Back to the office: NM employers wrestle with how, when to reel in workers from telecommuting

Like a lot of employers, True Health New Mexico moved nearly all of its employees out of its office once the COVID-19 pandemic reached New Mexico last March.

An office of around 70 employees suddenly shrank to a skeleton crew of just three or four workers.

After 16 months and countless webinars, however, True Health is gearing up to bring employees back into the office.

Mark Epstein, president and CEO of True Health, said declining infection rates and rising vaccination rates help him feel confident that employees can return to the office safely and effectively. After a gradual ramp-up over the summer, the organization is targeting September for a full return.

“I think that will allow us also to monitor how well the virus is under control in the community,” Epstein said.

Like many organizations in New Mexico and across the country, True Health is still working out precisely what that will look like for employees, many of whom have come to value the additional flexibility that comes from working from home while still missing the connectivity of an office environment.

A nationwide survey from Morning Consult updated at the end of May shows that 69% of current remote workers would feel comfortable going back to the office, but a majority enjoys working remotely and feels productive doing so.

Epstein said the organization plans to pursue a hybrid model, which he said would provide opportunities for collaboration while helping the company attract and retain employees who like the flexibility of working remotely.

“We recognize that the labor market has changed, and we will be sometimes competing with folks from outside of New Mexico,” Epstein said.

Similar conversations are taking place in boardrooms and break rooms across New Mexico. Here’s a sampling of how large employers around the state are adapting to the new reality.


David Morgan, spokesman for the NM Department of Health, said the agency is working to update its list of best practices in compliance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state maintains a list of COVID-safe practices for employers through its All Together New Mexico program, which includes advice that employers should limit operations to remote work “to the greatest extent possible.”

What are employers liable for in a pandemic?


Looking down on Smith Plaza from the Student Union. June,02, 2021.(Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

University of New Mexico – Main Campus

Address: Albuquerque main campus

Number of employees: 4,563 staff and 1,394 faculty, not including University of New Mexico Hospital staff

Where they’ve been during the pandemic: Most employees have been working remotely during the pandemic. UNM has been operating under a tier system, where Tier 1 involves work that must be done on campus, Tier 2 involves working remotely, and Tier 3 involves not working because work is not needed at the time. University spokeswoman Cinnamon Blair wrote in an email that as the school prepares to phase back to campus, supervisors and employees have been working together to identify the appropriate tier by work function. Some supervisors have had discretion to allow a combination of any of the tiers with a mix of physical presence and telecommuting. Blair added that the UNM Health Sciences Center had a more accelerated phase back to in-person work last fall.

Going forward: The process of transitioning to full operations for fall 2021 will occur over the summer by Aug. 2, Blair wrote. Specific departmental plans will be made during the first part of July and finalized at the end of the month. Guidance will be issued in the coming weeks to support both supervisors and employees. Employees will be expected to follow established COVID safe practices. More information is available at

Employee reaction: “Employees have expressed a desire for flexibility as we transition back to campus,” Blair wrote.

– Journal Business Editor Gabrielle Porter


Address: 301 Gold SW, Suite 201

Number of employees: 40 in New Mexico (80 total)

Where they’ve been during the pandemic: Data analytics firm RS21 was well positioned for remote operations when the pandemic hit, with many employees already working offsite under an existing company policy that allowed people to choose to come to the office or operate online from home. Pre-pandemic, most Albuquerque employees did work at least part-time onsite, but when the coronavirus started, everyone went remote. As health guidelines eased in summer 2020, RS21 allowed some employees to come in with masks, social distancing and fever checks at the door, but most remained remote. In April, RS21 reopened its offices, starting at 30% capacity, and then increasing to 50% in early May and 75% now. But office policy has fundamentally changed. Individual workstations are no longer assigned to employees. Instead, they use a software system to reserve a desk any day they plan to come in, with about one-fourth of local employees currently onsite daily.

Going forward: The company may return to 100% capacity in late June. But the pandemic has converted RS21 into a hybrid firm where most people work remotely. That’s an operational advantage, allowing the company to hire new employees in communities across the country, said Chief Operations Officer Missi Rogers. “Our employees have proven they can be productive, thrive and communicate and collaborate online as well as they did pre-pandemic,” Rogers said. “We’re going all in to allow employees to choose what works best for them.”

– Journal Staff Writer Kevin Robinson-Avila


Professor Dennis Giever prepares to teach a criminal justice class as NMSU’s Fall 2020 Semester kicked off with hybrid course offerings online classes as well as in-person instruction. Faculty, staff and students were asked to maintain social distancing and to wear masks. (NMSU photo by Josh Bachman)

New Mexico State University

Address: 2850 Weddell Drive, Las Cruces

Number of employees: About 5,507, including student employees

NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu toured the campus, welcoming back students and thanking them for following the states health guidelines during the first day of the Fall 2020 Semester. (NMSU photo by Josh Bachman)

Where they’ve been during the pandemic: During the pandemic, about 85% to 90% of NMSU employees worked remotely.

Going forward: NMSU spokeswoman Minerva Baumann wrote in an email that each department is setting its own parameters for bringing workers back to campus. Offices that serve students are more likely to have an on-campus presence. The timeline for

Sonny Mata, left, asks Serena Martinez, right, if she needs anything else as she packs up her food to go at Taos Dinning Hall, Wednesday January 27, 2021. (NMSU photo by Josh Bachman)

those offices will involve bringing workers back between now and August, but employees will still have the option to request alternative work arrangements throughout the year.” Departments will consider customer service for students; whether staggered work schedules are an option; and “ensuring fair treatment for all employees.”

– Journal Business Editor Gabrielle Porter


At Sandia Laboratory Federal Credit Union workers like Caleb Funchess are separated from customers via a plexiglass divider. (Photo courtesy of SLFCU)

Sandia Laboratory Federal Credit Union

Address: 3707 Juan Tabo NE

Number of employees: 351

Where they’ve been during the pandemic: During the pandemic around 65% to 70% of employees worked remotely.

Going forward: Robert Chavez, president and CEO of SLFCU, said that the plan is to start bringing back remote workers by July 1, but some workers already returned following a change in CDC guidance.

Chavez said the decision to bring employees back followed a survey that showed that over 80% of employees would be vaccinated by that date.

While employees are set to return, the credit union has modified the workplace with COVID related protocols in mind. Cubicles are now divided with panels, plexiglass shields for customer facing employees will remain along with increased sanitation of surfaces. Employees will also have the opportunity to work remotely for 40% of the week through the end of this year.

Employee reaction: Chavez said that workers are already returning to the office and the parking lot is fuller than it previously was, but he expects around 50% of employees to take advantage of the hybrid approach while they still can.

– Journal Staff Writer Pilar Martinez


Fidelity Investments

Address: 5401 Watson Drive, Albuquerque 87106

Number of employees: About 975 in Albuquerque

Where they’ve been doing: Work from home

What their plan is going forward: Paul Lesser, head of talent acquisition, talent development and learning for Fidelity Investments, said in an email that the company is in the process of determining how and when employees will reenter the workplace, but added that he’s encouraged by recent developments and announcements from the CDC. The company has launched voluntary reentry programs in all its U.S. locations, including Albuquerque, Lesser said.

Misc: Last year, Lesser said the company brought onboard 180 new employees in New Mexico, with additional hires this year. Lesser said the company made changes to its onboarding process when the pandemic began, to ensure it is safe for both Fidelity Investments and the new associates. The remote onboard process includes a virtual welcome meeting, shipping of laptops and other equipment and a guided 12-month digital program that introduces employees to company resources, Lesser said.

– Journal Staff Writer Stephen Hamway


An empty entrance of Rainforest Innovation Academy .Photographed on Wednesday November 18, 2020. Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal

UNM Rainforest Innovations

Address: 101 Broadway NE

Number of employees: Roughly 50 employees work on the first floor of the six-story Lobo Rainforest Building, including 23 staff and interns at the Rainforest office suite, and the rest in offices run by other organizations and companies. Up to 300 students occupy dorms on the upper five floors.

Where they’ve been during the pandemic: When the pandemic started, all first-floor employees immediately went remote. Students remained in their dorms using independent access to upper-floor housing, but all first-floor events and meetings ceased completely. In the fall, up to five employees at a time were allowed to return occasionally to the office if desired, until April 5, when Rainforest Innovations started requiring everyone to work onsite at least one day a week. The first floor, however, remains closed to meetings and events.

Going forward: Since May, employees have been allowed to choose whether they want to work onsite throughout the week or continue remotely. Five or six people usually come in daily while Rainforest Innovations awaits UNM guidance to increase the in-office presence, either this summer or in the fall.

Employee reaction: At the start of the pandemic, employees experienced collective “shock” as operations moved to remote work overnight, said Rainforest Innovations CEO Lisa Kuuttila. People rapidly adjusted to online communications, meetings and events, but in-person social interaction, networking and collective brainstorming are hindered. Most employees want to return to daily onsite operations. But with no clear answers yet on when that may happen, “everyone has had to get used to a degree of ambiguity that no one is comfortable with,” Kuuttila said.

– Journal Staff Writer Kevin Robinson-Avila


Presbyterian Healthcare Services

Address: 9521 San Mateo NE

Number of employees: Approximately 14,000, with 3,000 working remotely at least part-time.

Where they’ve been during the pandemic: Starting last March, Presbyterian moved around 3,000 administrative employees working at its Rev. Hugh Cooper Administrative Center into a remote-work setting, according to Joanne Suffis, chief human resources officer for the organization. On a given day during the pandemic, just 30 to 40 employees, including IT specialists and senior leaders, would be in the building, Suffis said. The building remains closed to the general public.

Joanne Suffis

Going forward: Suffis said employees at the Cooper Center will remain remote until the end of September. The organization has identified 800 positions – including call-center jobs – that will remain fully remote going forward, Suffis said. At this point, the organization is planning to implement a hybrid model, one designed to strike a balance between employee productivity and personal preferences.

Employee reaction: Suffis said Presbyterian has surveyed its remote workers several times during the pandemic to see how they’re adjusting and to gauge their preferences. Suffis said the surveys revealed that “an overwhelming majority” of remote workers have had a better work-life balance, with managers reporting no declines in productivity.

“There has been absolutely no degradation in the level of service that’s provided to our patients and members,” Suffis said.

– Journal Staff Writer Stephen Hamway


At Nusenda Credit Union, plexiglass dividers separate workers from customers. The credit union’s branches began reopening in February. (Photo courtesy of Nusenda Credit Union)

Nusenda Federal Credit Union

Address: 4100 Pan American NE

Number of employees: About 650

Where they’ve been during the pandemic: Since the beginning of the pandemic around 50% of Nusenda’s employees have been working from home with the other 50% continuing to work at different branch locations, according to Nusenda president and CEO Joseph Christian. For office employees, measures like social distancing, masks, added cleaning stations and installing plexiglass dividers were created in order to be in compliance with the patchwork of regulations coming from local, state and federal policy makers, he said. Employees that did not have customer-facing roles quickly transitioned into a work from home capacity, and have continued to work from home since then, he said. According to Christian, there hasn’t been a dip in productivity and the credit union has worked with its employees to create accommodations while also continuing to serve their customers. “The first thing we learned is that our employees do great work whether they’re at the office or at home,” he said. He said the lobbies for all of the branches were closed to customers until February of this year and as of May, nearly every branch lobby is open.

Going forward: The future for Nusenda employees is going to be “very flexible,” Christian said. While the bank will begin welcoming workers back into the office through a structured hybrid model this July, he said he imagines that many employees will want to continue working from home in the future. He said the credit union is likely to keep work from home as an option for people due to the success of it throughout the pandemic. Other measures like social distancing, plexiglass shields and sanitizing will remain as workers come back, and the credit union will enforce mask wearing for unvaccinated employees.

Employee reaction: Christian said that at the beginning of the pandemic the credit union tried to focus on keeping spirits high for its employees during the work from home transition period and many workers are enjoying their new freedom to work outside of the office. He said that some employees will have different preferences in regard to their work environment, but the credit union will work to find the best solution. “So there’s, for the most part, a general level of excitement,” he said.

– Journal Staff Writer Pilar Martinez


Sandia quality engineer Dulce Barrera, left, and systems engineer and team lead Kylen Johns coordinated with colleagues to mitigate the challenges caused by COVID-19 during preparation for a full-scale crash test that took place this summer. (COURTESY OF SANDIA NATIONAL LABORATORIES)

Sandia National Laboratories

Address: Sandia National Laboratories, 1515 Eubank SE

Number of employees: 12,100 in Albuquerque, including contract workers

Where they’ve been during the pandemic: During most of the pandemic, between 55% and 65% of Sandia employees have worked from home, telecommuting by phone and video conferencing. For those who must work at labs and offices on Sandia’s sprawling campus in southeast Albuquerque, until recently, the lab required masks, social distancing, and an app-based health-check before coming in. The lab also set up onsite COVID-19 testing and increased cleaning and disinfection at all buildings.

Going forward: In January, Sandia began offering onsite vaccinations. Now, it no longer requires the daily health-check or masks for onsite employees who are vaccinated. Still, about 55% of all employees continue to work from home. “We don’t yet have a date for full return,” said Sandia spokesman Troy Rummler. “We’re awaiting guidance from the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration. But many employees have grown to like working from home, and we expect some to keep telecommuting, either part time or full time, even after the pandemic is over.”

– Journal Staff Writer Kevin Robinson-Avila

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