Jeffrey D. Allred, KSL

After working from home, here's how these Utah companies are planning their return to the office

By Lauren Bennett, KSL.com | Posted - Nov. 19, 2020 at 1:18 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — In the 36 weeks since Overstock.com has been working from home, CEO Jonathan Johnson said he's only been into the office four times — and he's in no rush to go back full time anytime soon.

"We're not putting any pressure," Johnson said, stressing the importance of employee safety and satisfaction. "I think it's important that businesses keep in mind their employees' safety first, and pushing people to go back too soon is not going to help us."

Utah-based tech company Domo was one of the first companies in Silicon Slopes to pull the trigger on allowing employees to work remotely before later requiring employees to work from home during the pandemic, according to the company's head of human resources, Ray Ball.

Back then, most people thought working from home would last for a few weeks and things would get back to normal, Ball said.

"I think for a lot of people, we thought it would be a four- to six-week kind of shutdown and then we'd all be back to normal again and back to working in the office," Ball said.

Now, eight months later, that's hardly been the case.

"So, we started thinking about how we can reopen our offices in a safe way," Ball said.

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Utah, with 3,701 new cases and 9 deaths reported Wednesday, it doesn't look like things will be returning to normal anytime soon.

However, with news of a vaccine on the horizon, and dosages possibly available to the public by the spring, there is a light at end of the tunnel.

So, how are these companies planning their post-pandemic work life?

Both Domo and Overstock.com emphasized nothing is fully set in stone yet, but they are looking at options continually.

About two months ago, Overstock.com gave employees the option to return to the office if they wanted to.

Of the about 1,500 Utah employees, Johnson estimated about 30-35 employees go to work in the 280,000 square feet building daily, on average.

Domo allowed employees back in the office in July. About 15-20 of its 500 staff members in Utah use the office daily, on average.

"We haven't seen a huge adoption of that," Ball said. "I think most people feel more comfortable working from home right now."

Both companies have implemented extensive safety and health measures for those choosing to work in the office — like mask-wearing, hand-sanitization stations, distancing protocol and temperature checks.

At Domo, employees choosing to work in the office fill out a daily questionnaire on the company's Safe Worker App, asking if they've felt symptomatic or if they've been exposed to COVID-19.

According to a recent Overstock.com company survey, 52% of employees said they would be happy to work from home forever and 42% said they would like to see a mix of working from home and going back to the office.

With 94% of employees saying they are interested in working from home at some level going forward, Johnson said they are exploring several different options when the time comes to return to the office.

"We've not made a decision, what that will look like post-pandemic, but that desire will certainly be a factor," he said.

The company is also looking at coming back in a staggered approach, alternating employees between working from home and working in the office a few days a week.

Before any plans are made definite, employees will be given at least six weeks notice — plus, Overstock.com has already decided they won't go back to the office anytime before July 1 and possibly beyond that.

"We think it's better for keeping employees safe to keep working from home," Johnson said.

For Domo employees, the numbers weren't as high. Just 35% of staff said they enjoyed working from home, with 25% saying they weren't necessarily enjoying it and 40% passive to the situation, Ball said.

A vaccine has always been a large part of Domo's plan for returning to the office, Ball said.

"It would definitely be around the timing of when a vaccine is not just available, but widely available," Ball said. "We certainly wouldn't have any type of expectations placed on employees to return until the vaccine is widely available."

In May, Domo CEO Josh James was the only one out of the other Utah-based tech companies interviewed by KSL.com to say working from home would not be an option when things return to normal.

"No, but the option does provide more flexibility for employees to schedule potentially longer vacations or getaways around the holiday season and summer vacation," James said, when asked if he would give the option of working from home post-pandemic. "So that is an option/application we'll look at more closely."

Now, months later, Ball said a decision hasn't really been made.

"It's one that we're continuing to discuss, to tell you the truth," he said. "I don't think we've landed necessarily on a 'this is how it will be as soon as the data is decided that we're trying to work and everyone must comply.'"

"We haven't gotten to the point to make those decisions yet," he continued. "But for now, obviously, we embrace remote work. I don't think it's necessarily what we want to see forever."

The company treasures its office culture, Ball said.

"We think that there's a lot of goodness that comes from being in the office," he explained. "There's a lot of goodness that comes from working remotely as well."

Ultimately, Domo will work with individuals to figure out the best solution and work with their unique needs when the time comes, Ball said.

Unlike Overstock.com, Domo hasn't set a date in the future saying they absolutely won't return before then. Ball said they wanted to avoid setting a stake in the ground that would likely have to be moved again and again.

"For now, we're just saying, 'work from home, stay safe, we care about you, we want your well-being to be first and foremost in your minds, and in our minds as well,'" Ball said. "And as we get closer to that widely available vaccine being there, then we can we can start talking about a date come back."

When that time does come, Ball said employees will be given reasonable notice.

"I don't think we'd spring it on them and tell them to come back the next day or anything like that," Ball said. "Certainly we would give notice."

Johnson said Overstock.com has done well in the pandemic, reporting increased sales revenue in its second and third quarters.

"Thankfully, our business has been one that's been able to excel and do really well working from home," he said.

In April, Domo laid off 10% of its workforce, citing the pandemic-induced economic crisis. After the company braced itself for financial strain, it ended up seeing good earnings in its first two quarters, Ball said. While layoffs were necessary according to the company, James was working to help employees find other jobs at the time.

Since the pandemic changed how things operate, Johnson has focused on three main things: keep employees safe, continue business, and prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

As an online retailer, Johnson said his company's business model has helped limit spread in other ways, as well, since people can purchase furniture without having to leave their homes.

Both companies have also seen a very low number of COVID-19 cases within their workforce that they know of; employees who are working from home are not required to disclose a positive test result, for privacy reasons.

While individuals across the country are adjusting to long-term remote work, not everyone has been so lucky. Millions across the country have lost their jobs, with new unemployment claims rising 13.7% in Utah last week.

Johnson said Overstock.com has hired a lot of new employees since the pandemic began.

"We've actually taken advantage of this time to find a lot of great talent, particularly in industries that were negatively impacted by COVID," he said. "We've hired some great analytics, technical people from the travel industry, from hospitality — industries that basically shut down."

Ball said Domo has made a few new hires, mainly to replace individuals who have since left the company. The onboarding process for both companies has been completely remote.

During eight months of remote working, Overstock.com has learned communication and flexibility are key.

With frequent Zoom meetings, employees have been able to connect face to face, and pets and young children have inevitably made their way into the frame on occasion — something Johnson encourages.

"I see people on there with dogs on their laps and kids in the background, and that's fine," he said. "Frankly, we encourage that. We want to be really flexible and help people stay engaged."

Lauren Bennett

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