If it is indeed darkest before the dawn, executives in Massachusetts aren’t waiting for the sunshine to plan for a brighter day.
Two statewide business groups polled their members this month about the reopening of the economy. The results were somewhat all over the map. But look closely and a theme emerges: While most employers took significant hits to revenue during the state-mandated shutdown, they aren’t waiting for a government edict to plan a path back to the workplace (with coronavirus-related safeguards in mind).
To sum up the mood: guarded optimism. No one expects the boom times we enjoyed as recently as a few months ago to return anytime soon. And few business leaders seem eager to rush their employees back to the office, either, even if Governor Charlie Baker gives the green light on Monday.
But most are planning for stable or growing employment, not more job cuts, if these poll results are to be believed.
This is particularly important on a day when state officials reported that more than 1 million unemployment claims have been filed since mid-March in Massachusetts. (Cape Cod and the Berkshires have been hit particularly hard, according to the Pioneer Institute, with unemployment rates approaching 30 percent.)
One big caveat: These two groups are Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which has a large number of manufacturers as members, and the Mass Technology Leadership Council, which largely consists of software firms. Only a small number of respondents in the AIM survey were in the retail and hospitality sectors, two of the hardest hit by the pandemic.
Still, the vast majority of the roughly 250 respondents to the AIM poll lost revenue, with roughly one-fourth saying revenue declined by 40 percent or more because of the pandemic.
Now, the good news. More than half of respondents said they are currently operating, after being deemed an essential business by the Baker administration. Of the companies that laid off or furloughed employees in the AIM survey, 51 percent plan to bring all of those employees back once nonessential workplaces are allowed to reopen. Only 20 percent have no expectation of bringing any of them back.
MassTLC conducted two polls, both with smaller sample sizes (fewer than 100 respondents apiece). One-third of the tech executives who responded said they’re hiring now, and another 24 percent plan to hire in the summer. Only 12 percent said they have no plans to hire in the foreseeable future.
While more than half said they can reopen their offices within one week after the Baker administration allows it, all but a few of the smallest firms indicated they do not plan to do so. Instead, they will take their time, with many relying on telecommuting for months to come. Concerns about the safety of public transit and the need for child care seem to be the main reasons behind their reluctance.
EzCater chief executive Stefania Mallett misses the camaraderie and the brainstorming amid the group dynamics at her Boston catering startup’s office. But she’s not rushing to send her 500-plus employees back to work, in part because she doesn’t want to rejigger everything again if the virus situation worsens. She expects a phased return, with employees in her Boston, Denver, and Vancouver offices given the flexibility to decide whether to work from home before things get back to normal.
Mallett’s firm is among the ones that had big layoffs during the pandemic: About 420 people lost their jobs in early April. The nationwide office closures were bad for her business. But now that some markets are reopening, revenue is climbing and Mallett is thinking about hiring again. A company spokeswoman said the firm is seeking to fill two C-level jobs, as well as some software engineering roles.
Likewise, Artaic chief executive Ted Acworth is looking to fill two sales jobs to add to his roughly 20-person mosaic manufacturer in Boston. His firm is already busy with jobs for health care and government projects.
The recession isn’t over yet, not by a long shot. But even in the darkest of times, another business deal is just around the corner. The recovery could depend on the executives who choose to chase those opportunities.