We can all get back to business as usual when this protracted pandemic finally ends, right?
Probably not. Chief executives at white-collar companies in Massachusetts expect business to be anything but usual. Telecommuting, once an outlier, will be here to stay. Say hello to video screens, goodbye to corporate travel budgets. And the handshake may be a thing of the past.
As these corporate leaders try to envision what office life will look like on the other side, only one thing is clear: The “new normal” won’t look like the old one. “Offices will still play a very important part in our future,” says Dan Fishbein, president of benefits provider Sun Life Financial’s US operations, based in Wellesley. “But we’ll probably never use our offices the same way we did.”
Ask Stefania Mallett, chief executive of business catering marketplace ezCater, how things will change, and she’ll respond, “Have you heard the phrase ‘remote hybrid’ yet?” Most office employers seem to be preparing to adopt some form of this new model, in which many workers will be tied to an office but only come in a few days a week — or less. Assigned desks could be a thing of the past. And more employees, even key executives, will be hired without a single in-person interview.
“For most people, this period of time has been a real revelation,” Fishbein says, particularly when it comes to working outside of the office.
Like many Boston-area companies, ezCater is widening its talent pool by allowing employees to work remotely. In ezCater’s case, they can live in one of 22 states, not just the two where the company has physical offices. The pandemic has prompted many people to rethink their life choices and move closer to family members, for example, and Mallett wants to accommodate. When office life resumes, she anticipates making Wednesdays the prime in-office days, a midweek stitching together of the team’s social connections.
More day-to-day work will take place remotely, says Yuchun Lee, who runs Allego, a training software firm in Needham. Meeting up in person will be for specific goals, such as strengthening relationships and maintaining corporate culture. “The trick is, when you get people together, it’s about bonding,” he says.
Jeff Leiden, chairman of Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Boston, says returning to the office will in large part be driven by this need for social interaction: “It’s not just going to be everybody sitting at home with headphones, looking at the screen.”
Carol Bulman, the CEO of real estate brokerage Jack Conway & Co., has been surprised by the effectiveness of remote work for her 25-person corporate office in Norwell. She had never used Zoom before the pandemic, but now she’s sold. “I could be more flexible than I thought I could before,” Bulman says.
A cautionary note is sounded by Jim Heppelmann, president and CEO of PTC, an engineering software firm in Boston. He says the lack of casual interactions among employees makes the fully remote model unsustainable, and he doesn’t want headquarters employees to move so far away that it’s impossible to get to the Seaport office. “I’m fighting against the idea that we don’t collaborate face-to-face anymore,” he says.
Many executives planning new offices are going back to the drawing board. The general consensus is that they’ll need less space once they finally bring their teams back. In some places, more than half of their square footage could disappear. But Gus Malezis, president and CEO of Lexington health care IT security company Imprivata, says he’ll need significantly more meeting space as his headquarters becomes more of a convening spot than a place to grind out day-to-day work.
At Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, which will finish a merger with Tufts Health Plan early next year and is planning a new campus in Canton, expanded meeting space will include more audiovisual equipment to improve flexibility for in-office and remote work schedules, says chief executive Michael Carson.
Manny Lopes is already ripping up the old plans for a consolidated office space for the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center. Before COVID, Lopes planned on 50,000 square feet, plus parking for 300 people. Now, those numbers will be cut in half, or more. “Instead of investing in buildings now,” he says, “we’ll be investing in technology.”
CEOs are also reimagining their employee benefits, particularly for people who have kids or older parents to care for. Some have seen staff members resign because they didn’t have adequate child-care options. Even when school is back in session, Harvard Pilgrim is eyeing setting aside child-care space at the new Canton campus. At Sun Life, employees are now allowed to shift up to 12 hours a week outside of the 9-to-5 cycle, a change the company could continue after the pandemic subsides.
David Cancel, chief executive at Drift, a chatbot software firm in Boston, says it’s important that benefits don’t favor one class of workers, remote or in-person. He used to offer catered lunches to everyone in the office but, post-pandemic, “you don’t want to create this imbalance.”
The general consensus is this budget item will shrink significantly, as some managers note the cost and time savings of virtual meetings and wonder if they’ll ever need to hop on a plane for work again. Corporate travel spending, by some estimates, could drop 30 to 80 percent. “I don’t think it will ever go back to the way things were before,” Cancel says.
Vertex hasn’t allowed any business travel since March, Leiden says. And to a large extent, the company hasn’t missed a beat. With travel ground to a halt, Heppelmann of PTC says he can hold meetings with clients that take 20 minutes of his time, rather than two days.
Harvard Pilgrim’s Carson says many of the meetings he holds with health care CEOs around the country five or six times a year will be virtual in the new world order. “There are certain types of meetings that people felt had to happen in person that are going to turn to Zoom,” he says.
Clothing may have been a little too casual in the early days of the pandemic, says Malezis of Imprivata. But the trend toward more casual dress, happening long before COVID-19, will likely continue. He expects to see more people wearing jeans but not “scrubby ... work-on-the-garden stuff.”
Even CEOs have changed what they wear. “I’ve seen three jackets in the last seven months,” Fishbein says. “I was on a call with a group of CEOs a couple weeks ago, and most of them were wearing golf shirts.”
One pandemic accessory that might survive: face masks. Several executives say they might be more common on public transit and on airplanes, like in Japan, now that people have become more aware of airborne viruses.
So what happens to the handshake once we’re able to greet each other in person?
Allego’s Lee says it could take five to 10 years before we feel comfortable gripping each other’s palms again. He remembers trying to hug his grandmother in Taiwan long after the SARS epidemic ended and being given the cold shoulder. For many, the casual wave or elbow bump just isn’t quite the same. The handshake is “such a strong statement of commitment,” Malezis says. “But that may be one of the last things to come back.”