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Survey shows most office workers still won’t be coming back in January

No major shift seen after Labor Day, and nearly half of workers will still be remote post-COVID

Massachusetts Competitive Partnership CEO Jay Ash said: "People are less tethered to the office, and we need to ... consider that as we're thinking about fiscal policy."
Massachusetts Competitive Partnership CEO Jay Ash said: "People are less tethered to the office, and we need to ... consider that as we're thinking about fiscal policy."David L. Ryan

Many white-collar employers once pegged September as the time to start bringing people back to the office. But a new survey shows essentially no shift occurring next month after all, and relatively few changes are expected by early next year.

Two-thirds of local companies that responded to a poll led by the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership say at least 90 percent of their employees are still working remotely now. Even more telling: Of those employees who can work remotely, only 2 percent are choosing to come into the office.

When will most people head back to the office? Not anytime soon, apparently. Only about one-fifth of the workforce is expected to be back in September, essentially the same level as this month. And only two-fifths will be back by sometime in January.

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“Employers are saying in part that they don’t want to bring people in who can work from home [and] still be productive,” said Jay Ash, chief executive of the Partnership. “Almost as importantly, we don’t want to have too many people at our worksite, because we don’t want people to get sick and spread it amongst each other. ... You can’t afford to have all your people in the office, and have a virus ravage the office.”

That said, even after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, the poll indicates nearly half (47 percent) of these employees will still be working remotely some or all of the time.

These numbers could foretell a fundamental shift in the importance of centralized offices for employers, as well as potential economic development challenges for Massachusetts.

Consider these findings: 54 percent of respondents said they are considering reducing their overall office footprint in Massachusetts, while 60 percent are considering moving or allowing for more work to be done remotely out-of-state. The implications could be significant for transportation decisions, and for the small businesses that rely on the daily influx of office workers in downtown areas.

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“People are less tethered to their office,” said Ash, a former economic development secretary under Governor Charlie Baker. “We need to understand that and we need to consider that as we’re thinking about fiscal policy. ... What I’m worried about is that it will be more difficult for current and future [state] economic secretaries to be able to compete if we continue to be a high-cost state, a high regulatory state, a high-tax state.”

The survey was conducted in the first half of August, with 106 companies participating, representing nearly 130,000 employees in Massachusetts. The Partnership, also known as MACP, had assistance from several other statewide business groups, as well as the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and the Middlesex 3 Coalition. The respondents were primarily office employers, about half of them in Boston or Cambridge, with some manufacturers as well. Nearly 60 percent have at least 100 employees in the state; only 14 percent said they are currently offering COVID-19 testing for employees.

Ash said he had seen the reports of several large employers, including some members of his organization, not going back to the office until next year: MassMutual, Mass General Brigham, Wayfair among them. In many cases, a September return was jettisoned in favor of a 2021 return. Were these just “one-offs,” as Ash calls them? He wanted to know the prevalence of these postponed returns among the business community. Turns out, the wait until next year is widespread.

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Few companies seem to be in a rush to return. Only 16 percent said they would like to have more than the office occupancy restrictions currently imposed by state officials — up to 50 percent of normal capacity.

What’s holding them back? Among the top reasons cited: the wait for a substantial COVID-19 treatment or vaccine, employee sentiment, and school and child care issues.

John Regan, chief executive of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said education and child care are weighing heavily on the leaders of his member companies as well. (AIM did not participate in the latest MACP poll.) Toward that end, AIM is hosting a free webinar at 11 a.m. on Thursday about child care implications and employee retention in the COVID-19 era.

“More often than not, the kids are going to be home, and that’s going to be an issue that parents and kids are going to have to deal with,” Regan said.

Regardless of the poll results, Ash remains hopeful that the crowds will eventually return to the city — even if it takes a few years after the pandemic ends.

“I’ve got to believe five years after a vaccine, there’s going to be a desire to have more people return and have that collision and convergence [of ideas] that helps makes the Massachusetts economy as special as it is,” Ash said.


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