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Employers weigh office options amid coronavirus outbreak

Citigroup this week is dividing up where the 1,800 employees of its Getzville complex are working.

Some are at the financial operations center in CrossPoint Business Park, while others are working either from home or from its backup center in Rochester. Citi says it is dividing up the workforce as a preventive measure, reducing the concentration of employees in a single location, as employers attempt to keep the coronavirus outbreak at bay.

Citi declined to disclose the percentages of which employees will be working where. The financial services giant will evaluate things and decide whether to continue the policy for future weeks. Two other banks with a major local presence, M&T Bank and KeyBank, have not reported making any changes in where their employees are working.

Although there are no diagnosed cases of the novel coronavirus in the Buffalo Niagara region, some area employers are trying to stay ahead of the situation. They are encouraging employees to stay home if they feel sick, and some are restricting employee business travel.

Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center has tightened business travel restrictions for its employees, volunteers and students. Roswell Park is now prohibiting any work-related travel to New York City, and to anywhere outside of New York State. Roswell Park had already placed those restrictions on international trips, including to Canada. But employees who commute to Roswell from Canada are not affected.

Roswell Park is also discouraging its employees, volunteers and students from taking international or domestic personal trips, citing concerns about the risk of infection. Those who return from trips are being asked to contact their supervisor before returning to work, since they might be asked to remain home for two weeks after returning.

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Independent Health officials think it's well prepared for its employees to work from home, if it comes to that.

Last year, the Amherst-based health insurer tested whether all of its employees could work from home on the same day. That was in response to a snowstorm during the previous winter, when many employees were trying to work from home, said Dr. Michael W. Cropp, Independent Health's president and CEO.

"We didn't have enough access to our IT systems to be able to handle everybody," he said.

Since then, Independent Health upgraded its systems, conducted some phased testing, and then tried having everyone work from home on the same day.

"We passed the test and showed that we had the capacity to basically keep the company running at full tilt while people are working from home," Cropp said.

Cropp said he hopes people will apply what's being advocated to stop the spread of the coronavirus – proper hand-washing, not touching your face, staying home from work when sick – to every flu season. "Let's really use this opportunity to school people and create new habits," he said.

[Get our full coronavirus outbreak coverage]

Some employers are better equipped than others to have their employees work from home, depending on their line of work, said Katerina Bezrukova, associate professor of organization and human resources at University at Buffalo's School of Management.

"The knowledge-intensive industries are probably going to see less cost associated with this transition, because they already have the policies of remote work in place," she said.

There are pros and cons to consider. On one hand, employees working from home can cut down on their commuting time, Bezrukova said. "The detriment is, you're not going to have those very critical conversations where people exchange information" in person.

At the same time, service industry workers, at places like restaurants or hotels or other venues that involve tasks that can only be done in the workplace, are less likely to have a work-from-home option.

Some of the biggest names in tech, including Apple, Google, Amazon and Twitter, have asked at least some of their employees to work from home. A rising number of trade shows and conferences, both domestically and overseas, are getting canceled. And many companies have clamped down on business trips.

Business travel is grounded by coronavirus outbreak

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