Two prominent Duluth firms share challenges, successes of working from home

Construction underway at the ALLETE/Minnesota Power plaza.

For those of us who regularly work from home, the challenges of this lifestyle – including everything from our pesky feline friends traipsing across keyboards, to struggling to differentiate that fine line between work and home – are just a part of life. And, while there are definite challenges, there are many enjoyable bits, too, including not having to drive during inclement weather, and being able to multitask – perhaps tossing in a load of laundry on your lunch break.

Add in the COVID-19 pandemic, however, and many new struggles are popping up for those working from home. Many employees have been forced to juggle working with homeschooling their kids, while perhaps also caring for someone who has caught the virus. And let’s not forget the extroverts, who simply miss being face-to-face with people every day. The bottom line: COVID-19 has affected us all in many ways. 

As the pandemic marches on, hordes of additional people around the world have been clocking in from home, and are thus learning the pros and cons of this unique lifestyle, firsthand. This migration includes many corporate firms based right here in Duluth. 

Recently, we visited with LHB, Inc. – an architectural and engineering firm, headquartered in Duluth; and Minnesota Power/ALLETE, an energy company, also based in Duluth. Company leaders openly shared their experiences sending people home, including technology and other logistics, ergonomics, work-life balance, mental health, and more. 

And, while hundreds of former downtown employees have retreated to their home offices, this has also had a huge domino effect on other local businesses, including restaurants. We also connected with Pizza Luce and Hanabi – both located in downtown Duluth – to discuss how this movement has affected how they do business. 

Some numbers

LHB, Inc., located at 21 W. Superior St., also has locations in Minneapolis, Superior and Cambridge. Further, they have many employees working off-site, whether out in the field or at the client’s location. 

Of LHB’s total employees, roughly 90 percent are currently working remotely, said Joe Litman – chief operating officer. 

“Right when the pandemic began, we informed everyone that our greatest concern was their safety and comfort with the situation,” Litman said. “We made it perfectly clear to them: Don’t do anything you don’t feel safe doing.” 

Discussions at the firm began in January about sending employees home. By late February, employees who were uncomfortable reporting to the office were told they could be outfitted for remote work, and by mid-March, about 85 percent were reporting from home. 

“The governor’s order said that everyone who can work from home shall, and we really took that to heart,” Litman said. 

Those still reporting to work, including staff out in the field such as surveyors, engineering staff and architectural staff, along with a few people in the office, are closely following LHB’s preparedness plan. This includes wearing masks, social distancing, using gloves, traveling singly whenever possible and following whatever on-site protocols are required at client locations. 

These extra requirements have been challenging at times. 

“Many of our field personnel work in various states,” Litman said, “And there isn’t necessarily uniformity between states.” 

Overall, however, things are going well. Currently, LHB does not have a set “end date” in mind to bring employees back to the office. This is a constantly moving target, and depends entirely on the future evolution of this unpredictable virus. 

Minnesota Power/ALLETE – headquartered at 30 W. Superior St. – employs about 1,350 people across their multiple business segments, with 40 locations across eight states. Across the company as a whole, about 50 percent of personnel are working from home, said Nicole Johnson, VP, ALLETE and chief administrative officer. 

Personnel such as line workers, power plant technicians, control room operators and others who are required to continue reporting to work have been instructed on additional safety protocols, including social distancing, masks, modified schedules, limiting the number of people allowed in a vehicle, and more. 

“We had to ask ourselves, ‘Can we safely and reliably perform remotely?’ The answer is sometimes yes, but sometimes no,’” Johnson said. The company also closed all of their buildings to the public. 

Similar to LHB, ALLETE had a comprehensive preparedness plan, and also formed a pandemic steering committee early on. 

“Preparedness is something we take very seriously,” Johnson stated, adding that the nature of the service they provide – energy – is an essential resource for the public. 

On March 23, ALLETE employees began working from home. The company is closely following CDC guidelines, and is planning to keep employees at home until at least March 31 at the earliest.  

Challenges

Both firms concurred on many of the challenges inherent in sending hundreds of people home. 

“I would have thought the biggest challenge would be technology, but that wasn’t the case,” Johnson said. “Our ITS folks have been incredible. The biggest thing I see is the school closures and employees trying to navigate working from home with parenting and even teaching their kids. As we go on, it gets more challenging.” 

Litman agreed. “The biggest challenge has been for people who have others to care for – such as elderly parents and handling child care. Many of our employees have been doing their work while caring for others at the same time.” 

Technology

When it comes to technology, Johnson noted that the use of the virtual desktop, allowing employees to do everything from home, has been invaluable. Other useful tools have included WebEx virtual meetings, Lync, and a phone system that allows voicemails to pop up as e-mails. 

Making all of these transitions required strategic thinking. 

“Cyber security of our data and all of our systems is first and foremost for us, so this all had to be done in a very secure fashion,” Johnson said. 

LHB has been using similar options, including virtual private network (VPN) connectivity, a new phone system called Ring Central, which doesn’t require a phone, and Teams, otherwise known as Microsoft’s version of Zoom. Both LHB and ALLETE also provide ergonomic advice and technological assistance to their employees – virtually. Both companies have handled all of their IT transitional issues internally, and didn’t have the need to hire an external firm. 

Mental health

Another important issue to note is the provision for mental health support. 

“We recognize that working from home can take a toll on people’s mental health,” noted Amy Rutledge, manager, corporate communications – ALLETE/Minnesota Power. 

“We must remain flexible and adaptable to this. So, we have offered tools to help. Our CEO has created several short video clips, and our Human Resources Department has conducted sessions on mental health and maintaining a work-life balance.” 

LHB shares similar concerns. 

“We do a weekly leadership message, where we encourage our employees to please make sure they are taking time for themselves,” Litman said. 

Both companies note that all of these new options weren’t a significant financial investment; rather, simply the cost of doing business. In some instances, savings have even been seen by sending people home. 

Successes

While no one would say that the pandemic has been positive, employees who have been able to keep their jobs, while being encouraged to report from home, are for the most part feeling grateful. 

“Our employees have really appreciated the company’s approach to safety, while trying to reduce the risk for all employees,” Johnson said. As a result, the employees are working just as hard from their homes. 

“I am so inspired and blown away by the people we work with,” Rutledge added. “Everyone has evolved and risen to the challenge.” 

LHB has had a similar experience. 

“In a lot of aspects, our end product and productivity are as good as when we were in the office,” Litman said. “But it’s come at a tremendous cost – the extremely hard work and diligence of our employees.” 

In the future, once the pandemic has run its course, both firms plan to offer some kind of hybrid, combining working from home with reporting to the office. 

Restaurants

Lunch rush and happy hour are two popular times for restaurants, including those in downtown Duluth. With a large demographic of employees now working from their homes, this has affected the busy times, and the amount of business, for these establishments. 

And, with another order issued by Minnesota’s Gov. Tim Walz on Nov. 18, restaurants were required to once again close their doors to sit-down diners, and only offer take-out and delivery. Local restaurants, once again, were forced to rapidly evolve. 

“Our lunch rush has definitely slowed down,” said Chuck Wall, restaurant manager at Pizza Luce, 11 E. Superior St. “Our lunches right now are mostly offering take-out for people working at the Tech Village and our local hospitals. And we do still deliver to people’s homes, too.” 

Unfortunately, some Pizza Luce employees lost their jobs due to COVID. 

“We lost some of our big events, including Grandma’s Marathon, and events at the DECC and Bayfront,” Wall said. Between slower business and the loss of these events, Pizza Luce has had to lay off several bartenders, servers and hostesses. 

Additionally, Pizza Luce changed its hours of operation. Where they once closed at 2:30 a.m., they now close at 11 p.m. “There’s no nightlife anymore,” Wall said simply.

But it’s not all bad news. 

“After the leaves changed, things died down,” Wall said, “but now Bentleyville is bringing people back. I’m confident about the future.” 

Hanabi – at 110 N. 1st Ave. W. – has had a bit more of a challenge to overcome, simply because they don’t offer delivery. Hanabi currently provides take-out orders and delivery through a partnership with Food Dudes. But Food Dudes takes a cut of their profits. 

And the new working from home demographic has been a hard hit. 

“The reason we don’t open until 4 now is that people are working from home,” Manager Joseph Foster said. “It’s just not lucrative for us to be open during lunch time.” 

“We reduced hours for everyone, and laid off one of our chefs,” he added. “This time, the shut down has hit us particularly hard. People aren’t getting their extended unemployment benefits anymore.” 

Despite these tough times, Foster remains optimistic. “Once we are allowed to open back up to at least 50 percent capacity, we’ll do just fine,” he said. 

Looking to the future

While these are indeed strange times, and we are all “making it work” in innumerable ways, many of us look forward to the time we can safely congregate again. That includes ALLETE, which is currently refurbishing its outdoor plaza and entire first floor. 

“Our plaza will eventually be a beautiful community gathering place,” Rutledge said. “We are looking forward to the day we can all safely be together again.” 

Andrea Busche is a Duluth-based freelance writer.