Remote work looks like it’s here to stay

Mar 17, 2021Commonwealth Magazine, Council in the News

March 17, 2021
CommonWealth Magazine
By: Shira Schoenberg

Companies see gains from hybrid models

Eastern Bank used to be a typical employer. Be in the office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with an hour break for lunch. Its employees in Lynn, Boston, and elsewhere fought the traffic with other rush hour commuters.

No more. That model, says CEO Bob Rivers, is likely gone for good.

Once the pandemic eases, Eastern Bank plans to implement for the first time a widely available work-from-home policy, which will give employers more options for whether they want to come into the office or not.

“Being able to work in this way with greater flexibility we think will make us a better employer, and certainly a more competitive employer,” Rivers said.

As the pandemic begins to ease and vaccinations are becoming available, businesses in Massachusetts are thinking about the future, and what a return to work will look like. For many, workplaces will not look like they did in February 2020. There might be more opportunities to work from home and less travel. The ramifications are huge – for employees, their families, and for businesses considering their office space and talent pool. The stakes are also huge for cities, the MBTA, and the state’s transportation system.

Obviously, certain industries like retail, food service, hospitality, or manufacturing require in-person work. But for the type of professional industries that require mostly desk work, companies are considering the trade-off between easier collaboration and more personal flexibility.

“We’re hearing a lot of the H-word, the hybrid word,” said Mark Gallagher, vice president of policy and public affairs for the Massachusetts High Technology Council, which represents technology companies. “I think the days of the vast majority of people commuting five days a week to a physical place to work and people working remotely being very, very rare, I think those days are probably gone.”

Eastern Bank, with 1,800 Massachusetts employees, is a perfect example of how extensively corporate culture has changed. During the pandemic, 40 percent of its employees have continued working in person, often at bank branches, and that will continue. But 60 percent of workers have been home for the last year. Rivers said the results have been, in many ways, positive. “Not only have we been able to function certainly as well as before as a business, but the greater flexibility for people’s personal lives is really a significant benefit, whether it be for childcare, eldercare, or other appointments or commitments,” Rivers said.

Employee surveys the bank sent out last year found that most employees who were home would prefer to stay home for several days a week. The company will send out another survey before finalizing its policies for returning to work, which Rivers thinks will happen around September. Rivers anticipates managers having new types of conversations in drafting those policies – asking what is the value of coming into the office and what functions are better done in person. For example, large informational town halls have attracted more people and better engagement online. But recognition-focused programs and receptions, which let people network, will likely resume in person.

Rivers is far from alone in considering these questions. The technology and management consulting company Accenture surveyed 1,450 North American executives and found that many are considering more hybrid working models for the future and are investing in tools to improve and supervise remote work. If before the pandemic around 18 percent of employees had some kind of flexible work arrangement, the survey suggests that, post-pandemic, the number will increase to 25 percent.

At Accenture’s 1,500-person Boston office, Pallavi Verma, the office managing director, said because Accenture is a global company and consultants are frequently traveling to clients, the company was already used to employees working from a variety of locations. Verma anticipates some kind of “hybrid” model going forward, with less travel as clients realize that consultants do not have to be face to face all the time to be productive.

“A hybrid approach could be a really interesting benefit to both our clients and to our workforce that allows people to travel and get the face-to-face interaction…along with trying to balance that with not having to do that all of the time,” Verma said.

Some companies already decided to remain all or mostly remote. LogMeIn, a Boston-based software company, announced that it is transitioning to “a permanent remote-centric company” for its approximately 3,700 worldwide employees. President and CEO William Wagner wrote that the company asked employees where they want to work going forward, and he expects most employees will come into an office only a few days a month. Office space will be used mostly for meetings and collaboration, not solo work, and offices will be redesigned.

Chris Perrotti, vice president and chief of staff at LogMeIn, bought a second home in Stowe, Vermont, months before the pandemic. Moving there had always been a family goal, but it wasn’t practical with he and his wife both working at technology companies in Boston. Once LogMeIn announced its remote work policy, and his wife also got permission to remain remote, the couple sold their house in Dorchester and moved to Vermont. “Once we both got that agreement in place, there was no reason to stay,” Perrotti said.

Perrotti said in a survey of all LogMeIn employees, around 46 percent said they want to remain fully remote, and 3 percent want to return full time. The rest are split between wanting to come to an office one to two days a week or one to two days a month. The company set up a framework in which employees can work anywhere the company has offices (in order to address complex issues like tax liability), as long as their manager deems it practical and sustainable.

In downtown Boston, where LogMeIn had 800 employees, it was operating out of two buildings, but will downsize to one. By the time the office reopens – now targeted for July 1 – the space will be reconfigured to emphasize collaborative and flexible workspaces.

Perrotti noted that as a company that develops remote work technology, going remote also offers professional advantages. “The better we are at this, the better we can pave the way for our customers as well,” he said.

Robbin Orbison, the owner and president of CapeSpace, which operates coworking spaces in Mashpee and Hyannis, is seeing the impact of corporate changes. During the pandemic, demand for shared space and meeting rooms plummeted. But people continued to want private offices – particularly as people from Boston and New York migrated to second homes on Cape Cod while working remotely.

Orbison anticipates that even post-pandemic, large coworking spaces with multiple desks, which were trendy for a time, may lose their appeal in favor of the traditional private office model. She is considering expanding both her locations to add new private offices. Orbison thinks if businesses move to hybrid models – where headquarters are mostly used for meetings – that may be a boost to coworking spaces. “For a lot of people, their primary place of business will be their home, and there is a need for a third option that’s near people’s homes and allows them to go into a professional setting and have a more productive work environment than their home office,” Orbison said.

The ramifications of new work flexibility could be far-reaching. For example, companies can recruit from a broader talent pool if employees can work from anywhere and no longer have to relocate to accept a job.

Take Hawke Media, a marketing company started in Santa Monica. Before the pandemic, Hawke Media had a small Boston office with about five people. By the summer of 2020, the company had decided to get rid of its office space in Boston, vastly downsize at its California headquarters, and go fully remote.

Since then, the company has grown from 140 employees, with offices in three states and a handful of remote workers elsewhere, to 165 employees in 27 states.

“I’d bet money if we talk two years from now, we’ll have more employees in Massachusetts than we would have if we just kept our office in Boston, because there’s going to be talent from Western Mass, from places outside of the city that are looking for jobs,” said Tony Delmercado, Hawke Media’s co-founder and chief operating officer. “Because we’re not just looking at people a T ride away from an office, now we’re looking at the entire state and we’re getting applicants from the entire state.”

Delmercado said some of the money that would have gone into maintaining a big office can now go to helping people set up their home office or giving them a stipend for food or coffee. To keep up human relationships, he still plans to get the company together at least once a year for a team-building trip.

There are also legal questions companies must work through, related to things like taxes and liability. The US Supreme Court is considering a challenge brought by New Hampshire to Massachusetts’ policy requiring someone working remotely for a Massachusetts company to pay Massachusetts income tax, even if the person is living and working out of state.

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