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When are we going back to the office? Big employers set timelines but remain cautious

Mar 14, 2021Boston Globe, Council in the News

March 14, 2021
The Boston Globe
By Jon Chesto

Companies are suggesting a wide range of return dates, mostly from June to September

After scrambling to shut down their offices last March, many top executives told their staffs that normal commutes would probably resume by sometime in September, if not earlier. But Labor Day 2020 eventually turned into New Year’s Day 2021, as the coronavirus surged and return-to-office timelines kept getting extended.

Some of the area’s biggest companies now have June or July circled on their calendars. Many others are talking about Labor Day again. And many aren’t giving any return dates, no matter how tentative, just yet. They’ve been burned before.

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the timeline for our return to the office is still hazy.

The uncertainty doesn’t just weigh on commuters and employers. It’s vexing everyone from state policy makers to the cobblers, clothiers, and café owners who make downtown office districts hum. Complicating matters: A newfound embrace of remote work will continue in some form once it is deemed safe to head back.

“There will still be an office, but there will also be more flexibility,” said Mohamad Ali, chief executive of the global research firm IDG. “We don’t know what that means yet, but we’re not going to rush to define it. We want to see how the world comes back.”

IDG has relocated its headquarters from Framingham to Needham, but most of its 500 local employees still haven’t set foot in it. Ali said he is reopening that office on June 1, but workers can stay home if they want until COVID-19 vaccines are widely deployed.

IDG is on the early side. Talk to the state’s biggest white-collar employers and you’ll get a wide range of return-to-office strategies. None say they are going back before June, even with vaccines rolling out by the tens of thousands and hundreds of public schools expected to fully reopen in the spring.

The online retailer Wayfair has been saying June, assuming it’s safe to return. Other companies — such as Converse, UKG (formerly Kronos), LogMeIn, and PTC — are eyeing a potential return sometime in the summer. The financial firms State Street and Putnam Investments are saying September at the earliest. Then there’s Harvard Pilgrim and Tufts Health Plan: The newly merged health insurers don’t expect to occupy their new headquarters in Canton until sometime in the last three months of the year.

The success of the state’s vaccine rollout is a determining factor in these timelines. The availability of in-person school and day-care options will also play a key role, as will the levels of COVID-19 infections. Government contractor MITRE forecasts that Massachusetts might reach “herd immunity” by September, based on the pace of vaccine rollouts. That coincides with a hopeful return to regular schooling for students at every grade level.

As a result, some business leaders say September is the most commonly mentioned return date right now.

In many cases, a small number of workers have been going in already. Mass General Brigham, for example, has had 200 to 300 employees on any given day at its Assembly Row offices in Somerville. Most of the 4,200 office employees who normally work at that location, which is currently doubling as a vaccination site, will continue to be remote until at least June 30.

Other big companies — such as Fidelity Investments, John Hancock, MassMutual, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts — are leaving return dates open-ended, with the promise that employees will get plenty of notice. “The curve of the pandemic will direct our actions,” Fidelity spokesman Vincent Loporchio said in an e-mail. “We will take our time, emphasizing safety over speed.”

For now, Boston’s downtown towers and the sprawling office parks in Woburn and Waltham remain relatively quiet. Tamara Small, chief executive of the real estate trade group NAIOP Massachusetts, said her members have seen a slight uptick in office occupancy rates in Boston, maybe up to 12 percent from 10 percent during the depths of the winter. The suburbs are slightly busier, but not by much.

Small said the work-from-home world is taking its toll on many employers: Checking e-mails is different from strategic thinking, and not enough of the latter is happening while companies are in WFH mode.

Some polls have tried to forecast a firmer return date for the masses, but no real consensus has emerged. MindEdge, a Waltham education-tech firm, surveyed 830 managers from companies across the country in January. More than 40 percent said they expected office life to return by the end of summer. On the other hand, 16 percent said they don’t expect it until spring 2022 or later.

Not everyone will be going back, even when it’s time to go back.

Dell Technologies, one of the state’s largest tech employers, expects more than 60 percent of its employees to work remotely on any given day — a “hybrid” approach. Some companies, such as LogMeIn and Loomis Sayles, have already decided to significantly pare back their office footprints. And insurer John Hancock told employees Friday that it would close its Westwood and Portsmouth, N.H., outposts and ask the 900 people who used to go to those locations to work remotely or in the Back Bay headquarters, or a mix of the two.

“Employers that find remote work appealing to retain their workforce are going to lean heavily on a hybrid model,” said Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council. “[Meanwhile,] those that favor the significance of culture and the interactions in the office on a regular basis will follow a ‘back to the office’ model.”

Eastern Bank was among the companies that initially informed office workers they should expect to go back after Labor Day — in 2020. As it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, chief executive Bob Rivers decided it didn’t make much sense to set a new date.

Rivers said he’s waiting for a critical mass of vaccinations, and for day-care centers and schools to be fully operational. The earliest he can see back-office and headquarters workers returning is September. (Most of Eastern’s branch and insurance office employees, representing about 40 percent of the bank’s 1,900-person workforce, are continuing to work onsite.)

“There’s no need to force it,” Rivers said. “We’re functioning just fine.”

Even if that’s true for most office employers, many executives feel something important has been lost now that face-to-face meetings have shifted from the conference room to Zoom.

“I miss the chats that you can have outside of a meeting, when you’re walking to a meeting, walking back from a meeting, going up the elevator, walking out the front door,” said Ali, the IDG chief executive. “That whole ‘management by walking around,’ which I do a lot, is hard to do when you’re not in a building together.”

Increasingly, the Massachusetts High Technology Council is stepping up to create, execute, and lead critical statewide competitiveness strategies. Fostering a vision for our innovation economy under the MassVision2050 banner, the Council solidifies its position as a thought leader providing valuable insights to navigate emerging technologies, facilitates long-term planning, and reinforces the Council's commitment to excellence and action in the evolving Massachusetts tech-driven economy.

To learn more, contact Council President Chris Anderson.