The revolution will be teleconferenced: Local companies shifting to a work-from-home future

RENO, Nev. — In February, Prominence Health Plan had plans to expand its footprint in the Biggest Little City.

With nearly 200 employees between its headquarters on Meadowood Lane and nearby satellite office, the a Reno-based subsidiary of Universal Health Services was looking to lease an additional 8,000 square feet of office space to accommodate its fast-growing staff.

A month later, after the coronavirus outbreak shut down Nevada and shuttered offices across the state, Prominence's expansion plans were shelved.

Three months later? Those plans were trashed.

“That's no longer a concern for us,” Chief Compliance Officer Philip Ramirez said in a phone interview with the NNBW, adding that Prominence is instead more likely to downsize its footprint in the future.

After all, the Reno-based health services company emptied out most of its headquarters during the pandemic and found it has still been able to process claims and do business thanks to videoconferencing and other digital tools.

“We have not experienced a really significant impact in any way whatsoever to our day-to-day operations,” he said. “It's been business-as-usual.”

In March, Ramirez said about 90% of Prominence's employees moved to working remotely, and, as of early June, roughly 80% of the workforce are still rolling out of bed and plugging in at home.

At the end of the year, Ramirez estimates at least 50% of staff would remain at-home workers.

“We've embraced it head-on,” Ramirez said. “We said, let's take this as an opportunity to make sure that we're not only meeting our employees needs from a crisis standpoint, but let's use this as a vehicle to make sure that we're keeping our employees happy and listening to them and meeting their needs from a work-from-home standpoint now and into the future.”

Prominence's indefinite pivot to at-home work is a microcosm of the growing national trend in the way — or at least location — millions of Americans do their work every day.

Prior to the pandemic, about 5% of American workers primarily worked from home, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Census. In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 29% of workers had the option and ability to work at home.

By the end of 2020, Philip Ramirez of Prominence Health Plan estimates at least 50% of staff would remain at-home workers.

Both numbers are bound to increase as professionals continually find ways to be productive outside the office. Data from a Gallup poll at the end of April showed that 63% of U.S. employees had work from home in the past seven days because of COVID concerns, a number that had doubled from 31% three weeks prior.


At Renown Health, one of the largest employers in Northern Nevada, 10% of its workforce (about 700 employees in its support services division) will be permanently working remotely, Dr. Tony Slonim, the organization's president and CEO, announced in a June 3 virtual press conference.

“It was actually really easy, if you can imagine, to make the decision,” Slonim told the NNBW during the Q-and-A portion of the press conference. “We always take the health of our employees to be of the utmost importance. Our IT division was amazing implementing the tools that people needed so they could be productive, even by working at home.

“And what we've realized is we haven't lost a minute in terms of productivity.”

Without 700 of its employees commuting to and from work, Renown says in April it saved the Reno area 341,452 pounds of CO2 emissions — not to mention, reduced traffic accidents and saved vehicle wear and tear.

Added Slonim: “It's been a great satisfier. People like the ability to not have to commute, to be able to answer to their teammates online, to be able to grab a cup of coffee when they want it.”

At KPS3, a Reno-based marketing and advertising firm, the transition to working from home full-time was done “quickly and seamlessly,” Kevin Jones, chief operating officer, said in an email to the NNBW.

Helping matters, he said, was the fact that KPS3 already had an open work-from-home policy, and the company's client base is nearly 50% out-of-market.

As a result, since its staff of 36 started working at home on a permanent basis, KPS3 has not missed a beat.

Pictured clockwise from top let: KPS3's Kevin Jones, Bob Whitefield, Chrisie Yabu and Rob Gaedtke meet over video chat due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have data that supports that everyone has been more productive working from home so far,” Jones said. “One outcome we've noticed is that meetings end faster. We saw this efficiency in our first couple of weeks after we went into full WFH mode. We'd routinely schedule one hour for a meeting while still able to get in our laughter and small talk and be done within the first 30 minutes.

“The efficiency alone leaves extra blocks on peoples' calendars, allowing them to continue creating and not feeling like they're stuck in meetings all day.”


Working from home has its downsides, too, according to companies that spoke with the NNBW.

With video conferencing, Jones said employees who are shy and soft-spoken are now at an even greater risk of their voices getting lost.

“That's often what video calls are: a race to make a sound so that you get the leeway to talk,” Jones said. “It's like merging into traffic and no one has any blinkers—the aggressive drivers often get rewarded and the passive drivers get to wait in the shoulder until there's an opening. This isn't good at all.”

In response, KPS3 has developed a “WFH playbook” that reminds managers running meetings to proactively engage with every individual and give them opportunities to speak, Jones said.

Still, working from home may not suit everyone, as some employees may have trouble focusing, suffer mental-health issues, or struggle to find a healthy work-life balance.

“I'm plugged in all day and sometimes it's hard to step away because home is work and work is now home,” Ramirez admitted. “So we're making sure to be cognizant of that and really help our employees be conscientious of that fact. And make sure that if there are any mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, that we can provide resources for them.”

Dr. Slonim said Renown is making sure its remote workers have “the appropriate work-life balance,” as well.

Employees at Figure work with social distancing measures in place inside the fintech company's 13,000-square-foot office at 100 W. Liberty St. in downtown Reno.

“Because it's so easy to lose sight of that when you're working from home,” Slonim said. “It's easy to jump on or respond to things in the moment even when you're not ‘on the clock,' so to speak.”


This begs the question: as the work-from-home movement grows, will office spaces become a thing of the past in the age of the coronavirus?

Dan Oster, a commercial real estate broker at NAI Alliance, said offices won't go away, but the look and feel of them will undoubtedly change.

“I think we're going to have office spaces that are geared toward specifically creating collaborative conversations,” he said. “So, we might have more soft-seating areas and more conference room spaces.”

He added that companies will put a higher value on the sanitation of the property — a factor he said was rarely brought up prior to the pandemic.

“When we were showing people office space three months ago, how sanitary the location is was not even a part of our conversation,” he said. “And from now on, I can't imagine showing space to somebody and not discussing it. That's how much it will change. Those are big changes.”

Meanwhile, fintech company Figure — which relocated to Reno in December 2018 — outfitted its 13,000-square-foot office in downtown Reno to allow for 56 members of its 80-person staff to work safely with six feet of social distancing, said Tina McNulty, chief communications officer.

McNulty said the company — which also has offices in San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia and Helena, Montana — decided to give folks the option to work remotely or come into an office. As of early June, she said about 50% of staff are still working from home.

At its San Francisco office, Figure has a scheduling tool for employees to schedule desks that are six feet apart. McNulty said the company's weekly “pulse” surveys have revealed that most people want to work in an office one to two days a week.

“We still have physical space, but it is not required (to come in),” McNulty said. “What we've learned is that people are actually more productive (working from home). They feel as if they're getting more done, they get to prioritize their day, they're feeling like they're collaborating really well with their team.

“Because employees have responded so well, we thought maybe we should use this as an opportunity to lean into it a little bit.”


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