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Office work gets green light, but many white-collar employers will still stay home

Some companies are reluctant to force their workers to return to the workplace

Open floor plans, designed to foster collaboration in offices, are suddenly at odds with best practices in the era of coronavirus.
Open floor plans, designed to foster collaboration in offices, are suddenly at odds with best practices in the era of coronavirus.David L. Ryan

Governor Charlie Baker is allowing most offices across Massachusetts to start reopening on May 25, while those in Boston will remain shuttered until June 1.

But the real opening date for many white-collar employers, the day when companies call workers back? It’s much later than that.

In fact, hundreds of thousands of office workers will stay home for weeks, if not months, to come.

Executives say they’re too concerned about their workers’ health to force them to return quickly. Plus, bosses know that many employees have kids at home; with school out and summer camp up in the air, they need flexibility or child care.

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And many employers want more time to sort out the new rhythms of a workplace where symptoms are checked every day and social distancing is paramount.

“Working from home was the easy part,” said Lou Maiuri, chief operating officer at the financial services giant State Street Corp. “It’s ‘return-to-the-office’ that’s actually far more complicated.”

The Baker administration on Monday said businesses should initially limit their offices to less than 25 percent of total capacity. They also need to develop COVID-19 “control plans” to demonstrate how they are preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Boston might have an even lower capacity limit to start; Mayor Martin J. Walsh is slated to discuss the city’s plans on Tuesday.

The administration has been encouraging workers to stay at home, post-reopening. Toward that end, it released a list of employers on Friday that had committed to continuing work-from-home policies “for the foreseeable future,” to offer flexibility and to ease the demand on public transportation. More than 50 companies, representing at least 150,000 workers, said they would extend work-from-home policies at least through the end of the spring. Many will extend them into the summer, and some for the rest of 2020.

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Nearly all of the 10,000 local employees at State Street, one of the largest employers on Baker’s list, are working from home. (State Street is deemed by the state to be an essential business, so some workers, such as traders, go in now.) Maiuri said he expects some to trickle back by late June. But he doesn’t expect State Street to hit the 25 percent capacity limit until mid- to late summer. Temperature checks and masks will be part of the protocol; workers will be assigned specific zones to limit their movements.

At Dell Technologies, another big employer on Baker’s list, the return-to-office dates remain open-ended. About 90 percent of the Texas company’s 160,000 employees worldwide, including most of its 9,000-plus in Massachusetts, are working remotely right now. Dell has been working toward this moment for a while: Seven years ago, it set a goal of ensuring at least half of its workforce could participate in arrangements that include some remote work by 2020.

“Within two weeks, we enabled more than 90 percent,” said Howard Elias, Dell’s president of services and digital. “We’ll go back at a pace that makes sense in each local market . . . We’re very supportive of the governor’s plan to not rush back.”

The concern about returning too quickly is particularly acute for companies in the central business districts of Boston and Cambridge, whose employees rely heavily on the MBTA.

“We might have been one of the first to go out,” said Andrew Glincher, chief executive of the law firm Nixon Peabody, in the Financial District. “I can assure you we will not be one of the first to go back.”

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On Friday, Brightcove chief executive Jeff Ray told his nearly 650 employees, including 230-plus in Boston, that the video tech firm’s offices would be closed until Sept. 13. He approved stipends for workers to help them pay for home-office supplies.

Art Papas, chief executive of the staffing software firm Bullhorn, in Downtown Crossing, hasn’t set a return date yet. He said it’s probably not likely that his 250 employees in Boston will come back until the fall, or maybe 2021. He is taking it month by month.

“Even if we could go back into the office,” Papas said, “until there’s better control of the spread of the virus, why would we load the transportation system and, God forbid, load the hospital system?”

Many suburban employers are reluctant, too. At the Waltham cloud-computing company Dynatrace, Denise Mitchell, vice president of global human resources, said the 200 headquarters employees can start to return on June 8. But it will be voluntary. She doesn’t expect to hit 25 percent until late summer, at the earliest.

And at InkHouse, a Waltham public relations firm, chief executive Beth Monaghan has told all employees they will work from home through August, with the option to continue doing that through the end of the year.

Dan Fishbein, president of Sun Life US in Wellesley, said the insurer is weighing whether to include virus tests in its screenings. Workers would probably sit at every other desk, take the stairs instead of the elevators, and stay out of conference rooms while COVID-19 remains a threat. More permanent modifications could be necessary. He said it will be “more likely months than weeks” before the 1,200 workers at the office start to return.

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Yogesh Gupta, chief executive of Progress Software in Bedford, said his employees won’t start coming back until June 15, at the earliest. And even then, Gupta plans to allow people to work from home for a still-to-be-determined time.

“I don’t want to put a stake in the ground and make them panic for no reason,” Gupta said.

Plus, some typical aspects of office life won’t necessarily be there when they return.

“One of the things I truly enjoy doing is walking the halls and chatting with people,” Gupta said. “Now, we’re not going to be able to do that.”

For some, the idea of the office will be reshaped radically. Ian Campbell, chief executive at Nucleus Research in Boston, said he told his dozen employees they have the option to work wherever they want. One has already moved out of state, and others may follow. He calls COVID-19 a watershed moment for office life.

“I don’t think an office will be as valuable if we put up partitions and hand-washing stations everywhere,” Campbell said. “That takes the vibe out of it . . . Will we ever ramp back up to 100 percent? I don’t think that happens again.”

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Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.