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A sudden, real-life test for remote work

Coronavirus-fueled directives could increase acceptance of working at home. But it could also backfire.

Drew Allison, worldwide brand creative director for Fuze, was just about the only worker in the company's office in Boston Tuesday. Normally, about 150 people would be in the office.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The eight employees at Edmit, a college financial advisory company in downtown Boston, take three different MBTA lines to work, coming in close contact with hundreds of people every day in subway stations, on trains, and on the sidewalk.

When Covid-19 started spreading in Boston last week, chief executive Nick Ducoff decided the risk wasn’t worth it. And as of last Friday, his company went all-remote.

“If four of us got it, half the company would be out of commission,” he said. Even if employees are just stressed out about catching it on their way to work, he noted, “they’re not going to be happy and productive.”


Edmit is among a growing number of companies calling for their employees to work from home, a disease-fueled upswing likely to gain steam after Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency Tuesday and encouraged employers to have employees work from home. For most companies, it will likely be a short-term solution. But this mass experiment could raise acceptance of remote work, which has been increasing as technology improves and companies open offices around the world.

At the same time, telework is still viewed with skepticism by many in the business world, and if hastily arranged remote work initiatives go awry, it could create a backlash.

Offices started emptying out around the region after Cambridge-based Biogen announced last week that several employees who attended a conference at a Boston hotel had contracted Covid-19 — eventually leading to at least 77 of the state’s 95 cases; the next day, it instructed all its employees to work from home. Takeda, the drug maker whose US headquarters are in Cambridge, sent out a note on Sunday urging its 50,000 global employees to work from home, including 5,000 in Massachusetts.


Numerous local companies have followed suit. Employees who choose to go into the office are being tracked, in some cases, in order to monitor with whom they come in contact. One biotech whose lab employees can’t work remotely is trying to keep them off public transportation by offering parking places to those with cars and reimbursing others for Uber rides.

Nationwide, major employers including Amazon, Microsoft, Nordstrom, Twitter, Capital One, and Google have instructed office workers to telecommute if they can. The Securities and Exchange Commission asked workers to stay away from its Washington D.C. headquarters after an employee contracted what is suspected to be Covid-19.

Of course, many employees don’t have the option to work from home, including those in manufacturing and in low-paying service jobs in hotels, restaurants, and stores. Only 29 percent of workers can do their jobs remotely, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among Black workers, fewer than 20 percent can work remotely, and for Latino workers, it’s just over 16 percent.

In all, about half the workforce telecommutes at least once a month, according to Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs, a job search site; the number of non-self-employed people who work remotely at least half the time grew 159 percent between 2005 and 2017. And with Covid-19 forcing employers to take a real-time look at the effects of increasing off-site work, more companies may start allowing even more employees to work from home.

Research on the benefits of remote work is mixed. A number of studies show that it increases productivity, though not for highly collaborative jobs. Some studies have found that telecommuting reduces engagement and retention, while others have found improvement.


Remote work is so common at many companies that systems are in place to accommodate it. Most Takeda employees take their laptops home every night anyway, said spokeswoman Katie Joyce, so the middle-of-the-night e-mail over the weekend announcing the remote work initiative didn’t set off a massive scramble. And meetings are always accessible off-site.

"I don't remember the last time I was in a meeting where we didn't have someone videoconferencing in," Joyce said.

Reveneer, a Lexington firm that builds and manages inside sales teams for other companies, conducted a companywide work-from-home test on Wednesday. Like many companies, Reveneer has an open floor plan, with everyone sitting in close proximity, said spokeswoman Kara Brown. “That’s just going to spread everything around like crazy,” she said.

The Boston software firm Salsify also ran a last-minute remote-work day last week, and the results were promising. Of 267 surveys returned about the test, 95 percent of employees said they were at least as productive as they were in the office, and two-thirds reported being more productive, said chief people officer Colleen Fuller. The biggest struggle? People didn’t like having only one computer monitor.

A companywide meeting with 370 people on a Zoom conference call — more than twice as many as any previous call — went smoothly, Fuller noted. And a training for new sales employees — who had flown in from Illinois and Minnesota but ended up dialing in from their Boston hotel rooms — went so well that the company is thinking of doing more training remotely. Business development representatives, who rarely work from home, set up more meetings with potential customers than they normally do, Fuller said. The impromptu experiment could drive the company to make more of these positions remote as it expands, Fuller said — “an interesting path for us to go down that we hadn’t fully investigated up until this point.”


But this rush to go remote could backfire if it’s not done correctly, experts warn.

If a company really wants to understand the scope of potential problems, it should conduct a two-week trial, said Laurel Farrer, a telecommuting strategist and founder of the Remote Work Association. “Anybody can work from home for a day with absolutely no effect whatsoever,” she said.

Executives often don’t realize the unique needs of remote workers, Farrer said. They have to deal with social isolation and a limited ability to communicate, and may not know exactly what’s expected of them. Yet companies’ mindset is often: “How hard can it be?” Farrer said. “You just take your laptop and you go home and bam, you’re a remote worker.”

If not implemented correctly, including putting legal and safety procedures in place, the experiment could put a damper on expanding remote work in the long term, Farrer said. Companies that try it and then retract it could risk making employees feel untrusted. IBM and Yahoo allowed employees to work from home without the proper support and then abruptly changed course, she noted, causing a massive outcry among employees.


"Now we have millions of companies all at the same time all over the world making the exact same mistake, and this could be incredibly dangerous," she said.

Fuze, a Boston-based cloud-based communications provider, is “strongly recommending” that its employees work from home through the end of March. Given what the company does, its employees are well equipped to do this, said chief people officer Elisa Gilmartin, but about 120 of the company’s 230 Boston employees are usually in the office. On Monday, only about 20 people trickled in, and on Tuesday, there were about 15. Keeping people home is about keeping employees and their families safe, Gilmartin said, but also about being a responsible part of the community. “The more that we can localize the impact, the better,” she said. “We’re doing what’s most prudent to really slow the spread of this.”

At Edmit, the Boston college financial advisory firm, the remote experiment is going well — the company is even having coffee delivered to employees’ homes — but there are no plans to make it permanent. Not only do you lose those “sparks of creativity” created by people being around each other, the president said, but being cooped up at home can be tough.

Ducoff remembers going “stir crazy” during the shelter-in-place directive after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. It only lasted 12 hours, but, he said, “It seemed like a year.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at Follow her @ktkjohnston.