Governor Charlie Baker will hire an outside firm to study how much the remote-work trend will continue after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, and what that will mean for policy decisions and sectors of the state’s economy.
Baker referred to this effort during his annual speech on Thursday to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, delivered via video instead of the usual breakfast appearance at a swanky downtown hotel.
Bids are due to the governor’s office by March 1 for businesses that want to tackle the two-month task, and the winner would be picked about a week later. The basic ask: to conduct a comprehensive impact study based on projected post-pandemic demographic trends, the impact of those trends, and policy “guideposts” along the way. The governor’s office did not set a price on the job or put any limits on the kind of business that could conduct the study.
Baker has been regularly talking about the ramifications of increased remote work, including in his recent State of the Commonwealth Address, and asking employers and his own workforce about their projections and preferences. He expects that the work-from-home flexibility will be tough to shake off, once it’s safe to return to the office. Many office-bound employees probably won’t head to work all five days a week anymore, he said. And companies will likely pare back their travel and entertainment budgets, now that they have seen how they can make do with less. He also pointed to the effectiveness of the state government’s virtual job fairs and benefits enrollment “town halls” in recent months.
“For many organizations, the way they operate is going to be different, even when they get through the pandemic,” Baker told the nearly 400 chamber members attending virtually.
The post-pandemic policy implications could be huge. The governor’s office plans to study the potential impact on everything from state revenue to child care to MBTA ridership.
“We need to really kick the tires on a variety of scenarios here,” Baker said. “It has the potential, if we lean into it in the right way, for a lot of great things to happen. If we miss it and we aren’t strategic about the way we make investments … it will be a big missed opportunity.”
The other major issue Baker broached during his chamber remarks was the state’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Baker didn’t address the big news of the day: that the state’s vaccination scheduling website had crashed after appointments were opened up to residents between the ages of 65 and 74. But he did point out that the state’s vaccine supplies from the federal government, nearly 110,000 shots a week, have roughly represented just one-fourth of the demand, prompting his administration to make some tough decisions.
The issue of what the workplace will look like once those vaccines are more widely distributed and it is deemed safe to return to the office has been on the minds of many executives and policymakers lately. The state Senate, for example, last week launched a special committee aimed at “reimagining Massachusetts” post-pandemic to get ahead of potential changes to the economy.
Adam Hinds, the Pittsfield Democrat who is chairing the special committee, welcomed the governor’s impact study. He said the timing dovetails nicely with the work of the new committee: “A robust, rapid and equitable recovery requires an all-hands-on-deck effort and forward leaning thinking and investments.”
Chamber chief executive Jim Rooney said he was pleased to learn of Baker’s study. But he expressed caution in an e-mail, noting that many critical jobs require a physical presence. Rooney also said he hopes that employers will be given a chance to provide input.
“We need the experiences of residents, employees, and small business owners living through this pandemic and making difficult economic decisions embedded in the process,” Rooney said.