- Aug 27, 2020
Northbrook’s diverse business community is home to several global companies, employing thousands of people locally. The pandemic forced these companies to swiftly transition most of their team members to working from home in March, with only designated operations deemed essential services under the state’s definition. Now these massive companies are evaluating new strategies to bring back these employees, appreciating the potential of remote work to become part of a new paradigm.
UL is unusually well suited to developing a COVID response plan. As specialists in safe products and practices, the company has homegrown expertise to apply to its own workplace. For example, UL’s experience with certifying masks for health care use informed the company’s choice of what PPE products would make its labs safe for essential workers who continued to come in during the shutdown. The company’s Start Safe Playbook, with detailed guidelines developed by its COVID response team, is available for public use on UL’s website.
Barb Guthrie, Vice President and Northbrook Site Leader, describes a rapid mobilization process that moved most of UL’s 1700 Northbrook-based staffers to remote work starting March 14. Approximately 300 team members on the Northbrook campus were deemed essential, while the rest began working with computers and office materials sent to their homes. Similar strategies took place on a national and global scale with a coordinated response team approach. Systems were developed to allow contactless receipt and quarantining of incoming product samples, so that safety testing could continue.
UL’s process to bring employees back on campus is intentionally gradual, designed to have individuals in the office for the minimum time necessary to limit exposure. Managers evaluated how many workdays they needed onsite per week, creating a strict entry schedule, seating chart, and traffic patterns that maximize spatial distancing. Staff members have also been able to conduct follow up inspections of clients’ manufacturing processes remotely, a model that Guthrie believes will become a permanent practice. “UL is a signatory to the UN Global Compact for Sustainability, and remote inspections are in line with our sustainability goals,” she explains.
Like UL, Allstate is not rushing to bring non-essential personnel back to its sprawling Northbrook offices that usually has several thousand employees onsite. In August, the company began allowing a small number of employees to come back on a volunteer basis, centered in one specific building.
Symptom screening and personal responsibility are important elements of Allstate’s re-admittance policy. In a statement, Midwest Regional Counsel Dana Sevinghaus explained that “Allstate is implementing health and safety protocols to ensure employees are safe while in the office – this is Allstate’s pledge. At the same time, employees will pledge to adhere to Allstate’s health and safety protocols, to speak up if they see someone who isn’t following those protocols, and to be open to feedback from others.” Employees will complete an at-home daily self-assessment to confirm that they’re feeling well, have not been exposed to COVID-19 and have not participated in activities that could put them at higher risk for infection, such as travel. They will submit their assessment and also have their temperature checked when entering the company parking lot each day.
At Wiss Janney Elstner Associates, Inc, around 45 team members in the testing laboratories have remained onsite as essential personnel, out of a total Northbrook workforce of around 200. The company has taken proactive steps to make the workplace as safe as possible. WJE’s Manager of Safety, Jason L. Kamman, CSP, says that the company stocked up on hand sanitizer and masks, hiring seamstresses to assemble PPE in the early stages of the shutdown when supply chains were down. They also developed social distancing signage, and invested in enhanced air handling units and HEPA filters for smaller spaces. Still, well over 100 administrative personnel for the global company’s headquarters continue remotely. “Where possible, we’re encouraging them to work from home for now,” notes Kamman. “We’ll get them back eventually.” Like the other major companies profiled, WJE’s open-ended strategy reflects both the uncertainty of the pandemic’s timeline and the flexibility allowed by remote work technology.