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Nick Wagner, KSL

After work-from-home success, Utah tech companies play it safe when it comes to reopening

By Ryan Miller, KSL.com | Posted - May 15, 2020 at 5:48 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — Overstock.com CEO Jonathan Johnson likened it to flipping a switch.

One week, the company’s 231,000-square-foot main office building in Midvale was bustling with employees, and the next it was practically deserted. Things happened fast as COVID-19 restrictions forced Utah companies to adapt to virtual meetings, remote deals and working while kids ran around.

But even with most of Utah moving to a low-risk phase of the state’s COVID-19 response plan beginning Saturday — paving the way for all businesses to reopen once again — that doesn’t necessarily mean the switch is going to quickly flip the other way.

“We're in no hurry,” Johnson said of returning to the physical campus. “We don't feel like we need to be the vanguard of back in the office. We're working well from home, so we're just going to wait and see. ... When I read ‘yellow,’ it's a little looser, but we can still have people work from home in yellow. I think we're going to wait until we’re confident that it's safe, or as confident we can be in this new landscape.”

Finding success in working from home

That sentiment is echoed by many of Utah’s largest employers. It’s motivated by safety and caution for their employees, yes, but also because many don’t feel the need to rush back into things from a business standpoint either.

“We actually had an incredible month of April,” Galileo CEO Clay Wilkes said. “We're on track to have an incredible May, so I'm not disappointed with our performance at all. If anything, it's gone the other direction.”

In April, Galileo, the Cottonwood Heights-based fintech giant, announced it had been acquired by SoFi for $1.2 billion. Conversations for that deal began in the first week of March, and it is believed to be the first major acquisition ever to be completed virtually.

Galileo isn’t alone. Due to the nature of the tech industry, companies like Qualtrics, Ivanti and Podium, among many others, have been able to keep business going at relatively normal levels despite hundreds, if not thousands, of employees now working remotely.

The exterior of the Podium office building in Lehi (Courtesy of Podium)

“One of the biggest blessings in our field of work is that we can effectively do our jobs from just about anywhere,” Podium CEO Eric Rea said.

Not all companies are so lucky. The brick-and-mortar businesses have taken a big hit with their shops effectively being shut down, and even the ones that push products mostly online have had to adapt to some unique challenges.

Bill Harmon, general manager of Goal Zero, which specializes in portable solar charging, said the company has had to get creative while working through the pandemic, including having a courier drop off items at the homes of the product testing team in order to test equipment.

Ideal? Maybe not. But it’s worked.

“Anecdotally, it doesn't seem like we've lost the step from a productivity standpoint,” Harmon said. “Everything seems to be happening and functioning like I would expect.”

Working from home has come with additional advantages, too. No commute, more time with family, and even getting to know coworkers in new ways. Johnson said he’s enjoyed being invited into his colleagues’ homes via video conference calls to see kids run by, pictures on the walls, and hear dogs bark. He thinks that’s been helpful for him as a CEO.

Even the things that employers thought were going to be a challenge — camaraderie, communication, collaboration — have been mostly solved by online meetings and a bit more effort. Domo CEO Josh James said he’s seeing more “cross-functional collaboration” with buildings not serving as boundaries. While Rea said Podium has tried to keep its culture in place by company-wide lip sync competitions and talent shows.

Will working from home be the new normal?

The companies interviewed by KSL reported the majority of their workforce has had a positive experience working from home. So, with productivity high and employees happy, will companies start allowing a work-from-home option even when things return to a sense of normality?

“I don’t think it will ever be the same as it was before,” said Jim Schaper, CEO of South Jordan-based Ivanti.

Ivanti is planning on doing a four-phase reopening, with the final phase not happening until the end of June or the beginning of July. Even then, Schaper estimated 25-40% of Ivanti employees will end up working from home.

“We won’t make anyone go into work that is not comfortable,” Schaper said.

Galileo CEO Clay Wilkes (Courtesy of Galileo)

Galileo was in the process of looking at an office expansion before the pandemic hit. They had a pretty good road map — and now Wilkes is wondering what changes need to occur to fit in with what would be a new normal.

“Would we be more in the mindset of a combined environment where we had a lot more work from home?” Wilkes said. “Before we actually didn't have any. … Right now, I actually don't know if I will personally ever go back. They can run the business without me. I'm liking it, personally, but I know there's some that don't.”

It’s been good for some, not great for others, and that’s why most companies are looking at the options to blend both. While all reopening plans are still being developed, most employers foresee having at least some type of option of staying home. For example, Young Living, a Lehi-based multi-level marketing company, announced Friday its employees will be able to remain remote throughout the rest of the year.

Some CEOs openly wondered if productivity would stay the same when restrictions have lifted and there are more distractions. And then there’s the opposite worry, too: Will employees struggle to step away from work when they can’t physically leave? Wilkes says he’s often found himself answering emails and working late at night from his laptop — things he didn’t do when he wasn’t working remotely.

“It's a positive from a work productivity thing, but if you try to sustain that I think it's a net negative,” Wilkes said.

And as much as the numerous video chats and conference calls have helped, there is a consensus among the business leaders of the need for a physical location. It’s where bonds are formed and a company’s culture is created. And in the end, many people feel the need to be together.

“I think there's something good about being together and there's collaboration that happens,” Johnson said. “But we are having a change of mindset of what it means to work from home.”

Which makes it hard to just flip the switch right back.

Ryan Miller

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