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Q&A: Guardian, Greylock, and Berkshire Bank Reflect on a Year of Remote Work

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Local employers are seeing increases in productivity with work from home models and will take some aspects of this year into the future.

In the 15 months since Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency, many industries were forced to pivot to remote work almost instantaneously. 

To reflect on the positives, negatives, and what will remain from this year of virtual work, iBerkshires corresponded with three Pittsfield corporations whose operations are currently more than 75 percent remote.

President and CEO of Greylock Federal Credit Union John Bissell spoke on the importance of prioritizing employee well-being and supporting local businesses because the bank is "not just a workplace, but a community."  Because the work from home model was so successful in 2020, Greylock is consolidating its Merrill Road branch with the Allendale operations center on Cheshire Road.

Lawrence Hazard, president of Guardian subsidiary Berkshire Life Insurance Co. of America, outlined how the pandemic had "little or no" effect on the company's business functions because of a pre-existing workplace mobility program that was developed in 2013. Any Guardian employees who return to the office will be doing so on a voluntary basis, he said.  

Regional President for Berkshire Bank Lori Gazzillo Kiely said the bank has seen an increase in productivity throughout the COVID-19 pandemic by offering flexible schedules while prioritizing a healthy "work-life balance."  She was proud to report that the bank has had no pandemic-related layoffs and that employees have received sufficient resources during this time.

iBerkshires spoke to the local business leaders prior to the lifting of pandemic restrictions on May 29. Operations may have changed in the last few weeks.

Q: Since last March, how many employees have switched to remote work?

Bissell: At this moment, we have 176 employees working from home. I am grateful to our IT, operations, and security teams who moved mountains to keep our employees safe and our services accessible to our members. Prior to March 2020, Greylock did not have a formal work from home plan but by mid-March, we were up and running. When public health guidelines led us to limit access to our lobbies, Greylock employees were able to move into other roles to serve members through drive-up lines, our contact center, and online banking. Our members were still able to conduct their transactions, even as we all had to take COVID precautions.

Hazzard: Local media outlets carried the news of the first Berkshire County COVID-19 cases on March 8, Guardian had already scheduled a companywide work-from-home test for March 10, so I advised local employees to work from home on March 9 as well as March 10. The building has remained closed to all employees since then, except for a handful of essential facilities and security personnel.

Gazzillo Kiely: As the pandemic continued, we accelerated our work from home initiative to provide safe and secure working conditions for our non-branch staff. To date, we have 86 percent of our team in a fully remote environment. We are very proud to have a dedicated and committed workforce that is helping our customers and communities. For employees working in one of our locations, such as our branches, we provided protective equipment including masks and gloves as well as premium pay.

Q: How has the response been from employees working from home, positive or negative?

Bissell: I will say that the pandemic has challenged the whole notion of work/life balance. Productivity is up, but personal interaction is down, which introduces new kinds of cultural stress on the organization. We recognize that Greylock is not just a workplace but a community. As such, we have responsibilities to employees and members, especially in times of great upheaval.

Greylock wants all employees to know that we support them as we all learn to address competing priorities under unprecedented conditions. For example, we sent books to employees with children in the home to let them know we support their need to maintain balance and recognize the hardship of having children out of school. We develop ways for social interaction and personal well-being like an online book club and virtual yoga classes.

We know that having our staff at home creates a hardship for our local businesses, too. So we redirected some of our discretionary spending to support them. We buy local restaurant gift cards to distribute among our staff and local community non-profits. We develop products that encourage our members to support their neighborhood businesses, like a recent VISA card reward for shopping local.

Hazzard: Guardian's corporate headquarters in New York City was devastated by floods that accompanied Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and that office faced a lengthy closure. But management found that resourceful employees worked from home, coffee shops, or other Guardian offices with little impact to the business. In the storm's wake, Guardian implemented comprehensive emergency response and business continuity plans to ensure against future disasters. But more importantly, the company launched a workplace mobility program called Guardian on the Go in 2013, empowering employees to do their best work from anywhere, strengthening a culture of innovation, and better enabling Guardian to attract and retain top talent.

Guardian on the Go was embraced by a significant number of employees, especially those with long commutes or school-age children. As a result, the pandemic had little or no impact on most business functions. In fact, many of the digital technologies and paperless processes we'd been promoting for years were being adopted by Guardian insurance agencies, resulting in more efficient operations and higher customer satisfaction.

Gazzillo Kiely: For the most part, our employees have moved to the new work environment with few challenges. The sentiment overall has been positive. We have seen an increase in productivity across our enterprise. With our flexible schedule options, many of the challenges employees faced, such as childcare and caregiving, were addressed. We had provided additional paid sick time, paid quarantine/isolation leave, job-protected personal leave, and premium pay for onsite employees as further support. We maintained full pay for employees with reduced schedules and launched the You FIRST employee assistance fund to help staff impacted by financial hardships. No one could have anticipated this pandemic, but as a purpose-driven company, it is our responsibility to do our part to ensure that our staff has all the resources they need to be their best. We're proud that as a result, we had no pandemic-related layoffs.

Q: How has productivity been since the shift?

Bissell:  Our work-from-home approach allowed us to be highly responsive while still keeping folks safe. Our lending team secured over $43,523,193 million in Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans and help save over 5,752 local jobs as of the end of February. Our Community Empowerment Center team shifted all of their educational and coaching work to online formats. This allows them to continue to provide access to education and financial coaching at a time when the community really needs them. Our support teams have helped almost 4,000 local people defer their loan payments. All of these efforts create a stronger sense of pride and accomplishment for our staff. Even though this is a difficult time, our staff's resiliency and agility create a greater feeling of community and purpose to their work, even if their day-to-day office routine is disrupted.

Gazzillo Kiely: We have seen an increase in the work productivity of our employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we evaluate the work and the shifting environments, we are careful to ensure that our employees maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Q: How has remote work affected the company?

Bissell: Our biggest priority is always the health of our employees and members. We continue to work closely with public health officials in determining next steps. I am grateful for our partnership with Berkshire Health Systems who provide open access to their public health experts so we can pose questions to them throughout the pandemic. My greatest takeaway from all of this is that we must pay close attention to employee needs and build-in opportunities to meet them where they are. The employee/employer relationship has been tested and we have found our culture is resilient, with true collaboration shining through. Each employee feels the impact of this pandemic is different ways. Those with school-aged children or who are caregivers have different needs than those who may be at risk themselves or have a partner who works as a first responder. Beyond the obvious concern of public health, is the increased need to focus on personal well-being. Wellness was already a hot topic prior to 2020, now I think all employers recognize that it is a critical component in human resource planning. That is why we have leaned into our employee wellness program. We partner with BHS to provide wellness activities that not only provide the flu shot and measure blood pressure but teach mindfulness and promote a low-stress lifestyle. We even begin our regular management meetings with instructor-led meditation exercises.

Gazzillo Kiely: Berkshire is charting its path forward in a highly competitive, rapidly evolving consumer banking environment in which the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated digital channel adoption. In 2020, Berkshire Bank upgraded the technology we rely on to serve our customers and support our operations. We launched a best-in-industry mobile deposit account opening platform, upgraded call center technology, rolled out e-signature platforms. Our customers adapted to the new environment by increasing mobile and online banking adoption and leveraging our Interactive Teller Machines (ITM).

Q: Will employees stay working remotely after the pandemic? How many?

Bissell: We are still operating under a quarantine scenario and our long-term plans are still taking shape. We have found that our work from home program is functioning well and we have no immediate plans to require a mass return to the office. In fact, we are so confident in the success of the WFH model that we are consolidating our Merrill Road branch with the Allendale operations center. This is a better use of space and gives us the chance to build a new up-to-date branch for our members. Even when we do return to the office, there will be more utilization of shared space thus requiring less real estate investment and increasing our efficiency for support team ("back office") activities. For now, we just want everyone to be safe and to serve our members at the same level of excellence they are accustomed to receiving.

Hazzard: Guardian has begun a "Road to Re-Entry" program, which calls for a phased re-opening of its U.S. locations, allowing colleagues the opportunity to return to our office locations gradually over time. A pilot program is scheduled to begin in June at nine Guardian offices, including Pittsfield.

Gazzillo Kiely: We are currently reviewing plans carefully regarding the return to the office. We continue to evaluate the business needs, CDC guidance, and local government reporting on the occurrence of COVID cases in our market areas. Our current model with remain in place until we are confidently assured of the safety of all employees.

Q: How will this affect the company in the future?

Bissell: I think this past year has reinforced how important it is to have a highly engaged workforce. The organization thrives when its employees thrive. We believe that employee/management collaboration should be based on mutual respect and shared goals. Respect must be earned and transparency is the key. We will continue to listen to our employees and assess their needs before we move forward with any decisions to return to a pre-pandemic workplace. They trust us to keep them safe just as much as we trust them to keep all of our services available to our members during this time of turmoil.

Hazzard: Any return to the office, whether during the pilot or longer-term, will be on a voluntary basis. We want to provide employees with the tools and resources they need to work efficiently and productively — regardless of where they are located — and we want them to feel safe, trusted, and respected.

Gazzillo Kiely: As we mentioned, our current work from home strategy was in motion before the pandemic began. We expect that some employees will likely remain in a fully remote environment. In contrast, others may return full-time or to a hybrid environment based on each position's business needs and responsibilities.

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A New Bousquet Ready for Winter Opening

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — After receiving an extensive makeover, Ski Bousquet will open this winter with many new — and some old — features.

The most obvious renovation is the modern 15,000-square-foot lodge that greets visitors from Dan Fox Drive.  

A far cry from the original, more than 50-year-old facility, it features a gathering space, expanded dining options, a full bar, and plenty of outdoor seating. The building was designed by Allegrone Construction.

Skiers and snowboarders can still frequent their favorite trails such as Drifter, Russell, Parker, Main Street, and the intimidating Icicles if they dare.

The chairlifts will also maintain their original titles as the Blue Chair and Yellow Chair, which now seats three at a time.

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