Working remotely is bringing us closer

It’s a Friday afternoon and I’m wrapping up my first week of working from home, compliments of the virus that has infected life as we know it.

As I look out the window of my home office – my adult daughter’s former bedroom — the sun is breaking through the clouds and I see a neighbor walking his dog. It’s the kind of spring day we wait all winter for.

Except it’s not.

Work and home life entered a surreal 6th dimension this month where every facet of life has been turned on its head. Since March 12, each day has brought news that another sector of life was going on hiatus. No Major League Baseball. No March Madness. No NBA playoffs. Movies theaters, restaurants, festivals, even places of worship, either shut down, or found way to reach their audiences where they live.

Businesses were suddenly faced with an existential crisis – how can we survive?

For us here at BridgeTower Media, we had to figure out how to continue providing our readers with the information they need to plot their own way forward, while ensuring the safety of our employees.

Like many businesses, we announced plans to have our folks work from home. That’s not a stretch for us, our reporters and editors do that on occasion. But this was different. This was a period of separation that could last for months.

For companies whose employees have never done this, I imagine this is another big shock to the system. So, here’s a couple things we did to ease the transition, and we’ve been making adjustments as we go.

Building a tool kit

Our first task was ensuring everyone had the tools they needed to do it. It takes more than a laptop and access to the web to make it happen. We needed reliable access to our servers and our office phones. We needed a way to communicate with one another in real time because, let’s face it, there’s just too much noise on email.

Those issues were easy to resolve. We use the phone app 3CX to keep in touch with our sources and clients, and Google Hangout to handle the back and forth between the reporters and me. We’ve been using Hangout for months, so this was an easy transition.

I manage five reporters who have been surfing the tidal wave of COVID-19-related announcements for two weeks. For them, it’s the biggest story of their professional lives and these tools are enabling them to write and post news of closures, revised hours, and the almost hourly announcements coming from the governor’s office and the health department.

Personal contact

But having all of the software and gadgets isn’t enough. As Bruce Springsteen sang, we all need that human touch. So, when we worked out our strategy, Associate Publisher Cathy Hirko and I scheduled regular conference calls. There is no form of communication as efficient or as powerful as the human voice.

In a crisis that demands physical isolation, the importance of reaching out to employees who are working from home is amplified. Witness the rush to download teleconferencing apps such as Zoom, Slack and Hangout.

Our reporters write for two publications – Central Penn Business Journal in Harrisburg, and Lehigh Valley Business in Bethlehem. They never see each other. And one of my goals since joining as managing editor in August was to find a way to bring them together.

Google Hangouts got that started, but just one week into this crisis I’m seeing bonds forming across the virtual divide for the first time.

They’re helping each other, yes, but they’re also cracking jokes and solving problems.

We say good morning when we log in each morning, goodnight when we sign off.

They’re like soldiers in a fox hole.

And that, for me, is more than I could have hoped for.

Garry Lenton is managing editor for Central Penn Business Journal and Lehigh Valley Business. You can reach him at [email protected]

Too hot to handle? This summer’s A/C bills take a bite out of telecommuters’ budgets

A federal report from Energy Star, which was released recently, raised eyebrows when it suggested programming home thermostats to save money.

It wasn’t the idea of programming the thermostat that gained so much attention. The main source of contention was the suggested temperatures.

After a summer of record-breaking heat, Energy Star was suggesting home thermostats be set to 78 degrees as a base, and turned up another 7 degrees, to 85 degrees during the work day when nobody is at home to save money on escalating electric bills.

Energy Star, which has a mission to promote electricity efficiency said such changes could save an average household about $180 per year.

Most people balked at the notion that the 78- to 85-degree range was a comfortable one.

Of course, one doesn’t have to go to such extreme lengths. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that people could save about 1 percent on their electric bill for each degree of thermostat adjustment per 8 hour work day.

Still, even if a cooler option was chosen – say keeping it at 72 and turning it up to 80 during the day – the recommendation still leaves out a growing segment of the population, telecommuters who work from home.

According to the 2017 State of Telecommuting Report, 3.9 million people or 2.9 percent of the total U.S. workforce work out of their homes at least half of the time.

Unless they want to be significantly uncomfortable during the work day the thermostat likely stays put.

Normally, it wouldn’t seem like such a big deal, but this past summer had record-breaking temperatures taking electricity use even higher than the prior two summers, in which PPL Electric Utilities of Allentown also reported high usage.

On Aug. 20, for example, PPL customers had peak load electricity use of 6.43 million kilowatt hours.

Compare that to an average seasonable day in May where the peak load was 4.37 million kilowatt hours.

That’s a lot more electricity being used, most likely for air conditioning.

While the 90-plus degree days may be behind us, some forecasters are already calling for extremely cold weather this winter, putting electric and other heating sources on high use in the not too distant future.

In past years it may not have been such a big deal. Those working from home could simply take itemized deductions for the extra electricity they were using to cool or heat their home office space.

But last year the tax law changed, and those options aren’t available for most telecommuters, said Andy Kahn a CPA and partner with Concannon Miller & Co. in Hanover Township, Northampton County.

“Unless you own your own business those deductions no longer exist,” Kahn said. He said such itemized deductions have been eliminated in the same way as mileage reimbursement was for work-related mileage not compensated by the employer up to the standard federal mileage rate.

Ultimately, it does leave work-from-home corporate employees paying more out of their own pocket.

“The level of your expenses is now higher and you’re not getting the tax benefit for incurring that expense,” he said.

But has the extra expense sent workers streaming back into their corporate offices to save on their home electric bill?

It doesn’t look that way said Tina Hamilton, CEO of myHR Partner in Upper Macungie. Not only has she not heard any complaints from her own staff, many of whom work from home, she said none of her corporate clients have come to her asking for help with the issue.

“It’s a reasonable thought, but nobody has mentioned it yet,” Hamilton said. “But, if costs continue to rise it’s something people will need to weigh.”

Right now, though, she said most seem to agree that the extra expense for home air conditioning during the day is worth the perks of working from home.

She notes telecommuters save money in other areas such as the gas they would use to drive back and forth from work, which was never deductible. Other money savers include dry-cleaning bills, packing lunches and then there’s simply the joy of not having to dress up for work.