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Boston employers are embarking on a grand experiment by shifting their offices to a hybrid model

CEOs are taking a trial-and-error approach as they gradually bring workers back this year

Software firm PTC has a bar and small kitchen area in its Boston work space. The company will be shifting to a hybrid model of work as its 6,700 employees return to the office.
Software firm PTC has a bar and small kitchen area in its Boston work space. The company will be shifting to a hybrid model of work as its 6,700 employees return to the office.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A grand experiment is about to take place in office buildings across Greater Boston, as many businesses begin reopening their offices to employees with newfound expectations around working from home.

What that means isn’t quite clear. Will all workers be required to come in a certain number of days a week? On the same days, or different days? How will sharing desks work? And how much office space will everyone really need?

The answers may vary widely. But a significant majority of office employers are poised to move away from mandating the five-day, in-person workweek.

A soon-to-be-released survey of about 50 large corporate members of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, conducted by McKinsey & Co., confirms that the typical routine has been turned on its head. Pre-pandemic, 90 percent of members expected employees to show up in person five days a week, while 10 percent had some form of a “hybrid” model.

Post-pandemic? Those numbers will flip. Nearly 80 percent of the respondents said they will embrace the hybrid approach. Only about 20 percent said they’ll return to five days a week in the office.

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The potential for real estate cost savings is huge. About 40 percent of the Roundtable members expect to shrink their local office footprints. Many companies are moving to smaller spaces or subleasing large sections of their offices. The amount of sublease space on the market in the city of Boston has set a new record as a result, according to real estate brokerage Colliers. That is the main reason 15.9 percent of the city’s office space is available, up from 8.7 percent in early 2020.

Boston-based LogMeIn was one of the first companies in the area to unveil plans to significantly pare back its office space, post-pandemic. Several other big names followed, ranging from fund managers Columbia Threadneedle and Loomis Sayles, both in Boston, to retailer BJ’s Wholesale Club, which picked a new headquarters in Marlborough that will be roughly two-thirds the size of its current one in Westborough.

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JD Chesloff, the Roundtable’s executive director, said the rent savings is a byproduct of the hybrid shift, not the driving force. Instead, managers view flexibility and remote work as a new corporate benefit. Now that workers have tasted freedom, it’s tough for many to return to the daily commute.

“It’s going to be about how you recruit and retain talent, and will probably get baked into benefits packages,” Chesloff said. “If you’re not commuting every day, does a commuter pass have as much value, or an on-site fitness center, or a subsidized cafeteria?”

Expect companies to keep experimenting, at least through the end of the year, said Chris Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council. Like Chesloff, Anderson doubts many CEOs will mandate which days most of their employees should come in or stay at home. He expects to see more systems installed for people to reserve their desks ahead of time, a practice known as hoteling that was catching on before the pandemic.

Both business groups are working with McKinsey to study the future of work. So is Governor Charlie Baker: The administration last month hired the consulting firm for $1.6 million to report back on what the state’s workforce patterns will look like after the pandemic is over. (The Baker administration is another major employer that recently said it is moving many workers to “hybrid mode” and shrinking its office footprint.)

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Bryan Hancock, a Washington-based partner at McKinsey who leads its talent work, said many employers have noticed that remote work has helped even the playing field between headquarters employees and those who work in other offices. It has also allowed workers to be recruited from anywhere in the country — of particular benefit to companies located far from tech and innovation hubs such as Boston or San Francisco.

With many employers not expected to bring workers back in full force until September, bosses still have some time to figure out everyone’s schedule — and to watch what the early adopters do.

Jill Larsen, chief people officer at Boston software firm PTC, knows her company will be shifting to a hybrid model as its 6,700 employees return to the office.
Jill Larsen, chief people officer at Boston software firm PTC, knows her company will be shifting to a hybrid model as its 6,700 employees return to the office.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Jill Larsen, chief people officer at Boston software firm PTC, knows her company will be shifting to a hybrid model as its 6,700 employees return to the office. Its experiment will begin in late May at its 250-person office in Israel, a country where most adults are vaccinated. The PTC workers there will be expected in the office two or three days a week, and will need either a proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, as required by Israeli law. Managers may ask employees to show up on certain days of the week, depending on meeting schedules or other activities that require an in-person presence.

PTC will survey employees to gauge their sentiments, in part to help guide the firm’s return to the office in the United States starting in July.

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“We’re using that as a pilot, to see what we learn [and] to make sure we’re prepared as we start to roll out to other countries,” Larsen said.

At Providence-based Citizens Financial Group, chief executive Bruce Van Saun said the company’s 11,000 non-branch employees will be expected to spend a minimum of one day a week in the office starting on June 1.

“We’re going to bring it back gradually,” Van Saun said. “We still value the office experience. It’s still important for culture and collaboration and mentoring young people. But we’re not going to jam everybody.”

He hopes the offices will gradually fill, but is allowing for some flexibility. One idea he’s considering: allowing workers who come every day to have a designated desk, while those who show up only once a week will need to check in to a temporary desk.

The concept has already been embraced by Cambridge marketing software firm HubSpot: A designated desk awaits those who want to come into an office three or more days a week, while those who come in less frequently will be allocated a “hotel desk” but will also receive an at-home desk setup.

HubSpot chief people officer Katie Burke has been fielding questions from other companies about the hybrid shift. So she wrote a blog post last month, answering some of the queries. For example, HubSpot made it clear it would not tie career opportunities within the company to whether employees choose to go fully in-person, hybrid, or fully remote.

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Major employers will continue to experiment, at least at the outset, as they balance the need to build culture with employees’ desire for more flexibility.

At financial services giant State Street Corp., most employees will start coming back in September. But chief executive Ron O’Hanley said his vaccinated senior managers could return much sooner, perhaps within the next two months, in part so they can start figuring out how the hybrid approach should work with their respective teams.

Eventually, O’Hanley expects State Street will design its new corporate headquarters, due to open on Congress Street in downtown Boston in early 2023, around what the executives learn.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink what’s the nature of work and what’s the nature of the office, and why you go to the office,” O’Hanley said. “I think it’s an exciting time to think about how work gets done.”


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