FARGO — David White came on as the new CEO of Border States Electric in Fargo under less than ideal circumstances.

His first day was April 1, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold and many businesses were sending employees home to work to keep the virus from spreading.

One of his first decisions was to cancel a sendoff party for predecessor Tammy Miller, who was leaving to work in North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s office. Vendors and others planned to travel from all over the country to honor Miller’s service, but the virus would prevent it.

With many employees working remotely ever since, White has felt as if he’s had the 130,000-square-foot building to himself at times.

“It had our full attention,” White said of the pandemic.

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Many workplaces today look and feel different than they did nine months ago.

Desks appear untouched, lunchroom areas and gathering spaces are empty and parking lots hold a fraction of the vehicles they once did.

An empty desk is shown at Concordia College in Moorhead early on in the pandemic. Photo by W. Scott Olsen
An empty desk is shown at Concordia College in Moorhead early on in the pandemic. Photo by W. Scott Olsen

Employees who remain to do tasks that can’t be done at home feel as though they’re working a holiday or a weekend because of the quiet. They wear face coverings.

Two North Dakota State University professors and researchers, whose focus is the inner workings of the workplace, said this period of change will probably continue for some time.

Joshua Marineau, an associate professor of management who specializes in organizational behavior, said employers might even be surprised by how smoothly things have gone.

“It's a little bit of an eye opener to see that it is possible to do many things remotely and do it well,” Marineau said.

Charles Stevens, professor of human resource management, said it could still be months before employees return in full force.

He and Marineau, like most university faculty, are teaching students virtually.

“I want to be back engaging with people, face to face. Other people are quite content to do it remotely,” Stevens said.

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Adapt and improvise

When the pandemic hit, Border States Electric was designated as an essential business because of the critical infrastructure it provides and supports.

The company did what many other large and small businesses, restaurants, schools and families had no choice but to do — adapt and improvise.

Supplying products and services to construction, industrial and utility customers, Border States has 100 branch offices in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and nearly 20 other states, but the bulk of its 2,400 employee-owners are in Fargo.

A little more than a week into April, Border States had transitioned to a completely remote workforce, other than jobs that could not be done from home.

Branch offices limited face to face meetings, asked employees to wear masks when they couldn’t social distance, installed plastic glass barriers at counters, made portable hand-washing stations and hand sanitizer available and took steps to limit foot traffic through the building by offering curbside pickup and no-contact delivery of products.

Once they started bringing more people back to the office mid-summer, White said they rearranged their open-concept spaces so people could be socially distanced.

Some common spaces remained closed so they wouldn’t have be cleaned each day.

In addition, employees had to use an application on their phones, requiring them to take their temperature and self-certify that they hadn’t knowingly been around anyone who’d been exposed to the virus before they came into the building.

“If you don't validate, your supervisor gets a note that you haven't validated, and you get a phone call or a visit,” White said.

David White became CEO of Border States Electric in Fargo on April 1, 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Special to The Forum
David White became CEO of Border States Electric in Fargo on April 1, 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Special to The Forum

Home offices and takeout meals

Businesses everywhere embraced the work-from-home model, including Eide Bailly in Fargo, a certified public accounting firm.

Senior manager Brett Johnson set up his office in a repurposed bedroom. If he had known the coronavirus was coming, “I would have bought a better chair,” he joked.

People turned kitchen tables into desks and backyard storage buildings into offices. Restaurants in the area went to takeout or delivery-only models, after their states closed down in-person dining.

When Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota first made the move March 16, an upscale Bemidji, Minn. restaurant already had its plan in place.

Justin Frederick, co-owner of Tutto Bene, was at the forefront of the takeout option.

“This is unprecedented. There's no script for this,” Frederick said.

The coronavirus even had businesses reassessing their heat, air ventilation and cooling systems.

Labby’s Grill & Bar in north Fargo added air purifiers to its two HVAC systems. Owner Dan Labernik said the indoor air is changed every 5 minutes and 45 seconds.

“For lack of a better term, it’s a no-brainer,” Labernik said.

Border States originally anticipated mandating employees to be back in the workplace in mid-September, once schools reopened and child care was no longer such a big issue.

White said they decided not to mandate a return because a lot of people weren’t comfortable with the idea.

Now, they’re planning a return to the office on Jan. 18, to give employees a chance to socialize with family over the holiday and allow for a quarantine period afterward.

The post-COVID workplace

The future of the workplace in a post-COVID world is still very much up in the air.

Even though distribution of vaccines began in mid-December, it will be months before they’ll have an appreciable effect.

Some companies were already using work-from-home strategies even before the pandemic hit, and there are certain to be converts once the threat of the virus is over.

However, having groups of employees who work on-site and employees working remotely could create problematic dynamics, Marineau said.

For example, employees hired during the pandemic who are working with people who knew each other prior will have a different sense of belonging.

“We have to figure out how to do that in a new way, how to socialize employees and make them feel like they're part of your organization,” Marineau said.

Location will matter less in the future, Stevens said. People looking for a new job shouldn’t limit their search to where they live.

“You can look for a job with a company that's hiring in Minneapolis, Chicago, wherever, because they may be fine with you being somewhere else,” he said.

Hector International Airport in Fargo is shown with empty seats early on in the pandemic. Photo by W. Scott Olsen
Hector International Airport in Fargo is shown with empty seats early on in the pandemic. Photo by W. Scott Olsen

Companies may be less mobile in the future, since they’ve discovered they can get a lot of work done virtually.

At Border States, White said people traveled more than they needed to in the past. They'll find new alternatives to visit customers and attend seminars in ways that are less taxing on employees and at less cost to the business, he said.

Social activities in the workplace, such as potluck meals, will likely go by the wayside for the time being.

Another important change could involve what employers offer in terms of mental health support, because people have been isolated in ways they never have been before during the pandemic.

Stevens, the NDSU human resources professor, doesn't think companies will be legally required to expand those supports, but ethically and as a good business model, they likely would want to.

“If employers want the best for their employees, they will want to do things to help them with their mental health,” he said.

This story is part of a 13-day series that looks at all the ways 2020 has changed us. From now until 2021, expect stories on workplace and education, sports, economics, politics and everything in between.