Reflecting on a year that has reshaped our economy and workforce

  • Members of New Hampshire’s House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee participate in a livestream video meeting. After her cat, Yoshi, showed up on screen, at left on second row from the top, Rep. Anita Burroughs, a Democrat from Glen, said she was told lawmakers are no longer allowed to have pets in the room during such meetings. AP

Monitor staff
Published: 3/7/2021 4:38:13 PM

Businesses have faced a ton of problems during the pandemic year, but as they start the transition back to some form of normalcy, the biggest effect may prove not to be technical, financial or operational, but personal.

Twelve months of transactions and interactions done via Zoom, Skype and Facetime have shown unexpected efficiencies when all workers don’t need to commute everyday or travel and stay overnight to talk to clients. But it’s also created some deficits that may be more difficult to see.

“What we lose is we don’t have the internal collaboration of shared experience. That’s a little harder in two dimensions than in three,” said Tim Lesko, a principal at Granite Investment Advisors in downtown Concord, discussing the past lived largely via online applications. “The world is relationships.”

Lesko expects the company will keep a hybrid model in which most people work part of each week in the office and part of each week at home, trying to balance efficiency and connection. He says that normalizing remote contact will be one of the long-term lessons of the pandemic, for better or for worse: “Zoom has taught us all.”

Manufacturing and B2B

As everybody knows, the arrival of COVID-19 upended virtually every aspect of business operations overnight. Particularly devastated have been places that depend on walk-in customers, such as restaurants, hotels and theaters, but less-visible companies that perform manufacturing or business-to-business operations have also reeled. Even if their orders didn’t shrink, and they usually did, firms have struggled with disrupted supply chains and costs from protecting their workforce from disease.

“There have been struggles to maintain manufacturing lines,” said Taylor Caswell, commissioner at the New Hampshire Department of Business and Economic Affairs. “We made manufacturers an essential business from day one. That helped them maintain at least some level of continuous activity.”

The damage done by COVID-19 has been sweeping but hasn’t always taken an obvious form. Consider bankruptcies.

According to data from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Concord, the number of firms that went officially belly-up in 2020 was lowest since at least 1988 – just 1,054, about 40% lower than the year before. Although the number of bankruptcies in New Hampshire has been declining for a decade, that was by far the biggest year-on-year drop on record.

This figure doesn’t tell the whole story of COVID’s damage, of course. Many small businesses such as mom-and-pop stores, independent salons or diners have shut without declaring bankruptcy, and many firms have cut their payroll to stay afloat. But it reflects how there has been less immediate industry fallout than you might expect.

That is partly because of federal payments via the CARES Act and other sources but also because firms adjusted to changes. The best-known example is the way that many small breweries and distilleries switched to making hand sanitizer.

Other companies saw relatively obscure business lines suddenly get everybody’s attention. Aradigm Solutions in Auburn, for example, confirms that ventilation systems have been installed properly to meet building codes. Its expertise in confirming air movement in buildings became vital.

Similarly, MadgeTech of Warner had to add shifts to meet demand for its devices that keep a record of temperature over time. Long necessary for safe food storage, they were suddenly vital to ensure that vaccine supplies had never gotten too warm to be effective.

Spending on cybersecurity

Compared to many businesses, Lesko said, Granite Investment Advisors has had a pretty easy pandemic. The company occupies much of the former Museum of New Hampshire History on Eagle Square – it’s the building with the green cupola on the top, created by the museum as a pretend fire tower – and is a financial advisor for mostly private clients. It was declared an essential business and never fully shut, and hasn’t had to lay off any of its 13 employees.

“It forced us to spend a little money on better connectivity for remote work. There was a whole level of data security issues we needed to solve before we could work with client’s finances remotely,” said Lesko. That took several months after the first March shutdown. “It wasn’t until around June we had finally made enough investment in the technology to be able to work remotely.”

Fortunately, advisors and staff were used to some long-distance work and were able to adjust quickly, even though many clients have missed in-person meetings.

“We’ve always been good at videoconferencing, but our clients have not always been,” Lesko said.

He expects the company will keep a hybrid model in which most people work part of each week in the office and part of each week at home, trying to balance efficiency and connection. If nothing else, normalizing of remote contact is likely to be one of the long-term lessons of the pandemic, for better or for worse: “Zoom has taught us all.”

Caswell agrees that acceptance of remote working may be the most obvious pandemic change that will continue after things return to relative normalcy. But in a sense, this quick adoption of a technology change long in the works reflects a similar change taking place throughout business.

“There’s been an acceleration of the use of technology, mostly for supply-chain development. (The) logistics industry has really matured and expanded,” said Caswell. “This might be the result of Amazons of the world. It was going to happen anyway but all of a sudden it became something that had to happen.”

“It has been accelerating at a more rapid pace in the B2B (business-to-business) side, particularly the manufacturing side. It has taken an industry that was almost bifurcated – the newest companies had advanced manufacturing, and older-school manufacturers were slower – and maybe it has equaled that playing field more,” he said.

People movement

Less certain is the long-term effect on movement of people. New Hampshire housing prices soared almost 20% in 2020 compared to 2019 and sales jumped by a similar amount, as the lure of less-crowded homes drew people fleeing COVID-19 shutdowns in cities such as Boston.

The prospect of ending a decade-long demographic slowdown, especially if younger families are involved, is a tantalizing prospect for New Hampshire, but it’s not clear that it will last.

“It’s hard to say whether that’s going to be a knee-jerk type of move – gotta get out of the city but then after three years, gotta get back to the city! I think for at least a few years it gives us an advantage,” said Caswell.

The pandemic has also brought into sharper focus the importance of high-speed internet connections, both for businesses to do everyday work and for people to work remotely throughout New Hampshire.

“You have a really beautiful house in the middle of nowhere, but if it’s not hooked up to the internet it’s not worth anything compared to what it was,” said Caswell.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)
David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.



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