A Thriving Experience Returning to the Office in Downtown DSM
The last year has been hard. For so many reasons. But for extroverts like myself, isolation in quarantine has done a number on mental health.
On March 13, 2020, my teammates at ARAG Legal Insurance stayed home to do a stress test and see if our systems could handle the demand of an entirely virtual workforce if the pandemic continued to cause concerns. We assumed it might last a couple weeks, then a month or two, then hoped to back by the summer and — as with many local businesses — we have yet to fully return.
Working from Home
ARAG was able to handle the transition flawlessly. Our IT Department worked overtime to get everyone laptops, dual monitors and whatever else they needed to efficiently do their jobs at home. The internal communication was top notch, including a weekly letter from our CEO, David Murray, on updated progress and checking in on the team’s health and wellbeing. Our Culture & People Department jumped to plan virtual happy hours and training opportunities that would keep us connected, maintaining the company culture we take so much pride in. Our results and successes proved to us that we could make this work.
Leadership + New Processes
A Covid Taskforce was developed, and in late summer, those team members started to review options for those that desired a return to the office. Some didn’t have the space for a good setup at home. Some struggled with internet bandwidth in their area. For a variety of reasons, we had a select few requesting to come back to our 500 Grand headquarters.
Those leaders were incredibly thoughtful with their process. We had an A/B weekly rotation, where employees from every other cubicle had the option to come in when assigned. During their “in” week, the seating was arranged so all were more than six feet apart from each other. Masks were required when moving about the common areas and away from your desk. Capacity was limited to our conference rooms and some were closed all together to limit large gatherings. Extra strength hand sanitizer was aplenty across our three floors. If you opted to come in, you had to participate in an online training to review all of these guidelines which were informed by the CDC. Most opted to continue to work from home, but for those that preferred the office, they were armed with protection.
Returning to a Familiar Routine
After the holidays, I decided that I needed a change of scenery. As a new mom, it was incredibly challenging to break out of that mental space when working from my breakfast nook. I saw empty bottles and scattered toys and I was no longer working from home but living at work.
My first day back, the normalcy of a commute almost left me elated. I stopped to pick up an iced tea on the way in, and the movement downtown, while much quieter, still made me feel like I was returning to a world I had missed so much. I probably only saw five people in total, but each brought a needed interruption in my day. When I video chatted my girlfriends that night, I was practically beaming. I told them experiencing that little sliver of the life I once knew helped me to feel as if I saw the light at the end of this very long tunnel. It gave me a surge of energy and helped me to be even more focused and productive.
I made the decision to start going in on Tuesdays and Thursdays to give myself some sense of a routine. Team members have been welcomed back with open arms as needed, at first receiving return kits that included masks, hand sanitizer and a thermometer. Since then, leadership has evolved to providing gift certificates for lunch at Local Bites and Smokey D’s to help encourage support of our neighbors. When you walk into those restaurants that have relied on the downtown workforce for so long, you truly feel the appreciation to keep their business afloat.
Slowly over time, another colleague would join me, somedays two, on a rare occasion three from our department would all end up at the office on the same day. Being in person allowed us the space to really ask how each other were doing and what was happening in each other’s families, conversations that were usually too rushed via back-to-back Teams meeting.
One day, I went to lunch with a colleague to discuss how she had onboarded a new employee in this virtual environment, as I was preparing to fill two positions. We had the best conversation, and I don’t know if it would have naturally progressed that well in a video meeting. We talked about the challenges we had faced, the wins we were proud of, how our teams related even though in very different roles and focus areas. A deeper bond was made as a result.
Providing Vaccinations to Employees
In mid-April, ARAG partnered with Hy-Vee to provide a vaccination clinic at our office. It was offered to all employees, their spouses and any children above 16 years old. We often mention family in relation to our company culture, and the fact that this was extended to our loved ones is a definitive example of “walking the walk.”
On that day, I joined in to take photos and document the event for our marketing needs. We had just shy of 75 people participate. I saw people I hadn’t seen in a year. I chatted with colleagues I had never talked to before. I welcomed new hires that had yet to meet anyone in real life. I could have skipped home that day.
After employee surveys and the response from the clinic, our leadership made the decision to introduce a return-to-work rollout. Starting Monday, June 14, 2021, each department will be required to be in the office twice a week. This announcement timeline allowed ample time for team members that want to get vaccinated to fully go through the process and feel that extra sense of protection. And the decision itself allows us the chance to reconnect with our culture that often thrives on in-person interaction. All were given ample time to prepare; departments had the opportunity to choose their preferred days; and I, for one, am ecstatic.
Returning to a workplace must first and foremost feel safe, and if your employer has the ability to offer that, I encourage you to try it. The city has spent so much energy and investment over the years to bring us the revitalized, thriving downtown we know and love today. After a year away, let’s not lose sight of how great that experience can be!
Count on the Greater Des Moines Partnership for economic recovery information and business and industry recommendations as the region moves forward from the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about current impacts and future trends from the DSM Forward playbooks here.
Alison Cate is the digital marketing manager for ARAG Legal Insurance where she leads the digital strategy across social media, content development, email marketing and creative direction. She was a member of the Business Record's 2018 Forty Under 40 Class and current Board of Directors Chair for By Degrees Foundation.