CEOs prepare for long transition back to their offices: The way we report to work could be quite different once we’re finally allowed back

Apr 23, 2020Boston Globe, Council in the News

April 23, 2020
Boston Globe
By Jon Chesto, Globe Staff

It’s a question on the mind of every CEO in town: When can we turn the lights back on in our offices?

But they also face a potentially tougher question: What will the offices look like once that magic moment does take place?

Things probably won’t be the same, once we finally get the all-clear from Governor Charlie Baker. That’s one of the big takeaways from discussions held by two influential business groups, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and the Massachusetts High Technology Council.

The chamber on Thursday brought together five of the most prominent executives in the city, to talk to members (via Zoom, of course) about the COVID-19 pandemic and what it means for returning to work. Suffolk Construction chief John Fish talked about using infrared thermal cameras at some job sites to take workers’ temperatures and testing out beepers for workers that would go off when they’re within 6 feet of someone else. Jeff Leiden, the executive chairman of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, said it is evaluating the temps for the few Vertex workers who come into the office, and is looking at implementing viral and antibody tests down the road.

Niraj Shah, chief executive at Wayfair, said companies will be more flexible about allowing employees to work from home, particularly now that Corporate Boston has been forced to do it en masse, and on the fly.

Putnam Investments chief Bob Reynolds agreed, saying he sees a major shift under way toward WFH, that will be “part of our lives forever.” He also warned that things won’t really get back to normal until an effective vaccine for the coronavirus is widely available, and few people expect that to happen until next year.

And Micho Spring, president of PR giant Weber Shandwick’s New England operation, talked about reframing the discussion. Maybe “going back” to work isn’t the right way to put it, she said. Maybe we should be thinking about moving forward instead.

Over at Mass High Tech, the news was equally somber, if not more so. The tech council has been holding emergency sessions with many of the state’s smartest CEOs and academic experts during the past few weeks, with the fundamental goal of hashing out a viable return to work strategy that avoids pushing the hospitals beyond their capacity. The group made its recommendations public on Thursday, including a seven-step recovery to restarting the state’s floundering economy.

The bottom line: The new world order will look very different from the old.

Bain Capital cochairman Steve Pagliuca has led the effort, which was in part informed by pandemic research done by consulting giant McKinsey & Co. Even if the number of new cases and hospitalizations decline significantly, the business community will need to be wary about a resurgence at the region’s hospitals, a concern that will likely linger will into 2021.

The Mass High Tech report recommends at least 100,000 tests a day, including at six to 10 centralized locations handled by a diagnostic company hired by the state.

Pagliuca said the current high-quality virus tests are done with nasal swabs; he said blood tests should also be done to find out who has the antibodies that have fought the virus.

Then there are the new workplace norms envisioned by Pagliuca and his ad hoc team. They potentially include screening for temperatures and symptoms at office entrances, encouraging higher-risk employees to work from home, and redesigning workplaces to ensure more distance between employees.

But that’s not all. A robust contact-tracing network needs to be in place using cellphone data, Pagliuca said, to alert recent contacts if they had happened to meet with someone who was subsequently diagnosed with the virus. Governor Charlie Baker has already begun hiring up to 1,000 contact tracers, Pagliuca notes, giving Massachusetts a headstart over other states.

Then there’s the vexing issue of getting to the office safely. The risks associated with riding trains and buses into work could be the most prevalent concern that employees are expressing to their CEOs; the chamber plans to host a session on May 7 to more directly confront this issue.

All these complexities make it all but certain that Baker will extend his shutdown order for nonessential workplaces beyond May 4. The governor is expected to assemble a group of advisers soon to discuss and design the best return-to-work protocols, with a goal of avoiding another wide-scale lockdown. The Greater Boston Chamber and Mass High Tech are among the business groups that are regularly talking with Mike Kennealy, Baker’s point person on economic issues, about this.

When will the lights go back on? No one really knows. But the transition won’t be like turning on a switch. In fact, it will probably take longer and be more complicated than most of these executives imagined just over a month ago, when most of us packed up and headed home.

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