The widespread adoption of remote work during the COVID-19 crisis “has opened Pandora’s box” in Massachusetts, triggering an economy-wide shift that will never fully reverse itself, the 17th said. February the head of human resources for the largest employer in the state.
As many workers and employers who have turned to home offices over the past two years are weighing their plans for the future, Mass Gen. Brigham, director of human resources, Rosemary Sheehan, told a roundtable that she does not expect the work landscape to ever return to pre-pandemic norms.
COVID-19 remains a potent threat, but with the state of emergency months in the rearview mirror and the availability of vaccines and treatments reducing health risks, Massachusetts finds itself in the midst of what one panelist called a “big sorting” with implications for the future of downtown spaces, public transit and housing.
“We have to realize that we’ve opened Pandora’s box,” Sheehan said during a virtual event hosted by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. “We’re never going back there. We have to adapt to this new way of working and this new way of life, quite frankly.”
Mass General Brigham — who, according to the Boston Business Journal, was the state’s largest nongovernmental employer with nearly 73,000 employees last year — ordered about 40,000 of its staff to work remotely when the pandemic hit in March 2020, Sheehan said.
The healthcare giant has since brought many workers back to offices and facilities, and Sheehan said a survey he conducted last summer estimated that around a quarter of MGB’s workforce worked in a hybrid or fully remote model. But those who work in person, she said, often don’t come every day.
Dozens of workers in construction, retail, restaurants and other industries that depend on physical interactions were never able to switch to remote models, but among those for whom home offices were an option , interest remains high nearly two years since the pandemic upended the world.
Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce CEO James Rooney said members of his group are “across the spectrum” on work patterns, with the “vast majority” still opting to maintain a mix of in-person and virtual options.
Joe Aiello, a former public transit official who is now a senior fellow at the Center for International Environmental and Resource Policy at Tufts University, described the state of play as “a period of experimentation “.
“It sometimes feels like a science project in middle school, and you don’t know if it will work when you get in front of the teacher,” Aiello said. “COVID sent a jolt to the story of how the workplace was gradually changing over time with more flexibility. Like any jolt, there’s usually an overreaction and a bit of hyperbole – ‘oh, we’re all going to be working from home forever. “I think we’ve passed that period, and now there’s this big sorting out of how to move forward.”
Employee preference represents a key marbled tension in deliberations about how to balance remote and in-person hours. Without commutes to start and end the day, many people spent more hours directly at work and increased productivity or instead set aside time for appointments, exercise, hobbies and other activities. important for a good work-life balance.
“People won’t be coming back five days a week. I never see that happening, ever,” said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, executive director of 128 Business Council.
“I agree,” Sheehan replied.
“You’ll never be able to find employees,” Tibbits-Nutt continued. “No one is going to want to do that. We all know we still can’t recruit employees under these circumstances, but that’s never going to happen. And honestly, I’m not sure that should be the case.”
Still, Sheehan said she worries younger employees, in particular, will miss out on professional development opportunities if they spend less time in the office shadowing co-workers and making in-person connections.
A transformed new work model is impacting the state’s transportation systems, particularly the MBTA, which depends on transportation revenue from Boston-area employees for a portion of its annual operating budget.
Prior to the omicron-fueled winter spike, average T ridership had rebounded to only about 50% of pre-COVID levels on the T’s subway lines, 50% on commuter rail lines and nearly 70% on bus lines.
Aiello and Tibbits-Nutt, who respectively chaired and vice-chaired the now disbanded MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board, praised the agency for some of its adaptation to the COVID era, including a new train schedule from suburbs offering more services at traditionally off-peak hours and flexibility in managing buses according to demand.
In the long term, Aiello said, the most pressing questions for the agency are “less about COVID” and “more about us and how we as a region will move forward” to address issues such as housing affordability and climate change.
“The MBTA needs to be part of the discussion. It can no longer be separated from the equity and housing discussions,” he said. “He absolutely, positively needs to be at the table, and traditionally that’s not the case. He wanted to live in his own cocoon.”
Tibbits-Nutt thinks Massachusetts needs to do more work to have “shovel-ready” projects aligned with the MBTA and clearer goals around investments to ensure the state is in the mix for available federal dollars, especially with a new infrastructure funding law in place.
“It’s going to have to be a collaboration not just with transportation, but with housing and economic development,” she said. “If we don’t start integrating housing issues into a lot of these transit projects, which I think this regional rail discussion has, it’s going to be very, very difficult to be competitive to get these funds.”
Housing and transportation go hand in hand for most workers. Tibbits-Nutt said it’s still “much cheaper to drive” to a Boston-area office than to take the commuter rail from one of its more remote stations, where monthly passes can cost hundreds of dollars.
Sheehan said the lack of affordable housing was also “a priority” for MGB.
“The reason people commute is because they had to go out. They can’t afford to live close to where they work, so they won’t want to come to the office, and then for those who owe — our essential workers — it’s a very unfair system,” she said.
“People are going to live and work everywhere,” Sheehan added. “They’re going to have really flexible working models. They’re going to come in half days, they’re going to come in one day, and next week it’s going to be four days, and I think that’s tough for the T and the state respond to.”