How coronavirus has changed work forever

The workplace of the future will be forever changed by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Dayton region experts from business and health sectors.

They predict a greater emphasis on stockpiling protective equipment and revamping space to allow for social distancing, more disaster preparedness planning and a vastly expanded use of video conferencing and other technology.

“Crisis forces innovation,” said Chris Kershner, executive vice president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce. “COVID-19 has forced technology adaption, flexibility and innovation in the business community.”

Some Dayton area businesses have created new methods for operations that could be successful long term, Kershner said.

“A number of companies will need to go back to business as usual and other companies may adapt some of their new changes,” Kershner said.

Some businesses might continue to have some employees work from home as restrictions related to the pandemic ease and things return to what becomes the new normal.

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“But don’t forget there are companies in industries like logistics, manufacturing and construction that need to return to in-person work in their shops,” Kershner said. “We need to make sure there are resources, support and supplies for these companies as well.”

The Dayton Daily News Path Forward initiative seeks to find solutions to the region's most vexing problems. This story explores the ways workplaces across the Dayton region have changed and will continue to adapt in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent economic meltdown, and how those changes will help boost the economic recovery.

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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine allowed dental, veterinarian and medical offices to reopen on Friday and said manufacturing, distribution, construction and general office businesses could open on May 4, followed by consumer and retail services on May 12, all with a set of requirements to minimize risk of infection.

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Those interviewed anticipate the crisis will change the workplace in a variety of ways, including how companies do business and what they make.

“I believe there will be an increased focus on self-sufficiency as a country, potentially leading to additional reshoring so we are not as reliant on other countries for essential needs,” said Steve Barhorst, president and chief operating officer for Motoman Robotics, a division of Yaskawa America Inc., located in Miamisburg.

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley is worried that some retail stores, restaurants and mom-and-pop businesses will not survive, but she is optimistic about manufacturing.

“Manufacturing will come back because we make things. We always make things,” Whaley said. “There will be a discussion about our supply chain and how we make more things in the country. If not, what have we learned from the shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment) and ventilators?”

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Reshoring manufacturing from countries with lower labor costs will require that American companies come up with ways to reduce their costs , Barhorst said, including using more automation to increase productivity and allow for more social distancing.

“We don’t believe automation will replace the workers, but based on the application or the work that needs to be done, the automation can be used to augment workers and enhance their productivity,” Barhorst said.

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Nimble adaptation praised

Kershner and others interviewed said they’ve been impressed with how companies and health networks have adapted quickly in the wake of the deadly global health crisis that has upended businesses, led to massive layoffs, severed supply chains and brought swaths of the economy to a virtual standstill.

For some companies, like Noble Tool of Dayton, being nimble means exploring how to adapt its CNC machining skills to 3D printing so it can begin making N95 respirator masks that are critical for health care workers and first responders, said owner Jim Bowman. Noble manufactures fixtures and gauges for the aerospace, medical and defense industries and has remained open as an essential business.

Motoman remains open as it supplies automated equipment to health care and other essential businesses. Office staff work remotely from home, but manufacturing employees come in to work and practice social distancing, wear gloves and aggressively sanitize.

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Barhorst said one of his biggest challenges was finding a thermometer to take temperatures of employees and visitors, and figuring out how to use it while maintaining social distancing since the company has been unable to obtain face masks.

“We are a robot company. We put a robot on a mobile cart and we acquired a laser-type thermometer and worked with the University of Dayton, which had some facial recognition software,” Barhorst said. “We’ve probably made it more advanced than we need to to be able to do a yes/no — does an employee have a temperature?”

Steve Staub, president and co-owner of Staub Manufacturing Solutions of Dayton, said his company was just about to launch a new product for a customer in another state when the shutdowns began and the customer wasn’t able to have his employees come to its site.

“That was the first time I’ve ever used Zoom,” said Staub, whose company fabricates metal components for transportation, defense and medical industries using laser cutting machines. “It worked out OK. We launched the product. We got things going.”

Technology made work-from-home work

Some companies were already using teleconferencing platforms like Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx and Zoom to hold meetings with employees or customers remotely. As people working from home become comfortable with the technology, that is likely to continue, said Brent Kondritz, executive director of the University of Dayton Center for Leadership.

“We’ve all realized that we can do things differently,” said Kondritz, whose center does training for managers, supervisors, executives and others. “I think its fair to say we’ve all gained some new skills, some new software skills we didn’t know we needed to have.”

Sham Reddy, president of Dayton Realtors, said he held his first board meeting on Zoom and the COVID-19 crisis is forcing him and others who might not be technologically oriented to get up to speed.

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The entire process of buying a home can be done virtually and, once the crisis passes, agents and customers are going to be a lot more comfortable with virtual home tours and all of the other technological tools, said Heather Zimmaro, a real estate agent and director of education and agent development at Coldwell Banker Heritage.

“We will be changed forever because of this,” Zimmaro said.

Teleconference technology is very convenient and can force people to be more purposeful and efficient in their meetings, but there are downsides.

“There is a lot of benefit from the camaraderie that is built from individuals being together that you can’t get from virtual meetings,” Barhorst said. “We have a lot of hallway conversations. Some of the best ideas come from those hallway meetings.”

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Doug Barry, owner of BarryStaff, said virtual meetings cannot replace the value of a group around a conference room table, observing non-verbal cues and feeding off each other’s creative energy.

“I think we will see a gradual shift back into the office, into the plant and into the restaurant,” Barry said. “They are going to figure this out, once they get the vaccine.”

For managers the remote workplace makes it is more difficult, but not impossible, to engage with employees and measure productivity, said Kimberly Lukaszewski, associate professor of management at Wright State University. Companies that decide to continue having staff working remotely will need to boost staff training and technical support and make sure managers are communicating with employees, even if the news isn’t good.

“The research shows social support increases our resilience and our ability to cope,” Lukaszewski said. “Most of the personal stories that I’ve heard have been positive in terms of how organizations are dealing with this.”

Working from home also creates issues for employees who may not have adequate internet bandwidth or equipment they need to do their jobs, said Annelies M. Goger, of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. And there are additional challenges for those who are trying to get work done with the distraction of children also at home because schools and child care centers are closed.

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Companies that are successful with remote work might decide they no longer need a full-sized office, she said. That could hurt cities that see an increase in office space vacancies but also could come with some benefits.

“I can imagine in the very high rent areas, there will be a shift to more remote work,” Goger said. “It might enable people to move to places like Dayton and remain working in San Francisco at an office they are remotely connected to.”

John McKenzie, president of Winsupply Inc., which is headquartered in Moraine, said he’s pleased with how well things have worked since most of the company’s 250 employees began working from home in March. His staff provide finance, technology, marketing and sales support for 600 U.S. wholesale suppliers of construction and industrial supplies. He’s been pleased with how productive and creative they have been.

Even so, McKenzie looks forward to getting back to normal.

“We are more than eager to be together as a working unit in our office,” McKenzie said. “We want to do it safely, we want to do it at the right time. We don’t foresee any long-time desire or need to maintain this remote work.”

Telehealth takes off

Technology has also made it possible for people to avoid going into medical offices during the pandemic but still get needed care, as the federal government eased restrictions that had limited the use of telehealth.

Telehealth is a broad term referring to inpatient and outpatient care using the phone, video, virtual visits, email and other technology.

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“What has happened with this pandemic is it has allowed us to explore using it more broadly,” said Brenda Kuhn, chief clinical officer at Kettering Health Network. “But there are things where you still need to go to your provider.”

Premier Health saw telehealth visits increase 2000 percent since March, jumping from a few hundred visits a week to several thousand visits per week, according to Mary Boosalis, president and chief executive.

Both health networks have long had health care portals where patients can get test results and email doctors. But the broader use of telehealth has been slower to catch on, particularly because of government limits on its use.

As people become more comfortable with using it — providers and patients alike — Boosalis believes it will be an important health care tool, especially as people become more conscious of avoiding germs.

“I don’t know if waiting rooms are a thing of the past, but you certainly can’t have people congregating in there,” Boosalis said.

Both Boosalis and Kuhn said hospitals will become even more focused on infection control, setting up more isolation units and continuing the broadened use of personal protective equipment like masks even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

What’s needed to re-open? 

Shortages of personal protective equipment have plagued health care providers, as well as businesses that have remained open or want to reopen. How soon and how safely the economy reopens is hugely dependant on the availability of that equipment, along with social distancing, wide testing for COVID-19 and contact tracing of people who’ve been in contact with those who are infected.

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The lack of enough testing supplies is a major concern for local health officials as the state’s businesses reopen, said Sarah Hackenbracht, president and chief executive of the Greater Dayton Area Hospital Association.

“I think for the richest country in the world to not have adequate testing ability and a way to figure that out is not a good thing,” Boosalis said. “And surely we can do that better.”

Those interviewed said companies are modifying work spaces to allow for social distancing and searching for protective equipment so their employees and customers will be safe when they reopen.

“I’ve seen a lot of the Plexiglas shields going up,” Barry said. “You’ll see a hodgepodge of companies making do with what they have to meet the minimal requirements to be open.”

Companies also will be rebooting their hiring processes after massive layoffs led more than 1 million Ohioans to apply for unemployment in the six weeks ending April 25.

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Jason Eckert, executive director of career services at the University of Dayton, expects an increasing number of employers will switch to virtual job interviews, saving in-person contacts as the last step in the hiring process. He’s doubtful about the future of large career events, seeing them replaced by smaller events or virtual career fairs.

“There will be a greater awareness of what honoring someone’s personal space means and certainly keeping that 6-foot distance,” Eckert said. “I don’t think we will see the handshake die, but I think we will see people asking permission.”

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