With the exception of about 400 people — many of them volunteers — most of Erie Insurance’s 3,100 Erie County employees have been working from home for the past 27 months.
That’s about to change.
Erie County’s largest employer begins Monday to speed up the process of returning to the office.
More:Erie Insurance will look to volunteers as company’s return-to-office plans change
It won’t happen all at once. Erie Insurance spokesman Matthew Cummings said 200 company employees, beginning with human resources and corporate services departments, will return to the office Monday. They will be followed by an additional 200 each week through the end of August and into the fall, he said.
For many, it will be their first time inside the company’s new $147 million Thomas B. Hagen Building, a 346,000-square-foot space downtown that has remained mostly empty for more than a year after its completion.
For many others, it will be their first time working inside any Erie Insurance facility.
“It’s worth noting that we have about 1,000 new coworkers who have been hired” since the company began remote work as COVID-19 shutdowns began in March 2020, Cummings said.
While some of those employees are in new positions, others replace retirees or others who have left the company.
“We are not immune to the war for talent that is going on,” Cummings said.
He was referring to a nationwide worker shortage, often associated with what’s been called the Great Resignation, that has prompted many companies to rethink workplace expectations to include remote and hybrid work options.
Related coverage:Take a look inside Erie Insurance’s new $147 million Thomas B. Hagen Building
Erie Insurance is no exception.
In a January interview, Tim NeCastro, the company’s CEO, said, “We realize now that we will not likely return the way we left with pretty much everyone being in the office. We know we are going to need greater flexibility.”
Some employees will return to the office four or five days a week, while a larger group, like Cummings, will work three days in the office and two at home.
“It really depends on the employee and the work,” he said.
More:Could work-from-home option play to Erie’s strengths?
“It’s no doubt we have been productive over the last two years, but a huge part of what makes Erie (Insurance) so special has been missing,” Cummings said. “Having our employees together in a vigorous and vibrant workplace is really central to our culture.”
After more than two years of working remotely, not everyone is eager to haul their business casual clothing out of the closet, say goodbye to the dog and start commuting to the office.
Cummings is quick to admit not everyone embraces the move, including changes at the office itself, where many employees will find themselves sharing desks with others who use the same space at other times.
“There has been a lot of excitement among the volunteers, and I am one of them,” Cummings said. “People are going to have mixed views on it.
“As with anything, it’s going to take time and patience for us to come together,” he continued. “We are going to walk before we run. We will do it with that spirit of open learning and camaraderie that Erie is known for.”
As the return-to-work process continues through the rest of the summer, Erie Insurance employees will be returning to numerous company facilities, both downtown and at Penn State Behrend’s Knowledge Park and at Westport Centre in Millcreek Township.
But for the most part, they won’t be returning to the company’s main Perry Square Building, where renovations that began earlier this year are expected to take about three years.
The return of hundreds of Erie Insurance employees to the office is only the latest — but certainly the largest step — toward returning to a pre-pandemic normal in downtown Erie.
While some of the county’s top employers, including UPMC Hamot, maintained large in-person workforces throughout the pandemic, others, like National Fuel Gas Distribution Corp. have gradually brought many of their employees back to the office.
Employees have been working for some time in the company’s regional National Fuel headquarters at 1100 State St., but on any given day, the headcount falls short of pre-pandemic levels.
Employees are invited to work a hybrid schedule of three days in the office and two out, said Carly Manino, a spokeswoman for the utility.
The workday population of downtown Erie jumped earlier this year when Erie County Executive Brenton Davis ordered about 1,000 county employees to return to their offices.
Related coverageDavis to end telework policy for about 1,000, wants county workers back in offices by Feb. 1
Gannon University, which has about 1,200 full- and part-time employees, has been fully back in the office since August of last year.
Doug Oathout, a spokesman for the university, said the return of Gannon and other employees bodes well for the business community.
“I think anytime when you have most or all of your workforce back, using all the resources and facilities downtown, that is great for our downtown businesses like the EDDC and the food court. Everybody suffered during COVID,” Oathout said.
What does the return of Erie Insurance mean to the Flagship City Food Hall and the Flagship City Public Market, both of which have been developed by the Erie Downtown Development Corp.?
“As the region’s largest employer, they have such an impact on the regional economy,” said John Persinger, CEO of the EDDC. “That impact will surely be felt as their employees are coming back to work. I think every downtown business will benefit from having more people working downtown, living downtown and visiting downtown.”
Jim Martin can be reached at [email protected].
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