CINCINNATI — In March of 2020, Robert Bell transitioned from working in an office in downtown Cincinnati to working at home. Like many, he had no idea the coronavirus pandemic would lead to him working from home for more than a year.
“When I worked from home, I always had to continually work to get motivated,” said Bell, director of economic inclusion and equity for Hamilton County.
“It took me weeks to really get used to working from home," he said on his first day back in the office last week. "And it’s going to take a little while to kind of reverse that, because I got used to it after a while.”
Companies and employers across the Tri-State are beginning to navigate the process of bringing workers back to their pre-pandemic workplaces. But it's a complex process: the pandemic isn't over, even with access to vaccines, declining rates of the virus and relaxed government protocols. It means the employers that are ready to bring workers back into the workplace have to define their own modified COVID-19 protocols until they can safely return to normal.
At the Hamilton County administrative building, departments will use a hybrid approach that includes some workers on the premises, some continuing to work remotely, if necessary, potentially staggered work times and re-assigned work spaces.
“We still kind of maintain social distancing somewhat,” Bell said.
Lisa Webb, senior policy manager for Hamilton County, also returned to the office last week.
“I think each manager in each department is working out their own things based on the employees and really based on the employee's roles," she said.
Webb said they started preparing to return to work in May. To begin the transition, she went to the office once a week, “just adjusting and getting things in order so that I would be ready to come back.”
Meanwhile, county administration workers who are fully vaccinated aren't required to wear a mask, as long as they follow CDC guidelines. Those not vaccinated or who have only received one dose of the vaccine are encouraged to continue to wear their masks.
Still, it's not as simple as going back into the office. Webb said that, in the last year, she learned to live without fighting rush-hour traffic, dressing from head to toe and other non-office customs.
“I’m glad to be back, but at the same time, a year's gone. You’ve developed a whole new set of rhythms and routines,” Webb noted. “Your time and sort of real flexibility with family. My husband’s also working from home. So I’ve sort of had a different colleague. My break room became the kitchen and the coffee pot.”
Bell said his adjustment to working from home also included a new normal for his two Siberian Huskies.
"They expected to go walking all the time,” Bell said with a chuckle. “They basically kept bringing their leashes to me three or four times a day, like, 'Are we going yet? Are we going yet?'”
Despite working remotely, both Webb and Bell said they were surprised by how much work they were able to accomplish. Webb said some work was complicated, but staffers got it done.
"(They) really came right in and took over all kinds of things online and on Zoom," she said. "And managed to get a large federal grant program up and running and expanded all during the pandemic."
“I think the pandemic, though, has changed the way we’ll do things even long term. We realized some things that we can really get done virtually."
One of the largest employers in the city, Procter & Gamble, is also taking steps to bring workers back to the company's multiple sites across the Tri-State, including the world headquarters in downtown Cincinnati.
According to Patrick Blair, with P&G communications, workers have the option of working on site or remotely. But so far, those willing to work at the company's Downtown offices are between 10-20 percent. At the company's labs and Mason Innovation Center, the numbers have approached 50 percent.
"We did recently announce a summer window to welcome more employees back to the office,” Blair said. “That provides the flexibility for families to plan around school-aged children, for example, but it also accommodates for vacations for those that couldn’t take them previously.”
Blair said the company is using community infection rates to determine when and how to implement their return-to-work plan and protocols.
“So when daily cases are less than 10 per 100,000, then we did relax the mask requirements where six feet of distance could be maintained. So that includes dedicated work spaces, private offices or conference rooms," he said.
Masks are still required in high traffic areas like lobbies, hallways, elevators and bathrooms. The company also will continue temperature checks and screening questions. As for vaccines, they are not required, but are strongly recommended, with an incentive.
“When a site reaches the 70 percent goal, not only will we further relax our protocols, but the company will offer a charitable contribution commensurate with the employee population at that site,” said Blair.
He believes they will see an increase in workers at their work sites during the summer. Meanwhile, Blair said workers can share their vaccine status anonymously and the company doesn't require workers to be vaccinated.
The result of more company offices opening up in downtown Cincinnati and across the Tri-State is a gradual increase in Downtown activity and in other areas where workers are returning.
“For healthy habits, I’ve been walking Downtown at lunch," said Webb, who has worked Downtown for her entire 20 year career. The last year was the exception. “It’s been really interesting to see the changes that have happened downtown. And to see people back downtown walking around.”