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When Massachusetts goes back to work, it won’t be business as usual

A picture of how working life may change emerges from interviews with more than a dozen CEOs and other executives planning for the day when the state begins easing COVID-19 restrictions.

At the start of her shift at Vibram factory in North Brookfield, an employee had her temperature checked by a plant supervisor.
At the start of her shift at Vibram factory in North Brookfield, an employee had her temperature checked by a plant supervisor.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

First there will be waiting.

At the T, as each train or bus runs with fewer passengers. Outside coffee shops and lunch places — those that managed to stay in business — while they serve just a few customers at a time. In the lobbies of office buildings, where nurses may take everyone’s temperature, and at the elevator bank, which probably will be limited to two or three riders per trip.

Then, in the office, you may see the same furniture but get a different vibe. More empty desks, as employers stagger schedules, allow some people to work remotely, and don’t bring back everyone who was laid off. The cubicle may make a comeback, while communal spaces are restricted. Trying to stay 6 feet from co-workers. Less face-to-face collaboration and fewer casual chats. Everyone in masks. The lingering smell of disinfectant.

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When Massachusetts goes back into work, it won’t be business as usual.

A picture of how working life may change emerges from interviews with more than a dozen CEOs and other executives planning for the day when the state begins easing COVID-19 restrictions. A common theme: Pre-coronavirus routines will give way to post-pandemic trial and error, a possibly shifting set of protocols, as businesses search for a new normal.

A woman looked at shoes in her hands in a shoe store Monday in Croatia.
A woman looked at shoes in her hands in a shoe store Monday in Croatia.DENIS LOVROVIC/AFP via Getty Images

"There is no question this is a paradigm-shift moment on how we are going to work,” said Doug Gensler, managing director of architecture firm Gensler in Boston, which is helping clients adapt work spaces to a post-COVID world.

Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday said the state’s stay-at-home advisory and closure of nonessential businesses will remain in effect through May 18, a two-week extension. But he said it’s time to start planning a gradual ramp up of the economy and announced a 17-member advisory panel to guide businesses for when the data show the coronavirus is being contained.

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There is a consensus — the product of research by academics, consultants, and government officials in formal and informal working groups — about when to reanimate the roughly 60 percent of the economy that was frozen or forced to work remotely to halt the pandemic.

The criteria include a 14-day reduction in COVID-19 cases, a significant increase in testing and tracking, adequate hospital capacity to handle the spike in cases that’s expected as people begin to reengage with each other, and resources to help the newly infected during self-quarantine.

Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday said the state’s stay-at-home advisory and closure of nonessential businesses will remain in effect through May 18
Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday said the state’s stay-at-home advisory and closure of nonessential businesses will remain in effect through May 18David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Once those conditions are in place, it’s expected that Baker will authorize opening nonessential workplaces, in phases, as long as procedures for social distancing, use of personal protective equipment, and enhanced hygiene can be followed.

The economic impact of the COVID shutdown has been devastating, particularly for lower-wage workers, said Stephen Pagliuca, one of the most prominent business leaders advising Baker on the reopening process. But the public’s health, he said, needs to outweigh business concerns.

“I don’t want to be in a society where we’re setting up systems for many people to die,” said Pagliuca, who is cochairman of investment firm Bain Capital and a co-owner of the Boston Celtics.

That’s the view from 30,000 feet, but when business people begin planning for what to do on the ground, they quickly get mired in a swamp of crucial questions.

Who can open first, and who will have to wait? Will workers feel safe riding public transportation. How many people can work safely in an office, store, or on the factory floor? Will some want to continue working remotely, either because they lack child care or fear infection? Will there be enough COVID tests and thermometers to monitor employees as they arrive at work?

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Answers are hard to come by. Some depend on the course of the virus, others hinge on decisions by political leaders, public health officials, employers, and landlords.

“We are planning for 15 different scenarios. There are so many questions we can’t get answered yet,” said Cindy Brown, chief executive of Boston Duck Tours.

Tests and temps

Absent a COVID-19 vaccine, scientists and economists say widespread testing is perhaps the best way to get the economy moving. Testing would not only allow health officials to keep close tabs on the coronavirus, it would also help people feel more comfortable going back to the workplace and all the other steps that entails, such as taking public transportation, riding elevators, and even eating lunch out.

While the state has been a leader in testing those who may have the virus, it does not appear that the Baker administration will roll out tests to the masses. Rather the administration is focused on contact tracing and targeted testing by figuring out who has been exposed and giving tests to them.

Many of the executives interviewed by the Globe said they would forgo testing due to the expense and instead rely on daily temperature checks and other measures to monitor the health of their workers.

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Michael Hansen, the CEO of publisher Cengage, is talking with Boston Consulting Group about sharing the cost of putting a nurse at the entrance of the Boston building they share to check for temps and other symptoms.

The rest of Hansen’s game plan for his textbook publishing company is similar to those at many other companies: Bring back employees in staggered shifts, in part to ensure enough distance between them. Give them flexibility to stay home if they feel unsafe, or need to be with their kids. Require everyone to wear masks in the office, though probably not gloves.

“We call it ‘return to office’ for lack of a better expression,” Hansen said. “I hate the label, ‘return to work.’ I think people have worked harder over the past four weeks than they ever did.”

Michael Tamasi, CEO of AccuRounds, a precision manufacturer in Avon, said if there were an easy and affordable way to test his employees, he would do so.

But short of that, Tamasi has had to develop a new way of running his 75-person factory, which has been operating because it was deemed an essential business.

Pieces of blue tape line the factory floors to remind people to stay 6 feet apart; workers wear masks, and stylus pens have been handed out to avoid human contact on touch screens. Employees must be vigilant about hand washing, and machines and the factory floor are fastidiously disinfected.

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Everyone used to eat lunch at the same time; now there are three lunch periods so people can spread out in the cafeteria, but workers don’t even do that anymore.

“Most people are eating in their cars,” said Tamasi.

Tamasi would like to check the temperature of his workers, but he is still waiting for his order of thermometers to come in. “There has been a run on thermometers,” he said.

The Vibram shoe sole factory in North Brookfield also has remained open, and since mid-March employees get their temperatures checked before their shift begins. At first, some workers didn’t know what to make of it. But for others, it was reassuring that the company wasn’t leaving anything to chance.

“We weren’t just coming in and being unsure about things,” said Laura Miner, a Vibram plant supervisor.

Turn and face the changes

Businesses are weighing changes far beyond the use of masks and deep cleanings.

Legal Sea Foods has closed all its restaurants, but CEO Roger Berkowitz isn’t sitting around waiting for the green light to reopen. Instead, he and his management team are rethinking every aspect of the business, which he concedes may have grown needlessly complex over the years.

“This crisis gives you pause,” said Berkowitz. “It gives you the opportunity to think about how you would change things."

Berkowitz wants Legal to do fewer things better. “I suspect we will have more simplified menus. Do I really need 150 different selections of wine?”

He also plans to reduce the company’s reliance on sit-down dining by expanding online and into supermarkets and food service.

At the Museum of Science, the crisis has pushed the museum to move faster into online programming. Moreover, president Tim Ritchie said the museum is rethinking everything from whether to require appointments, how to lay out its 100,000 square feet of exhibit space to encourage social distancing, and whether to require visitors to wear masks.

And then there are its raft of exhibits that encourage visitors to touch buttons and screens that will have to be rethought: “We can be interactive but not hands-on,” Ritchie said.

Mixed emotions

Despite our eagerness to get past the crisis, many people may find returning to the workplace disconcerting, if not frightening, while the virus is still circulating widely.

“People are legitimately very nervous,” said Carlos Aramayo, president of UNITE HERE Local 26, which has seen 95 percent of its 10,000 members in the Massachusetts hotel and food service industry lose their jobs since the COVID-19 outbreak.

As hard as Aramayo’s mostly low-wage members have been hit, he doesn’t want them pressured into working until it can be done safely.

“The last thing we want is another Biogen conference,” said Aramayo referring to the Cambridge life sciences company that held a leadership gathering in late February at the Marriott Long Wharf that was later linked to dozens of COVID-19 cases. “We have to do it in a way that is responsible.”

That sentiment is shared by Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who has been working closely with the Baker administration on combating the pandemic and planning the reopening of the city.

“We need to get it right,” Walsh said. “The economy and people’s livelihoods are on the line.”


Larry Edelman can be reached at larry.edelman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeNewsEd. Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.