looking at ways we can reduce our future space needs and costs,” said Kelly.

New workplace

The new global workplace includes working remotely

  •  Four out of 5 employees surveyed globally want to work from home at least once a week.
  •  In the U.S., 45% would like to work from home one or two days a week.
  •  In the U.S., those with a dedicated room to work found their ability to concentrate improve dramatically. They also reported their ability to be creative was better at home than at work by a 2-to-1 ratio.
  •  Fifty-two percent believe their productivity has not changed as a result of working from home; 24% believe their productivity increased; 23% said their productivity declined.
  •  Eighty percent of U.S. respondents report their manager can manage them virtually.
  •  Almost 75% of respondents are meeting online to collaborate.
  •  Half of U.S. respondents say their work-life balance has improved as a result of working from home.
  •  Americans noted they do miss some things about the office: being able to collaborate with colleagues in person, bumping into co-workers and work life being separate from home life. 

©2020 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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