Want to Read More?
We're having a flash sale! Subscribe to BizTimes right now for only $5 per month ... over 40% off our normal rate.
Limited time offer. New subscribers only.
Already an Insider? Log In
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, about 80% of the 2,300 employees working for WEC Energy Group-owned utilities Wisconsin Public Service and We Energies started working remotely.
“In Green Bay (and) Milwaukee, in the space of about five days we moved from being office-based to being remote,” said Tom Metcalfe, president of We Energies and WPS. He added that not just office workers, but field employees such as line mechanics and gas utility workers, also became primarily remote.
Many of the employees will be called back to the office in the near future.
“We just informed our employees that we’re targeting Sept. 7, so we should, following Labor Day, have the majority of our remote workers return to the workplace,” Metcalfe said.
Companies like WEC Energy Group had to adapt quickly to the pandemic. Now that it’s seemingly in its waning days, the companies are faced with questions surrounding hybrid work, office space utilization and workplace culture.
The consensus seems that most workers will return to the office, at least for part of the time.
Employers quickly sent employees home for a year or more because there was no safe solution to keep them in the office, said Chris Richards, managing director of Colliers International | Wisconsin’s Madison office. The COVID-19 vaccines are changing that.
“Now that there appears to be a level of safety with returning – given the fact most people, certainly in Dane County, are getting vaccinated – I believe employers want people back in the office,” he said. “It is going to look different, it’s certainly not going to be an 8-to-5 situation, Monday through Friday.”
Richards said larger companies might consider adding more private spaces than they had before. Cubicles may also be more spaced out. He added there will likely be a lot more “hoteling,” meaning workstations that are not assigned to anyone but can be used by workers as they come into the office.
But since construction costs are high, the idea of retrofitting an office may not be appealing to some, he said.
The pandemic has caused organizations to reassess their office environments and their adaptability, said Brian Nelson, senior associate at Milwaukee-based Zimmerman Architectural Studios Inc. They will consider such things as their ability to either expand or retract in their space if a similar event happened in the future.
“In terms of flexibility, I think that’s the biggest thing,” he said.
The pandemic also sped up trends that office users were slowly adopting, Nelson said. For instance, people discovered while working from home they can work in different places and remain efficient.
“If they got tired of the view, they just moved to a different room in the house,” Nelson said.
The result for many office spaces may be fewer cubicles and more casual seating. There could also be more collaborative or task-driven areas, Nelson said.
Not everything at WPS and We Energies will be as it was before the pandemic come September. In fact, WPS has already adopted major changes in Green Bay. WPS last year permanently closed its downtown Green Bay office, where nearly 500 employees worked before COVID-19 hit.
Metcalfe said the majority of the employees who were in that office will remain working remotely. Some will move into what WPS calls a service center annex in Ashwaubenon. This is in contrast to Milwaukee-based WEC Energy Group as a whole, which is calling back a majority of workers to the office.
Metcalfe said Green Bay is the exception because its existing office space was larger than what WPS needed. The utility was using less than half of the building even before the pandemic.
“It really didn’t make sense to continue to operate that large space, and we’ve shown we can be effective working remotely,” he said. “We have the space down in the Green Bay service center annex, we configured that space so we can accommodate more of our employees.”
The Ashwaubenon space will have ample space for hoteling, group work and meetings. This is because remote workers will be expected to come into the office for work on occasion.
WEC Energy Group sees a need for a physical office for purposes of creating connections and bringing new employees into the fold. The company has made recent upgrades to its office spaces.
“For a time, it’s been effective to work remotely, but as the company moves on and we start to hire new employees, I think it’s important we have that face-to-face connection,” he said.
Richards said employees working entirely remotely aren’t making as strong of connections with their fellow employees or their company. This makes it easier for other companies to recruit them, because then it comes down to pay.
“I think the fight for talent is on right now, and I don’t see that getting any better in terms of employers being able to find talented people,” he said. “I think we’re going to harken back to the days of pre-COVID, where people were going to the (central business districts) because they want the walkability and the coolness factor of being downtown. I don’t think that’s going to go away.”