As the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in New Jersey back in March 2020, nobody could have predicted the ongoing impacts on local businesses and industries. Two years later, some of the changes brought forth by the pandemic may continue for the foreseeable future, from increased numbers of remote employees to decreased demand for office space. The good news is that number of new COVID-19 cases, at press time, is dropping and that this pandemic has or will evolve into an endemic.
It would be impossible to discuss the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic without highlighting the ways in which companies, both big and small, have had to embrace technology to conduct their business remotely, from virtual Zoom meetings to online storefronts and digital payments.
Stacey Goodman, executive vice president and chief information officer at Prudential Financial, asserts that the most significant shift over the past two years has been both the cultural and technological changes required for employees to adapt to this new working environment. “One of the biggest challenges has been maintaining engagement and fostering collaboration as employees continue to work from home,” she says.
That’s why Prudential launched a formal technology-experience program, listening to employee concerns and communicating early and often about new technology. “We engaged with more than 8,000 employees via listening sessions to demonstrate best practices and answer questions live,” she explains. “These efforts resulted in nearly 100% adoption of the new tools and an 18 percentage-point increase in favorable employee sentiment towards technology.”
Another one of the ongoing impacts for state businesses is the way many employers have had to either realign or postpone their reentry timelines to the office, thus extending the flexibility for their employees to work remotely or on a hybrid basis. According to Susan Mason, senior vice president at real estate firm NAI James E. Hanson, as a result of many businesses implementing the flexibility to work remotely, companies have been reevaluating their overall footprints in the office.
“They have been focusing not only on the reduction and consolidation of their office environments, but also on integrating certain redesign parameters of the space to achieve less densification of their layouts,” she explains.
Not surprisingly, commercial real estate has been one of the most significantly impacted industries in New Jersey, as many companies found themselves with workforces at home and unused office spaces. And as some businesses continue to allow their employees either a fully remote or hybrid schedule, Mason notes that many companies are taking advantage of aggressive lease packages and concessions being offered by owners of class A office space; in some cases, reductions in tenants’ overall office footprints have allowed them to secure space in upgraded, fully-amenitized buildings.
However, as both employers and employees have grappled with relying on technology in order to remain connected over the past two years, parents across the state were juggling working from home with their kids because daycare centers and schools were closed. Additionally, New Jersey’s childcare industry continues to try to rebound from months of lockdowns and decreased enrollments.
“A lot of childcare centers are still struggling; they may have had some government assistance come through, but they rely on tuition payments to pay bills. Meanwhile, centers were shuttered during the lockdown and have since been operating with decreased enrollment – all while dealing with staffing shortages,” explains Lynette Galante, president of the NJ Child Care Association (NJCCA) and executive director of Future Generation Early Learning Centers, who notes that the pandemic caused the permanent closure of some 20% of all childcare centers throughout the state.
While New Jersey’s remaining daycare centers and early education centers are currently operational, Galante notes that enrollment still isn’t where it was.
The industry has also been struck by the staffing challenges that are impacting businesses across the state. When teachers are out sick, it leaves the rest of the staff scrambling to come up with solutions on how to remain operational while still meeting state regulations.
Galante sees the lifting of the mask mandate for childcare centers and schools – as of March 7 – a major step in the right direction toward reclaiming normalcy. “Lifting the mask mandate will help so much. It’s been stressful for our staff to be the mask police, and we all just want to get back to focusing on what’s important: the care and education of the children and families we serve,” she says.
Childcare centers, at press time, are awaiting further guidance from the New Jersey Department of Health. Galante is hopeful that there will be a relaxing of other restrictions that have been in place during the pandemic. “We need to start making changes so that we can build a solid educational foundation for the children – because they are our future,” she says.
A positive impact the pandemic has had on companies is that it has opened employers’ eyes to the necessity of allowing their employees more flexibility, and has taught employees how to strike a better work-life balance. According to Steven Fleischer, senior director of DEI, talent acquisition and HR operations at Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), his company has been able to maintain its workforce throughout the pandemic and was committed to expanding benefits to support employees during these challenging times, such as time off for childcare needs.
“We also pivoted to remote work for employees whose jobs can accommodate it; we have some employees who have to dig up streets or work on poles, but many of our employees were able to shift to a full-time remote schedule or only come into the office if there is a business need,” he says. PSEG has also implemented an employee COVID-19 hotline for questions as well as a company-wide social media channel to address employee concerns.
“We’ve found that engaging employees and getting their direct feedback and incorporating what we’re hearing from them has helped tremendously with our decision-making,” Fleischer adds.
Daybase CEO Joel Steinhaus agrees that perhaps the most significant positive change as a result of the pandemic is that both employers and employees are recognizing and appreciating the need for autonomy and flexibility in their lives. “We’re at a moment in time when companies are rethinking the how, when and why of work – and how to be responsive and flexible to the needs of both their workforce and their customers,” he says. As employers have reconsidered how much space they actually need to conduct their operations, Daybase offers flexible, on-demand workspots. “We believe the notion that the office is dead is false, but I do think it’s going to get used very differently in the future since the pandemic has completely flipped behavioral norms,” he adds.
Other positive changes he notes are that people are shopping and interacting more locally than ever before as the pandemic has emphasized the importance of supporting small businesses. Additionally, with more people working closer to home there’s more of an opportunity for those local transactions.
Another major benefit for employers has been the ability to expand their talent recruitment to include potential employees who don’t necessarily live in the immediate area. “From the perspective of the employer, they’ve had the opportunity to widen the aperture of their talent base in a way that was never possible pre-pandemic. They can hire the best talent from anywhere in the state, the country, or even the world to join their workforce when most or all of their employees are already working remotely,” he adds.
As the nation continues to recover after these past two years, many local employers are recognizing the positive changes in their businesses and are optimistic about what’s to come. “Though this period in time has been terribly traumatic for so many people, it has also become a moment of opportunity for all of us to rethink the ways we’ve been operating as a society and in our businesses,” Steinhaus concludes.
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