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'Finding a balance': How banks, law firms, and other companies are planning the return to an in-person workplace

Professional service companies have operated with more flexibility during the pandemic than food service and manufacturing firms that required an earlier return.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The flexibility of working from home for thousands of Western New Yorkers in a professional service industry may be fleeting.

COVID-19 numbers are declining, the region's vaccination rate is increasing, and employers are actively planning the return to in-person work.

"We think there is going to be a big wave of that from some major employers after July 6," Buffalo Niagara Partnership president and CEO Dottie Gallagher said.

At that point, school-age kids will be on summer vacation, which Gallagher told 2 On Your Side has been a key concern for working parents.

While other industries leaped into the "office" months ago, like food service and manufacturing, the explosion of remote work and telecommuting meant banks, ad agencies, and even law firms didn't have to.

Those front-facing jobs have also been tied to early vaccination, which hasn't been the case for professional services until recently. More and more companies are now requiring employees to get their COVID-19 vaccine as a means to bring people back.

"Employers can still require employees to be vaccinated if they want to do that," Attorney James Grasso said.

Grasso is a partner in the labor and employment group at Phillips Lytle LLP.

"There are some court challenges going on, they haven't been decided yet, but right now the general consensus is [employers] can require employees to be vaccinated," Grasso said.

He says several of his clients are trying to draw up a playbook for COVID policies including masking rules and decide things, such as whether vaccinated and un-vaccinated employees should share workspace.

Another question Grasso says companies are grappling with is how to balance remote and in-person work.

"There's a real concern there that if employers don't accommodate those employees [working remotely], to some extent they may lose really good people, and of course, the time and expense to replace them is something they don't want to go through," Grasso said.

Added Gallagher: "I will be honest, employers are really trying to balance, their employee's desire to retain some kind of remote work. But there is no one right answer. I really think it depends on the company and the culture, quite frankly."

Gallagher says some Western New York companies have actually lost employees to firms in New York City offering remote work, but based on conversations with several local CEOs, there is a different perspective.

They've expressed emphatically to her that their companies have lost innovation during the pandemic because of the lack of in-person work.

Despite that feedback, Gallagher says people returning to work should still ask about keeping telecommuting as an option if they want it.

"I wouldn't assume that every company will have some form of remote work but I think many will have more flexibility for certain," Gallagher said.

Grasso added: "Employers can have any type of policy they want about whether employees can work from home or have to come to the office, but I definitely think everyone's expectations around that have changed in the past year and a half."

Both agree that expectation is likely here to stay.

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