Many office buildings across Massachusetts were officially allowed to reopen their doors Tuesday, but few workers hurried back to their cubicles, and most employers didn’t ask them to.
The easing of restrictions on office work ― part of Governor Charlie Baker’s phased-in restart of the economy ― was a muted affair, with most major white-collar employers across Boston’s suburbs electing to keep their employees working from home as they have for more than two months. From Waltham to Marlborough, Canton to Cambridge, office building parking lots sat empty, traffic was light, and video chat remained the meeting venue of choice.
Several large Boston-area companies had already said they’ll stay mostly remote at least through the summer, and even those that are turning the lights back on are limited to 25 percent of normal capacity. Office buildings in Boston and Cambridge, meanwhile, remain closed until June 1, with some exceptions.
The lack of action at office parks around the region Tuesday served as a reminder that a resumption of anything resembling normal work life will be a long process.
“We’re seeing a limited amount of increased activity today,” said Derek Russell, vice president of operations at Cummings Properties, one of the largest office landlords in suburban Boston. “What we’re seeing and hearing is that companies are going to be careful and cautious about reoccupying spaces.”
And when they do, those spaces will be used differently than they were in early March, when businesses sent employees home to contain spread of the coronavirus. But as cases statewide continue to decrease, the scene at offices around the region will be starkly different from what workers saw two-plus months ago.
At the sprawling headquarters of Boston Scientific Corp. in Marlborough, for instance, employees and visitors alike will be directed to enter through a single main lobby. They will then proceed — 6 feet apart — through a line of stanchions, past signs asking questions about their health, before standing in a box taped to the floor to have their temperature taken by a heat-sensing camera. If it’s below 100.4 degrees, a security guard behind a sheet of plexiglass will let them in.
Inside, hallways are posted with signs urging people to keep moving, and to stay to the right. The cafeteria sits dark, and water fountains have been taped over.
On a tour Tuesday morning, Boston Scientific’s hallways were deserted, with just a few facilities workers moving about. Like many large companies, the medical device manufacturer is bringing employees back slowly. Currently, only people who can’t work remotely — researchers, mainly — are coming to the office, a spokeswoman said. They account for maybe 10 percent of the nearly 2,000 people who work on the Marlborough campus. Most corporate staff will be remote until at least August.
At Cambridge Discovery Park, an office complex near Alewife on the Cambridge-Arlington line, executives with owner The Bulfinch Companies estimate that it is seeing fewer than 1,000 employees and visitors daily, compared with the 5,000 that used to be typical. Some of the buildings’ tenants — mainly life-science companies — have remained open, but with far fewer workers on site. The cafeteria and gym are closed, and Bulfinch is exploring ways to make the most of its outdoor space as a way to limit the number of people indoors at any given time.
Like many newer office facilities, the buildings at Cambridge Discovery Park were designed to encourage social activity, something valued by companies that hire a lot of younger workers. Bulfinch president Robert Schlager said those kinds of gatherings are no longer possible.
“It is very hard for some of our tenants who are younger,” he said. “It is going to be a change for everyone, but especially those that are socially oriented like the millennial generation is today.”
For some businesses, life in the workplace may not feel all that different. Waltham drugmaker Arrakis Therapeutics is gradually bringing workers back, with a goal to have half of its 45-person staff in-house in three weeks, but they won’t all work on the same shift. Many, said chief executive Michael Gilman, are “wet-lab scientists who can’t do that in their kitchens.” He also noted they’re used to working in highly sanitized environments, with personal protective equipment. Now, they’ll add face masks to their wardrobe of lab coats, gloves, and eye protectors.
“It’s much safer to go to the lab than to go to the grocery store,” Gilman said.
Mechanical contractor E. M. Duggan replaced all the ductwork at its Canton headquarters and has increased cleaning — including through the use of fogging machines that can kill the virus — from five to seven nights a week, said executive vice president Len Monfredo. He estimated 40 or 50 out of 125 office staff were back last week, with many coming in on staggered shifts to avoid overcrowding.
“We want people to feel comfortable, to come back slowly,” Monfredo said. “We’re telling people do what you can. If you want to come back two days a week and work from home the rest of the time, that’s fine.”
And while office life may be more complicated than before, some people are eager to return.
John Geraci, managing partner at accounting and consulting firm LGA, said 12 to 18 employees have been coming to the firm’s Woburn office at least some of the time since early May, when it reopened as an “essential” business. They come for a change in scenery, he said, or to focus on their job in a way that’s harder to do in homes where there are young children.
“It helps avoid distraction,” said Geraci, who comes in three times a week, on average. “You’re back in the ‘zone’ again.”
For others, a trip to the office will be a new experience altogether. Some businesses ― tech firms, in particular ― have continued to hire during the pandemic and related shutdowns, and some of those new employees were reporting to work for the first time this week.
Denis Lussault is a new vice president at Vecna Robotics in Waltham, where 16 of the 70-person headquarters staff showed up on Tuesday. They arrived to find desks that were spread out — something the company accomplished by expanding to fill all of its 80,000-square-foot office, instead of the 60 percent it was using previously. The safety precautions were comforting, said Lussault, who didn’t feel he was taking a risk by going to work.
“I think the company was well-prepared,” he said. “And I needed to get out from my house.”
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