Construction of a new office building for CLA’s Yakima location was completed in June, but it remained mostly empty for months.

Like many other professionals, the firm’s 40 employees were working remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re lucky we’re in a profession we can do so much remotely,” said David Cobia, principal at CLA’s Yakima location. “We had implemented a lot of remote working technology. COVID just pushed us to use it.”

Over the past few months, CLA employees have started to work in the new building at 1202 N. 16th Ave. On a given day, there are 15-18 people in the office, Cobia said. The space is big enough where all the employees could return to work and still abide by the 50% capacity limit required by the state, but the company is letting employees decide when to start working in the office.

“As a firm, we’ve been encouraging people to come back when they feel safe,” Cobia said.

Indeed, most companies locally are adopting a gradual return to the office.

The majority of the 28 employees at HUB International Northwest, an insurance firm, are still working remotely, said senior vice president Dave Hargreaves.

“We kind of left it up to them, at least for the near future,” he said.

A handful of employees, many from the same department, did opt to return to the office. Most of those employees likely benefit from in-person collaborations with colleagues, Hargreaves said.

Hargreaves himself is coming into the office about 70% of the time and spending the rest at home.

“I usually come every day. I do some work from home in the morning,” he said. “It just depends on what’s on the calendar and what needs to be done.”

Essential business

Given the Yakima Valley’s major economic drivers, such as agriculture and health services, a supermajority of employees worked for companies and organizations that continued operating during the pandemic. Many employees were in positions that could not be done remotely.

As an essential business, hop processor and supplier John I. Haas remained in operation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Safety measures were adopted for the workers who continue working at the company’s two plants and farm, said Bob Gerst, the company’s vice president of human resources.

However, roughly 25% to 30% of its full-time staff worked remotely, Gerst said.

While Haas expected a total return to the office sometime this fall, Gerst said the company wanted to provide some structure to ease the transition. On May 1, employees started coming into the office at least one day a week.

The minimum time worked in the company office will increase by a day at the start of each subsequent month until workers are coming in a minimum of four days a week, Gerst said. This gradual return allows the company to adjust in response to the pandemic.

“We didn’t want to go all-in right now. Who knows? We might see a surge come in,” he said, referring to a new wave of COVID-19. “We wanted to make a controlled return.”

The company is also looking at relaxing the office dress code during the months they’re in the office only a few days a week, providing a transition back to office attire, Gerst said.

For more than a year, “people have been working in sweatpants and pajama bottoms,” he said.

Flexibility

Hargreaves of HUB International Northwest said that even when people return to the office, some employees may opt to keep working some of the time remotely.

The company did reasonably well in serving customers even while working remotely.

“Working from home is not such a bad deal,” he said.

Gerst, of John I. Haas, said employees would likely be able to work remotely at least one day a week.

However, as employees have returned to the office, many, even those who had gotten used to working remotely, have seen the value of working in an office setting again.

“Once they got back into it, we’re seeing people recognize the need to be with each other,” he said.

At CLA, employees always had the option to work remotely. Still, now it’s easier to execute the plan because everyone has experienced a remote setting for the past year, Cobia said.

Employees have the option to develop a remote work plan with their supervisor, he said.

“We don’t have to think about or create a new structure,” he said.

Cobia said he’s seen some employees thrive working remotely, while others have been eager to return to the office.

There are also specific tasks done remotely during the pandemic that remain more suited for an in-person setting.

“I just feel there are connections that happen in person you can’t have remotely,” Cobia said.