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Because of technology, snow day means business as usual

Across the country, people are working from home more than ever. Census Bureau data shows that half the U.S. workforce has a job that can be done from home, and one in four people work from home on a regular basis.

As a snowstorm of historic proportions dumped more than 30 inches of snow across much of the state, that workplace trend became a necessity as plows struggled to reach neighborhoods, public transportation was canceled or delayed and schools were closed for much of the state.

Companies across a range of industries found that as long as their employees had access to a computer and a phone, it was business as usual.

Technology isn’t the only reason why employers are able to let people work from home instead of using a vacation day. Telecommuting works when employers trust their employees to get the job done.

“If we can be productive and I can help people make their lives easier then I’m all about that path,” said Greg Abel, president of Abel Communications in Baltimore.

Telecommuting has become such a large part of the business world that even clients don’t notice the change, said Abel.

“I think it’s gotten so normalized we didn’t even send an email that we were working from home,” he said.

For several law firms in Maryland, the weekend’s snow pile-up forced offices to close while many attorneys handled client business from home.

While firm leaders said they’ve been making decisions about whether to officially open their offices on a day-by-day basis, they also frequently cited flexible inclement weather policies for employees, thanks to technology that allows lawyers to access email and files from remote locations.

“We were closed on Friday and Monday, and we opened today at our regular time — but if you can’t get here, you can’t get here,” said Lori Swim, marketing manager at Shulman, Rogers, Gandal, Pordy & Ecker P.A. in Potomac, on Tuesday. “We have a very robust work-from-home policy here, so we have a tremendous number of people working from home.”

Cynthia Cherry, chief human resources officer at Ober | Kaler, said while the firm’s Washington, D.C., office also follows the federal government’s decision on whether to open, the home office in Baltimore makes an independent decision based on information about the weather forecast gleaned from news outlets, radar maps and reports of highway conditions.

Ober | Kaler was officially closed Monday, although many attorneys worked from home, Cherry said, and it reopened on Tuesday. Before technology enabled employees to work outside the office so easily, the firm would depend on some staff members to come in even in the event of a storm, she said.

“There’s less and less of a need for that,” Cherry said. “It used to be great to have people who live nearby and could walk in, but honestly, the electronic systems make it so we can keep things going remotely.”

Even so, said Courtney G. Capute, partner-in-charge of Venable LLP’s Baltimore office, keeping the office running effectively while employees work remotely isn’t possible without behind-the-scenes effort and advance planning.

“For us, the planning actually started on Thursday night, looking at the weather,” Capute said. “We have a couple folks that we put up in the hotel across the street, so they came in Friday packed to stay through Monday. They worked in our support center to keep the work moving, supplemented with other support staff who took home laptops to continue to work and provide that support service.”

The financial services industry in Baltimore bounced back fairly quickly after the storm. T. Rowe Price’s Owings Mills and Baltimore offices opened Monday while allowing flexibility for associates who couldn’t get to work because of unplowed roads or school closures.

“Fortunately, we have technology already in place that allows our associates to work from home and participate in meetings remotely, and we know that many associates have been doing that this week as needed,” said T. Rowe Price spokesman Brian Lewbart.

The Baltimore investment firm also implements contingency plans during weather emergencies to continue serving its clients by shifting some of its operations to its offices in Tampa and Colorado Springs.

Legg Mason has similar plans in place. Even though its offices were open, Legg Mason employees can log into their desktops from home, as if they’re at work.

People were able to get into the Baltimore investment company’s offices in New York and Connecticut, so client services were not affected, said Legg Mason spokeswoman Mary Athridge.

In the tech startup world, working from home is a way to cut operating costs and a regular part of business.

For Sickweather, one of the area’s many tech startups, the storm didn’t really cause any trouble; not only can its team work remotely, some do regularly, said CEO Graham Dodge.

“We have team members all over the country,” he said. The company — which has an app that scans social media posts to track the relative level of illness in the user’s geographic area — has co-working space at the Emerging Technology Center (ETC) incubator in Baltimore, which allows them to commune with other startups, Dodge said.

“But in terms of being in the office to maintain daily function, we don’t need that,” he said. Losing access to that space over an extended period might pose a problem, but not for a few days, he said.

In real estate, people are used to working from anywhere.

David Paulson, a senior vice president at Timonium-based commercial real estate firm Blue & Obrecht Realty LLC, said working remotely wasn’t a problem for brokers. He said because of technology clients couldn’t tell the difference in service between this week and last.

“The storm has presented its challenges, particularly for showings.  However, we already do a lot of work remotely.  In fact, brokers are used to working out of their cars, with cells phones, etc. We’re the original ‘remote’ workers,” Paulson wrote in an email.

Scott Wimbrow, president of MacKenzie Commercial Real Estate Service LLC’s Brokerage Division, said that his firm invested in virtual office technology three years ago that allowed about 85 percent of employees on Monday to work from home. He said that there were no problems with the firm’s brokerage division or property management.

“It allowed our entire staff to stay in touch like the staff was sitting behind their desk,” Wimbrow said.

But that convenience is not available for all industries. For hospitals, working remotely just isn’t an option. While MedStar Health’s corporate offices were closed all weekend, essential hospital employees — including doctors, nurses, technicians and facilities staff — stayed over at their hospitals, said Ann C. Nickels, a spokeswoman for the health system.

MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore County, for example, had 300 people “bedded” for the weekend, she said.  The biggest challenge was rotating the staff in and out of the hospital Sunday, so the system employed car rental services that could provide four-wheel drive vehicles; some staffers who powerful enough vehicles also volunteered to drive coworkers, she said.

The health system’s corporate offices opened again Tuesday, but those who still couldn’t make it in were expected to draw from their bank of personal time, Nickels said.

Staff writers Lauren Kirkwood, Adam Bednar and Daniel Leaderman also reported this story.

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