Every Sun Life employee will work from home part of the time after pandemic

"We're getting a lot of great feedback where folks are saying, 'you know I'm not happy with the circumstances of why I'm working from home, but there's a lot of great positives to this,'" Fishbein said.

WELLESLEY, Mass. — With more people than ever working from home right now, a study found that more than half of the workforce wants to continue working from home when this is all over.

According to an IBM study, 54% of Americans said they wanted to continue working from home after the coronavirus pandemic ends.

For Sun Life Financial, an insurance and employee benefits company based in Wellesley, what began out of necessity will now become the new normal for its roughly 1,300 employees. Right now, 98% of its employees are working remotely, and the company said that figure will increase once the pandemic is over.

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For 17 years, Karen White, vice president of national accounts and client services at Sun Life, commuted from Duxbury to Sun Life's Wellesley campus, a trip that took an hour and forty minutes each way.

"When I first moved down the South Shore, it was OK, it was manageable,” White said. “But every year, it was five minutes extra for commuting time.”

Now that she's working from home because of the pandemic, White has gotten those commuting hours back to spend with her family, and it couldn't have come at a more important time for her twin daughters, who are home after their senior year at Boston University was cut short.

"I'm relishing in the fact that we're all together and I have the opportunity to have breakfast with them or even lunch and that's just brand new for me," White said.

The decision to have 98% of its employees work from home was a necessary one after Governor Charlie Baker closed non-essential businesses in March.

At Sun Life, the move to get all employees working remotely happened overnight.

President of Sun Life U.S., Dan Fishbein said since the change took place, the company hasn’t lost productivity, despite having to become more flexible.

"It's especially hard for parents of younger children and very often both parents are working, you've got kids trying to navigate the new world of online schooling and you can't have any childcare, so we tried to do some things,” Fishbein said.

He said some changes the company has made include having meetings during certain hours – no meetings before 9 a.m., during the lunch hour or after 5 p.m. so employees are free to spend time with their families for meals or to talk a walk.

Managers have been told to work around employees’ individual needs.

If an employee needs to help their child with homeschooling at 3 p.m., they understand that they’ll get their work done later in the day or in the evening, Fishbein said.

Sun Life asked their managers to take a "Flexibility Pledge," saying they’ll take a walk during their day or make dinner or some other "flexible move" to model a work/life balance.

Sun Life gave its employees an allowance to buy tools needed to work from home, including a chair or a headset for conference calls. The company could afford this because its saving money by not traveling now.

As many businesses are struggling to stay afloat, Sun Life said it actually hired a few dozen employees during the pandemic and so far, have not had any layoffs.

Moving forward, 100% of Sun Life's employees will work from home, at least some of the time, including White, who plans to spend only about half of her time in the office when it reopens.

The company thinks it will help attract and retain talent.

"We're getting a lot of great feedback where folks are saying, 'you know I'm not happy with the circumstances of why I'm working from home, but there's a lot of great positives to this,’” Fishbein said.

Sun Life might have to reconfigure some areas at its Wellesley campus when it reopens.

Fishbein said that the company had moved to a modern, open work environment where people were close together with few walls. Some employees were using docking stations with portable laptops, rather than being assigned desks or offices.

But Fishbein said that won't work in the age of social distancing.

"We may have to erect walls or partitions and build individual offices -- it's likely we will have to make physical modifications to our offices,” Fishbein said.

“We'll space people out differently, we'll use common spaces differently, and at the same time, there will be fewer people in the office at a given day," he said.

Sun Life's plan could be a road map for other local employers, as they navigate the new normal during and after the pandemic.

"I know for Sun Life, having the tools that we’ve had, the flexibility has made people so happy and appreciative,” White said. “And for employers that may be considering this, it’s another opportunity to be flexible given the changing demographic of who is coming in to your workforce, who may value flexibility above anything else.”