When Diane Popelka packed up her office in March 2020, she thought it would only be for a few weeks. Popelka, the director of finance and human resources for the Grout Museum District in Waterloo, was advised by doctors to work from home as the number of COVID-19 cases rose in Black Hawk County.
Popelka, of rural Clutier, has health issues that compromise her immune system. Contracting the virus could have serious implications for her. She was not able to return to the workplace for 14 months.
With cases of the omicron variant recently on the rise, the scenario recently played out again as Popelka loaded her car with office equipment and supplies for another stint at home.
“I’m hoping it won’t last long this time,” she said.
Popelka comes into the office once a week to turn in work she has completed and to pick up more. She likes the fact that she is only making the more-than-70-mile roundtrip drive once a week now.
“It’s especially nice in the winter,” she said.
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When Popelka initially approached Grout Executive Director Billie Bailey about working from home, Bailey didn’t hesitate to support Popelka. “She told me to pack up at the end of the day and go home. I’m grateful for that.”
Local businesses are increasingly offering their employees the option of working from home.
Sara Laures is the chief people officer for the VGM Group. Her duties include talent, recruitment and human resources for Waterloo facility operations.
According to Laures, VGM currently has 450 of its 1,100 employees working from home. “And we have another 250 with hybrid work arrangements,” she said. Those employees split their worktime between home and the office.
Laures said, prior to the pandemic, about 150 employees were offered the option of working remotely.
“After the pandemic hit, we had to pivot and think differently,” she said.
“In April 2020 when the (COVID) numbers in Black Hawk County started going up, we told employees, if your job allows you to, we suggest everyone work from home,” Laures said.
“Our employees were thankful,” she said. “We have a family-friendly culture, and we need to keep our employees and our clients safe.”
The changes have worked out well for the company and its employees. The benefits for employees have been a better work-life balance, Laures said.
“They appreciate the flexibility,” she said. “If working parents need to drop off or pick kids up from daycare, they have the flexibility to do that.
“We’ve also seen increased productivity and performance increases in a number of cases, probably because of fewer workplace distractions and interruptions. That was a surprise to some of us. We’ve seen some good numbers coming from those people.”
Another big positive for employees in outlying communities is eliminating the commute to the office, especially in the winter, Laures said.
“It can be a safety issue for them,” she said.
Additionally, by offering a remote option, businesses can attract more people from those communities if the commute is not a consideration for accepting a job offer.
“That’s probably the biggest thing,” she said. “…….