On April 28, 2012, a freakish series of hailstorms savaged St. Louis. Ice boulders as big as baseballs pounded the area, resulting in about 100,000 insurance claims. An estimated $1.6 billion in insured losses made it perhaps the second-costliest hailstorm in U.S. history.
Hundreds of businesses were affected. Some workplaces were destroyed, including that of Amerinet-GPO, a membership-based organization that provides group-purchasing services for health-care providers. The company owned a 25,000-square-foot building where it had been doing business since the early 1990s. Hundreds of hail stones crashed through its membrane roof, and water cascaded down through the building.
Less than two years later, CFO Mike Costabile can hardly believe the good fortune the loss of its headquarters has brought to Amerinet.
That was hardly apparent in the days after the storm. The next day, a Sunday, company employees gathered to pull out their belongings and abandon the site for good. That the storm hit on a Saturday was a stroke of good luck.
Before long company executives realized that things could have been worse for other reasons, as well. For example, they had been trying to decide whether to upgrade the building. It was not an easy task. “We were going back and forth on that,” says Costabile. “When you’re looking at real estate and space and doing all the financial analysis on upgrading, there are so many intangibles that the black-and-white answer is hard to find.”
With that task removed, a pair of new, immediate ones took its place: finding new space, and keeping the company running in the meantime. Temporarily solving the former, Amerinet rented a suite of 10 offices for emergency meetings and for a handful of its approximately 100 St. Louis employees to work. The rest commenced working from home.
A couple of fortuitously timed initiatives that were completed before the storm helped make that transition relatively smooth. One was the digitization of Amerinet’s 1,800-plus group purchasing contracts and supporting materials. The project aimed to enable efficiency, reduce storage needs, increase collaboration and make productive use of the company’s technology. The company was able to shed 25 four-stack lateral filing cabinets.
The other effort involved making sure employees could work anywhere by outfitting them with laptop computers and other mobile devices. “We didn’t do that because we knew we’d suddenly have to vacate our building,” Costabile says. “It just made sense, considering how we saw the world changing and realizing that our employees needed these critical tools to get their jobs done.”
In June 2012, at the company’s annual membership meeting in Orlando, Fla., Costabile and other executives quietly asked around as to whether members had noticed any differences in working with Amerinet for the previous several weeks. “Nobody even knew what had happened,” he says. “The transition happened more quickly than it would have if it had been deliberate and planned, but it was invisible to our customers.”
Not only did the workforce keep operations going, they got more productive, says Costabile. “It wasn’t really hard to make a link to the commuting time. People had been leaving the house at 7:00 so their 35-minute drive wouldn’t turn into an hour and a half, and now they could be working that whole time.”
He acknowledges there was a sense of loss, as people began longing to see their friends at work. Managers were encouraged to bring their teams together every week or two, at a Panera Bread, a Starbucks or wherever else they wanted.
The telecommuting regime held steady for almost a year, until February 2013, when Amerinet finally rented a new headquarters. But most employees are still working at home one to three days a week, and some are doing so permanently. The new space is 40 percent smaller than what the company occupied at the destroyed building.
“We have enough places for people to sit that if we had a need for everyone to come in, they could,” Costabile says. “There’s not an office or cube for everyone, but there is a comfortable place where you can plug in your laptop and have access to a phone.”
Telecommuting has worked so well in St. Louis that the company has adopted it, and decreased space, at its other locations, in Providence, R.I., and Pittsburgh.
The setup is a tradeoff of sorts, but one worth making, says Costabile. People come to the office when they need to interact with others in person, and stay home when they don’t.
“It’s wonderful that after Super Bowl Sunday, for example, people want to talk about the weekend and the big game,” he says. “That is clearly part of culture and teamwork and I’m not discounting it in the slightest. There are times, though, when you just need to focus and bear down. We’ve looked at all the studies that prove you do need time to think.”