When the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of office workers to begin working from home during the spring, many wondered whether they’d ever return to their cubicles. Many employers quickly discovered that work from home was both efficient and cost effective ― and that long-term they might be able to save money by reducing the amount of space companies needed to buy or lease.
Nearly eight months later ― with large swaths of office spaces still largely empty ― we asked some of the region’s top executives about what they think will happen when the threat of the virus subsides. They said their employees have shown they can do their jobs remotely, but few business leaders said they will ask workers to do that permanently on a full-time basis.
Many said they missed the chance interactions, serendipitous conversations, and easy flow of information that takes place in a physical space. And though most said they believe working from home will continue to be a bigger part of their cultures than it was before the pandemic, none said they expected to entirely abandon their offices.
Aron Ain | CEO | UKG (Ultimate Kronos Group)
“I want to be with the people I work with. I want to have that human interaction. I want to do it the way we used to do it. It’s an emotional thing for me," Ain said. “We’re being productive. We’re getting our work done, but it’s not as joyful.”
Lowell-based UKG, a maker of workforce management software that was known as Kronos before its merger this spring with Florida’s Ultimate Software, has long had a robust work-from-home culture. Ain said about 40 percent of his staff was primarily remote even before the pandemic.
“My philosophy has always been that I care more about what you do than where you do it and when you do it,” Ain said. But when he returned to the office for a brief visit a few weeks ago, Ain was, he said, so excited by the idea of seeing his colleagues again that he “felt like rolling around on the carpet in my office.”
Anthony Williams | chief human resources officer | Akamai Technologies
Williams said Akamai is doing whatever it can to keep employees from working more because the line between personal and work time has blurred. One particular area of concern to him has been an increasing reliance on meetings.
Solving this issue will be crucial as the Cambridge content delivery and cybersecurity firm looks toward giving employees more flexibility in how they work.
“We didn’t recognize how much got done at the water cooler, or how much got done by someone swinging by your office. So in absence of these chance meetings, or in absence of being able to bump into someone casually in the office and do business very quickly, you’ll get a 30-minute meeting on your calendar,” Williams said.
“If you add several 30-minute calendar meetings that would have normally been a hallway conversation, in addition to structured programs and meetings, I don’t know that I can totally quantify a time, but upwards of 20 to 25 percent more meetings are easily happening.”
Marisa J. Kelly | president | Suffolk University
Not everyone can stay home on the job. Some employees at Suffolk have had to stick around to attend to facilities needs, and more have returned as the university has begun welcoming back a limited number of students.
But Kelly said that even back-office employees who might have an easier time getting work done from home would be missing an important part of the experience of working at Suffolk if they never came back to campus.
“In higher education, and certainly at Suffolk, we do our jobs because we are motivated by our mission and our commitment to students,” Kelly said. “Being remote and being away from the opportunity to engage with students — just walking through the lobby of the building or in an elevator, and feeling their energy and excitement — I think that will be, over the long term, a morale issue.”
Niraj Shah | CEO | Wayfair
Shah said remote connections are no substitute for the experience of working together in the same physical space.
“While I have been impressed and proud of how our team has successfully transitioned to working from home, I have always believed that our most innovative work comes from in-person and, at times, spontaneous interactions with colleagues,” Shah said in an e-mail. “There is likely a role for work from home in the mix, but I think the office will remain the critical piece of how we work.”
Karen Kaplan | CEO | Hill Holliday
“Have we all proven that 100 percent remote work is feasible? Yes. Is it sustainable? No,” Kaplan said in an e-mail. “At least not in a creatively-driven business like Hill Holliday that is all about ideas, collaboration and innovation. We’ve all learned that people can be very productive from home when it comes to task-based work, but much of the work we do as an agency is team-based, and we’re really missing being physically together.”
Kaplan said the Boston advertising firm is rethinking “the future of work and the future of the workplace, including a reinvention of how we work and a reimagination of the role of our physical office space moving forward.”
“We’ve learned that there’s a difference between work and office, and how we will use our physical workplace more intentionally and flexibly as a place for teams to come together to collaborate, innovate and co-create.”
James E. Canales | president | Barr Foundation
Canales said he has tried to be clear with employees of the Boston philanthropic organization about the importance of taking personal time, because work is never more than a few rooms away.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of communication and the importance of overcommunication, and the importance of continuing to push the message that people need to take care of themselves,” Canales said. “Hopefully, as a result of that, the time that they engage with their work at the Barr Foundation is going to be more effective because they’ll know that they’ve attended to their other needs.”
John Plansky | executive vice president | State Street
Plansky, who is head of State Street’s return-to-work initiatives, said there are some things that will never be the same online. In-person interactions are far better for brainstorming, problem-solving and, especially, developing and conveying the company’s values, he said.
“We do want people in the office for a number of reasons. And it may not be on an everyday basis for everybody," Plansky said.
"When you’re trying to bring a new employee into the office, it’s really hard to do that and get the culture understood remotely. There’s something about coming to the office, face-to-face, getting to know people for the first time, that really works better in person.”
Corey E. Thomas | CEO | Rapid7
“The pandemic and remote work prompted us to fundamentally re-examine how we thought about work both in the office and out of it," the leader of the Boston cybersecurity firm said in a statement.
“Ultimately, our employees will have more flexibility, however, we believe in the value of personal connections to solve hard problems and foster innovation,” Thomas added. "The evolved office will focus on nurturing this creative problem solving and will be more purposeful than what we had in the past.”
Mark Bettencourt | managing partner | Goodwin Procter LLP
Bettencourt, who leads the Boston-based global law firm, said the organization might learn a few things from its increased use of remote collaboration during the pandemic. With 13 offices on three continents, Goodwin always has to think about how best to collaborate among farflung colleagues, Bettencourt said, and now it has many more experiences to draw from.
“We’re not going to go back to the way things were,” Bettencourt said. "The work world has changed irreversibly as a result of this experience.”
“We will use our offices differently. We will be physically present, probably, less frequently. But more intentionally when we are,” he added. “And the increased connectivity that we have experienced because we’ve been so intentional and purposeful about it over the past seven months, we hope that continues.”
Melanie Foley | executive vice president | Liberty Mutual
“In an odd way, we were at an advantage because even prior to COVID-19, we had an established remote-work culture that allows employees to remain connected and maintain strong, productive relationships with their co-workers and the company,” Foley, the Boston insurer’s chief talent officer, said in a statement. “Now on a much larger scale, this experience has affirmed our ability to successfully operate virtually as a global company.”
“The majority of our employees will continue to work virtually into the new year and we’ll be taking a phased approach in re-opening,” Foley said. “Our priority is that we do this right, rather than quickly, and we’ll remain thoughtful and flexible in our decisions.”