Lansing’s largest employers hesitant to force in-person work

Companies outline ‘gradual’ transition away from remote employment

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All sectors of employment in Michigan can return to in-person work under an updated set of state regulations that take effect on Monday. But employees still working remotely at many of Greater Lansing’s largest employers might not want to pack up their home offices quite yet.

Thousands in local government and private sector positions haven’t already resumed their daily commute won’t be asked to come back to the office until later this summer, officials said. And some may not be asked to return at all while employers stay focused on staff safety, the mental health benefits of working from home and longer-term remote workplace efficiencies.

“We’re hearing from all different sizes of businesses, and I think we’re looking at more of a gradual, phased-in sort of approach from a lot of businesses,” said Steve Japinga, a vice president at the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce. “We’re also hearing a lot of employers are keeping that remote feature because of the talent shortage that’s out there.”

As of last week, at least 55% of Michigan residents ages 16 and older had been vaccinated against the coronavirus, triggering state officials to reel back precautions that will enable all in-person work to resume across all sectors of employment beginning on Monday (May 24). 

Individual workplaces, of course, are free to set their own policies on reopening their offices.

Those that bring back in-person staff must still adhere to several pages of state safety protocols that include face masks, more social distancing and enhanced sanitation efforts. And even after the changes were announced last week, many local employers aren’t springing back into action.

“It really depends on whatever works best for individual businesses, but I wouldn’t expect any sudden transitions with everybody clocking back in on May 24,” Japinga added. “It’ll take time.”

About 13,000 state employees won’t return from remote assignments to their Lansing offices until July. Even then, each department will determine how optional work-from-home policies (including fewer days spent in the office) could remain in place, reported Bridge Magazine.

The vast majority of Michigan State University’s 15,000 employees are also still spending most of their workday at home. And university officials don’t expect that will change until August. 

Vice President Emily Gerkin Guerrant explained: “Generally speaking, we’re not bringing back employees in May, but we are asking unit leaders to work on plans for how to bring people back. We’ve also talked about a phased-in approach to get different units in person at different times.”

MSU officials are set on bringing back students for an “on-campus experience” but — like many employers — are working to “evaluate” whether every pre-pandemic job still requires an office.

“Everyone transitioned so quickly when the pandemic blew up last March. Now that we’re coming out of some of that, we have the ability to see what worked, what didn’t work and what sorts of work can still be done remotely while also ensuring we can be able to support our students,” Guerrant said. “I don’t know if we’re going to have that all figured out by this summer.”

Fewer than 20% of Lansing Community College’s 3,000 employees are back to working in person this week. Like at MSU, officials there said not to expect any immediate changes, though they anticipate “gradually increasing” the percentage of in-person work beginning in mid-July. 

Many employees at some of the other largest employers in Lansing — including Sparrow Health System, McLaren Greater Lansing, Peckham, Dart Container, Quality Dairy and General Motors — never stopped in-person work during the pandemic. Those companies either didn’t share details about remote work changes with City Pulse or don’t yet have their plans fully developed. 

“We are also exploring options for hybrid schedules depending on the nature of the job duties and the preferences of the employee,” said Lorely Polanco, a spokeswoman at Peckham, which employs about 2,500 people in Greater Lansing. “On the other hand, we have some employees who are eager to return to work on site and who will welcome the opportunity to be here in person. Ultimately, our goal is not to simply go back to our pre-pandemic ways, but learn from the experience of the past year and keep the elements that have become advantageous.”

A spokesman for Auto-Owners Insurance said company officials will allow their 2,500 local employees to return to the office voluntarily starting May 24 — just as long as “they feel comfortable doing so” and if they are feeling well before their shift. Auto-Owners was the only company to respond this week with plans for immediate changes.

Consumers Energy also won’t start bringing back its more than 4,000 employees from remote assignment until July 1. Even then, about half will continue to work from home, MLive reports. Officials at Ford Motor Co. said they won’t start bringing back office staff until October. The Lansing Board of Water & Light will also keep about 220 employees at home until at least July.

About half of Ingham County’s 1,200 employees are also working at least partially from home in a model that Controller Greg Todd said will continue through the summer while officials develop a plan. Among the considerations: Some remote employees have taken on new childcare responsibilities over the last several months, making any sudden schedule shifts difficult. Todd also said it “makes sense” to stop requiring that every desk job report to the office full time.

Forbes reports employers can save an average of $22,000 per remote employee annually, with recent surveys also showing that workers themselves can also save $4,000 annually on things like gas, coffee, business lunches and more professional office attire instead of sweatpants.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor doesn’t have an exact count on how many city employees are still working from home but plans to begin a “phase-in” approach to in-person work later this month.

“A lot of it will depend on the needs of different departments. There will certainly be some phasing in, whether that’s half-time or some hybrid model. We still have to be sensitive to folks having childcare issues or those who are immunocompromised. It will be a gradual approach.”

Schor is willing to consider shifting certain administrative types of city positions out of the office altogether but said municipalities like Lansing tend to rely on “hands-on” sorts of in-person services for residents that can’t ever be fully replaced with a virtual, on-screen interaction.

East Lansing Mayor Aaron Stephens echoed those sentiments, noting that any decisions on returning to in-person work at City Hall will be gradual and involve discussions with employees. 

“It’s a balance where you don’t want to go all in immediately,” he said. “We’re talking about childcare issues, safety issues. It’s going to be more of a purposeful approach, but I think this allowance — these milestones — is a good thing. It shows that vaccinations are a clear path forward. It’s like: Here’s the light at the end of the tunnel. We can start to get back to normal.”

The return to in-person work across all sectors marks the first stage of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Vacc to Normal” plan, triggered by at least 4.45 million state residents having been vaccinated.

Two weeks after the state hits about 4.86 million people, 11 p.m. curfews could be lifted at restaurants and bars and indoor capacity limitations would be expanded at facilities statewide. All indoor capacity restrictions will be lifted two weeks after 5.26 million people get vaccinated.

State officials said the goal to vaccinate 70% of those over 16 — about 5.67 million people — would then trigger the end of state-mandated restrictions unless “unanticipated circumstances” arise, like the possible spread of unseen vaccine-resistant variants of the coronavirus.

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