• Joseph F. Berenato

Working at home, nearly a year later


Nicole Beaver, the Director of General Claims at NJM, frequently works from home. (Courtesy Photo)

HAMMONTON—Since social distancing restrictions first started to be put in place in response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in March 2020, companies have been adjusting to a paradigm shift in how business is conducted. For close to a year, many employees have been working from their home instead of their office.


Nicole Beaver, the Director of General Claims for NJM Insurance Group, said that the transition, which occurred over the course of a one-week period, was a fairly smooth one.


“Prior to the pandemic, we actually had probably about 50 percent of our staff working in some kind of telecommuting schedule. Whether it was an alternative work schedule, or just certain days of the week that they telecommuted from home, they were participating in that program ... The pandemic hit, everyone basically was instructed to leave the building or work remotely; those who could, which we had about 50 percent of the staff who was equipped to work remotely from home. The rest of them, some people didn’t have equipment, some people didn’t have internet; there were some challenges we faced along those lines. Within a week’s time, we were able to get about 94 percent of the staff up and running at home,” Beaver said.


Beaver said that NJM has a system in place which assigns staff members to one of three groups.


“Those who are assigned to a group can come in the entire week if they want to, or just one day that week or two days that week. We do have the benefit of seeing some of the staff who have elected to come into the office. The challenges that they’re facing, obviously, a lot of our staff have young children at home, or school-age children at home; I joke about how they’ve all been earning their teaching degree in addition to working for NJM because they are at home helping their children learn virtually,” Beaver said.


Beaver noted that in-person attendance is voluntary; roughly ten percent of the work force avails itself of the opportunity.


“There are a lot of people who are genuinely worried about COVID, and they’re managing other challenges on their own at home. We understand that. NJM has been very, very flexible with the staff. They’ve been wonderful, really just keeping the safety of our employees paramount by extra cleaning, for when staff does come in, and ensuring that everyone’s comfortable in the environment,” Beaver said.


One of the largest challenges that Beaver has noted is the lack of face-to-face interaction.


“It’s much easier to communicate with people in person than it is over the phone or virtually, but we’ve done a really, really great job from upper management all the way down to the supervisors and the adjusters with staying communicative through whether it’s Webex meetings or Skype meetings, oftentimes we actually do the video so we can see one another’s faces because we don’t get an opportunity to do that very often,” Beaver said.


Lack of in-person interaction has also presented challenges in how employees are supervised.


“We’re able to monitor our staff via Skype or whether it’s through email or telephone conversations ... Sometimes the staff has challenges of their own, whether it’s managing their children at home, or—listen, we’re all human. Some of us have contracted COVID, so they’ve been dealing with that as well. We have some staff who have lost family members to COVID, tragically. That part of it is very tragic and sad. But, everyone has been doing their part to get through,” Beaver said.


Even with the difficulties presented by both the new work model and the pandemic, Beaver noted that NJM has, for the third year, received the Auto Claims Certification from J.D. Power for providing an outstanding personal auto claims experience; NJM is the first and only insurance company in the nation to hold this designation.


“We achieved it during the pandemic, where we were ranked No. 1 in customer satisfaction. That is an amazing achievement. Despite the challenges that have been, that is something that we’re extremely proud of,” Beaver said.


Beaver said that no plans have been set regarding when employees will return to the office full-time, but on or around April 6, the company’s executive leadership team is going to determine what the current state of affairs is.


“They’ll make decisions about potentially when we’ll be returning to the workforce on a more permanent and less voluntary basis. I don’t know how much is going to change between now and then, but that’s when they’re looking to reevaluate when they’d like to have everyone try to return to the office ... We anticipate that, when we come back from the pandemic, that certainly they’re going to resume the hybrid model that we followed previously to COVID. It’s been talked about that perhaps we might explore ways to enhance that even further,” Beaver said.


NJM is just one of many companies that has had to adapt its business model to meet the needs of its employees and clients during the pandemic.


Glen Ann Stoll, the Assistant Vice President—AtlantiCare Primary Care Service Line, said that AtlantiCare found itself in a somewhat similar situation.


“As most healthcare organizations have had on their strategic plan within the next year or two years to have the ability to do remote video visits, we had that on our strategic plan last year, pre-COVID. When we were planning at the end of ’19 what we were going to do in ’20, we were like, oh, we’ll explore telehealth and look at those different platforms, and what we’re going to do. All of a sudden, COVID hit, and we had to figure it out in about two weeks,” Stoll said.


Stoll said that AtlantiCare, like other healthcare providers, faced a number of legal hurdles.


“What you’re also legally allowed to do, though there was some guidance from CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) about what we were allowed to do and then what we wanted to do, organizationally, because I can call you on the phone and Facetime you, but that’s not really HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliant. We wanted to find a platform that we could utilize. We started with a Skype platform, and then quickly moved to another platform called InTouch, or Teladoc as people know it,” Stoll said.


Fortunately, Stoll said, Medicare rules and guidelines were “relaxed a lot during the initial throes of the pandemic.”


“They allowed for telephone visits, because people couldn’t safely get into practices. We went back to having some visits which were done solely on the telephone. That’s since changed. We’re now running about 25 percent of our practice. And, to be honest, folks—outside of COVID—don’t always need to go to the doctor to get their healthcare needs taken care of. That’s the beauty of having different media to interact with your patients. You do have the ability to do that virtual visit and potentially talk through whatever it is that your ailment might be,” Stoll said.


Stoll said that, in April and May of 2020, close to 50 percent of AtlantiCare’s visits were done virtually.


“Folks were really uncomfortable coming to the practice because there were so many unknowns—for everybody in America at that point—and the story was changing like every six hours for what you needed to do. While that number has shifted down, we still have days that are probably 45 percent, given the dynamics of what fits into people’s schedules. The average is about 25 percent across all of our medical office spaces right now,” Stoll said.


Insofar as the workforce itself at AtlantiCare, Stoll estimates that 20 percent of office employees have been working from home.


“In places like our business offices, because you didn’t have the ability at that point to social distance, people could work remotely and still do their work ... We were fortunate in that we got a large Skype license, so when folks are working remotely, or working from home, we have the ability to call in with cameras and have virtual meetings. A lot of places use Zoom; we did not use Zoom originally, and we’re now actually converting over to the Microsoft Teams program. They work pretty seamlessly,” Stoll said.


One of the challenges faced by employees, however, came by way of supply chain shortages.


“The thing that you don’t think about? You think about everybody has a car, everybody has this, everybody has that... all of a sudden, not everybody had a laptop, and they became really hard to come by. I was trying to get one for my son to do his remote virtual learning; we had a desktop at home, but he really needed a laptop, and they were hard to come by. That was nationwide. That was really crazy,” Stoll said.


The benefit of this model, Stoll said, is that, “at the end of the day, a lot of people do have the ability to work from home; it just wasn’t in our DNA before.”


“It also solves for folks who are trying to manage and juggle children who are home from school; they’re still able to work, remotely, and are still able to be there for their families. It fortunately worked out ... We went from planning and talking about it to, two weeks later, figuring something out. Trying to keep everybody working, trying to make sure that we had the ability to take care of our patients in a way that was safe for them and kept our staff safe as well; that was incredibly important to us,” Stoll said.


Client safety is also a priority for Melissa Muller—the paralegal at Howell & Bertman—who also has privacy concerns to consider, even in her home.


“With the nature of our work, a lot of it is confidential, so when I’m home, I have a spot where everybody in my house knows they can’t go because it’s work-related; it’s confidential and I don’t want people’s business exposed. I have everything bagged up in my office,” Muller said.


Muller, who does the vast majority of her work from home, said that the law office had technology in place before the pandemic to allow remote work, though they didn’t have a need to utilize it before.


“Everything I can do at the office, I can do at home. The systems we have in place in our office allowed me to log in, and everything I can see at the office I can see at home. It is very beneficial ... With the technology today, I am able to work effectively at home just as well as I am in the office. I’ve had clients, if we can’t meet in the office we’ll meet outside, either at the office or at my house,” Muller said.


Muller said that she credits her employer, Brian Howell, for helping to make the remote model work as well as it does.


“It helps when you have a boss who understands what the world is going through, and he can adapt his business accordingly. I think that helps. For me, it’s been a little bit on the easier side because of that ... He respects that, if I need to take an hour off during the day, he knows I will be working an hour extra at night and making up my time. You do what you’ve got to do to make it work,” Muller said.


The key to successfully working from home, Muller said, is finding a proper balance.


“You have to find that level of balance, of working and having your children have some type of responsibility for their education, and seeing it through and making sure that theyre being responsible to do their assignments and work at school ... Balance, responsibility and accountability equals productivity,” Muller said.


Muller explained further.


“Balance: you need to have a certain balance between working at home and being able to switch from work to home life. Responsibility: to get your tasks done for the day, to stay on top of things; everybody has to be responsible for their own actions, whether it was me working from home or my kids in school. Accountability: I have to be accountable for the work I put in; I would never want Brian to feel that he couldn’t rely on me during the pandemic ...Productivity: if you had your balance, your responsibility and you were accountable, it equals productivity, which, if you could align everything equally, you were productive and the work got done for the office,” Muller said.


Productivity is a high priority for Paul J. Macrie IV, a client research advocate for Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.


Prior to the pandemic, Macrie was working out of that company’s Mt. Laurel office, but has been working from home since March of 2020. However, during that time, Macrie said that productivity has actually increased.


“As a team, we proved that we could handle the work from home environment, not only now but in the long term. The customer service levels actually went up for us as a company, which was kind of surprising, from 2019 to 2020. A lot of the data was very supportive in this work model being successful, and I think not only my industry but other industries are learning the same thing now about working from home,” Macrie said.


Macrie even received a promotion in May of 2020.


“Before that, I was a customer advocate, where I was taking inbound calls, but now I’m off the phone, where I’m more of a research advocate, where I take cases from different employees and customer advocates who can’t resolve a case on the first day and it needs further research. They have six or seven of us in our particular office who handle these types of cases. I was able to, fortunately, even in this climate, I was very thankful that I was able to get a slight pay raise for the last year,” Macrie said.


However, working from home is not without its challenges, Macrie said.


“When you’re in the office, you’re not worried about your home. If I get a package at the door—like I was getting during the holidays, every day with Amazon or FedEx or whatever—you have to get the door and make sure the package comes in. Fortunately, with my job, I’m off the phones. I only have outbound calls, so it’s not like I am completely attached to my desk throughout the day, but I have to, for the most part, stay home,” he said.


Another major challenge, Macrie said, is the fact that he lives by himself.


“It’s very quiet throughout the day here, not having that interaction with your co-workers as you normally would have if you were in the office. We message back and forth through a system called Jabber that we use, and I’ll have people call, or my supervisor will call me to check on me once or twice a day, but it’s not the same as being face to face. We do Webex stuff, like meetings, where we’ll get to see each others’ faces, but it’s not the same as you would being in the office ... I turn the radio on—I have a little radio in my house that I turn on just as background noise, just so it’s not so quiet here all day. It’s helped a little bit. It’s just me, home alone, and it kind of gets lonely from time to time, but it is what it is,” Macrie said.


However, Macrie noted that working from home has its advantages, as well.


“On a week where you had the snow that we had, you didn’t have to worry about driving in. You’re home already. You’re safe at home, not worrying about traveling. You get right to work. I don’t have to wake up as early now as opposed to before ... My commute was 45 minutes there and 45 minutes home every day. I’m not driving even close to as much as I was before. I’m only getting gas once or twice a month as opposed to once or twice a week, so there’s a big difference,” he said.


Hopefully, Macrie said, he will be able to return to the office soon, even if in some form of hybrid work model.


“At this point, it’s just a wait and see; it depends on the vaccination, and if the data comes back that cases are going down and it’s deemed safe to go back. I’m sure that, if and when we do go back, there are still going to be safety measures that I’m sure we’re going to have to take ... Ideally, we’ll get to a point where a high percentage of people are vaccinated and it seems safe to go back to work. I would enjoy a couple days in the office and a couple days home,” Macrie said.