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Virus concerns begin to reshape local workplaces

Workplace environments across Bakersfield are starting to change in response to concerns about the new coronavirus and observers say more adjustments may be ahead depending on the trajectory of the pandemic.

Interpersonal contact at local businesses has already been scaled back substantially during the past week, with some employers banning handshakes and hugs. A number of companies have ruled out business travel and meetings outside the office.

These new measures appear to have brought minimal disruption to date. But there is a sense that some operations may become strained if large numbers of employees are told to work remotely.

The situation has revived considerations about the feasibility of working from home, which some see as a win-win for employers and employees but others worry such arrangements could lead to lost productivity if not managed properly.

BROAD ADJUSTMENTS

One company responding to the pandemic by making workplace adjustments is Bakersfield-based commercial real estate brokerage Pacific Commercial Realty Advisors. Executive Vice President Jeffrey Andrew said employees are encouraged to work from home, if possible, but that the practice remains voluntary.

Shaking hands is off limits and "elbow bumps" are offered as an alternative, he said by email. Hand sanitizer is widely available and desks and other common areas are being cleaned and disinfected more frequently, he added, in order to limit the possible spread of viral infection.

The company is developing plans for accommodating employees with young children in the event that their schools close. Flexible scheduling and working from home are being looked at as possible options, Andrew said.

Protocols have been prepared in case employees get sick or "drastic measures" become necessary, he said. One aspect of these scenarios is making sure workers have access to the company's computer servers.

He said one or two business transactions have been delayed by coronavirus concerns as prepared leases await signatures. But he explained that the greater focus is on the safety of employees, clients and families.

"Business will be there in the future and this, too, will pass," Andrew wrote.

LIMITING CONTACT

Bakersfield oil producer Aera Energy LLC said its incident command team was activated Friday to manage the company's efforts during the pandemic.

Among the immediate measures put in place were restrictions on business travel, mandatory work from home for employees whose jobs allow it and limiting the flow of visitors to Aera facilities. Company-sponsored events have been canceled as well.

Spokeswoman Cindy Pollard said additional measures will be put in place if necessary.

The Bakersfield law firm Chain Cohn Stiles recently put up a sign in its lobby asking clients not to be offended if employees decline to shake hands. In-person meetings are discouraged but clients who want to have a face-to-face chat will get one, Marketing Director Jorge Barrientos said by email.

He said no one has expressed offense so far.

"In fact, quite the opposite," he wrote. "People appreciate that we are looking out for their health."

Not every company has the option of keeping customers at a distance or sending employees to work from home. Restaurants and other service-oriented companies, for example, have little choice but to interact with customers face to face.

SAFE INTERACTIONS

Bakersfield-based Valley Strong Credit Union said it is closely following news on the coronavirus and adhering to federal guidelines for planning for and responding to the pandemic.

Accordingly, Senior Vice President Michael George said by email, the credit union is making soap and alcohol-based hand wipes more available in all of Valley Strong's offices. Non-latex gloves are being provided to employees who handle cash, he added, and cleaning schedules have been increased at the company's branches and ATMs.

Fit for Life Gym in Bakersfield recently told customers it has stepped up its cleaning protocols and is keeping an eye on what other gyms are doing. It may decide to limit the size of its exercise classes, owner Tim Gojich said in a note to customers last week.

"I promise to do everything that I can to provide the same service and dedication to your health as we all are getting through this together," he said, adding that customers who feel sick may be better off getting checked out by a doctor instead of coming to the gym.

‘UNCHARTED TERRITORY’

Even for companies that do lend themselves to remote work, such as those in the information and technology sectors, challenges arising from the new coronavirus represent "uncharted territory," said Southern California workforce specialist Nicholas "Nick" Wyman.

Some businesses have contingency planning for allowing employees to work one or two days from home, he said, but that's quite different from sending workers away for an extended period.

Ensuring productivity under such conditions is one hurdle, he said, but it's also important that businesses' computer software will be easily accessible remotely.

"This is really going to put a whole lot of different systems to the test" if the coronavirus requires greater isolation of workers, he said.

A key workplace component to preserve is face-to-face communication, he asserted. Making use of videoconferencing will help managers keep workers on track.

Business coach Andreas Wilderer takes a more optimistic view of working remotely. It can save money, he asserted, and employees who work from home are generally more productive as long as managers rise to the challenge.

He advises companies that are considering sending employees to work from home to first conduct an assessment of the potential for such an arrangement. First ask for volunteers, he said.

REDUCING DISTRACTIONS

It's also important to make sure workers aren't constrained by screaming children and barking dogs, he said by email.

"On the other hand, a small home office with a door, fast and secure internet connection and reduced distraction is an example of a (work-from-home) situation that could work very well," he wrote.

The Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce sees the coronavirus's impact on workplaces evolving "on an hourly, if not minute-to-minute basis," President and CEO Nick Ortiz said.

By the end of the day Thursday, many large local employers were limiting nonemployee access to facilities, encouraging telecommuting, limiting workers' attendance of off-premise meetings and canceling "nearly all" out of town travel, he said by email.

"Our concern right now is for our small business members who are being economically impacted by lower foot traffic, while also having fewer resources for human resources and business continuity concerns," Ortiz wrote.

He urged customers to consider buying gift cards to establishments they might want to frequent later and continuing to donate to nonprofits whose fundraisers have been canceled because of coronavirus worries.

Ortiz noted the chamber, in cooperation with the Bakersfield law firm Klein DeNatale Goldner, has scheduled a webinar on the virus's business-continuity implications for Monday afternoon. Information on the event is available by emailing chamber Vice President Hillary Haenes at hhaenes@bakochamber.com.

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf. Sign up at Bakersfield.com for free newsletters about local business.

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