IOWA DERECHO 2020

Employees unable to work from work suddenly can't work from home, either

Scrambling workers forced back together

In case months of working from home with spotty child care and standard technology woes wasn’t wearing enough on employees, employers and general workforce productivity, the derecho that walloped much of Iowa this week threw up another hurdle in the telecommuting trick.

Where Zoom and other virtual platforms had made meetings and office chats achievable during the COVID-19 pandemic — they, too, fell out of reach Monday, continuing into ensuing days, with hundreds of thousands lacking power, internet and cellular service.

Sharing stories on social media, some across the Corridor simply took time off or found themselves converging with neighbors and colleagues around power strips and generators.

The University of Iowa called telecommuting disruptions from lost power, internet, and cell service “perhaps the biggest disruption” from Monday’s storm — considering the campus’s “hundreds of faculty and staff currently working remotely due to COVID-19.” The campus on Wednesday offered a list of drive-up Wi-Fi locations for employees still without power.

Josh Schamberger, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, on Tuesday morning found himself parked in a Coralville City Hall conference room with his office still lacking internet and phone.

The bureau’s staff of 10 only last week had returned to the office after a monthslong COVID-19-compelled work-from-home hiatus that was resurrected Monday just as quick as the storm blew in.

But this time, working from home wasn’t necessarily an option for everyone — prompting the bureau to outsource several workspace options lucky enough to have power, functioning internet and phones.

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“We told everybody else, if you’ve got power and internet at your house, which I think one or two of them do, just work there,” Schamberger said.

But typical telecommuting workarounds that homebound staffers had become accustomed to tapping for technology troubles in recent months were lost — at least temporarily — in the storm.

“Normally in times of internet outage, you can create a hot spot on your phone,” Schamberger said. “That’s an easy setup and a solution to at least stay connected to the world.”

In some cases, following the storm, more connections again were happening face to face — or rather masked face-to-masked face — according to Erin Pottebaum, director of operations for MERGE Iowa City.

“It almost feels normal in our coworking space,” Pottebaum said Tuesday afternoon, in the suddenly bustling hub next to the Iowa City Public Library.

By interrupting what had become a new coronavirus normal for the community and its workforce, the storm blew in some aspects of the old normal, she said.

“There have been more people in the Ped Mall today as well,” she said. “It almost feels like normal downtown Iowa City.”

Where MERGE had been seeing around five visitors a day, upward of 15 to 20 were in the space at any given time Tuesday.

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With new social-distancing guidelines, MERGE can hold up to 20 people, plus 16 in reserved offices — all of which were occupied.

MERGE never lost power and maintained internet service, making it an oasis for area employees sharing a similar story — unable to work from work and now unable to work from home.

And with all the new precautions and mandates — including face coverings — Pottebaum said the need to come together again wasn’t all bad.

“It’s nice to see other humans,” she said. “Especially those being respectful and mindful of the space around them and wearing masks and things of that sort.”

After scrambling Tuesday morning to find a functioning work hub, Nick Pfeiffer found MERGE both conducive to his work needs and a boost socially.

“It’s a good temporary space for me to get some small projects done,” Pfeiffer said.

“The vibe here is uplifting. Lots of storm damage talk, but hearing many great stories of neighbors helping neighbors.”

Pfeiffer — whose home in Tiffin and office in Coralville both were without internet and phone Tuesday — started his day cruising Interstate 380 looking for cell service.

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He found some at the Johnson County Fairgrounds, where he parked and worked for about an hour until learning about options at MERGE.

“I headed here and hooked right up,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “I’ve been able to catch up on a lot of work and networked with my peers at the same time.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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