Returning to the office is taking longer than many people initially imagined, and the number of colleagues who come in every day will likely be changed for good.
That’s the word from the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership’s latest survey, conducted this spring and made public on Tuesday, of what office life will look like after the COVID-19 pandemic recedes. The business group’s employer survey covers some 113,500 employees in the state, working for 110 companies in various industries, primarily east of Interstate 495.
Roughly half of employees — 48 percent — who are now remote are expected to return to the office by September. Even by January 2022, that number goes up only slightly, to 61 percent. That’s a shift from the last time the Partnership surveyed employers in December, when the group’s polling indicated that 61 percent of the workforce would be back by September, and 81 percent in 2022.
And going forward, more than four-fifths (82 percent) of companies will offer fully remote or hybrid work arrangements, when relatively few did before the pandemic, reflecting similar results reported in April by the Massachusetts Business Roundtable. The main reason for the shift: Employees are telling their bosses they want more flexibility now. Partnership chairman Jeff Leiden, executive chairman at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, said the survey results reflect “how seriously employers are considering” the wishes of their workers.
“The vast majority of our employees want to work some of the time ‘at work’ and some of the time at home,” said Yogesh Gupta, chief executive of Bedford’s Progress Software. “There’s a very small number who wants to come in practically every day.”
Fridays could be particularly quiet, with most employers (51 percent) expecting to have the largest percentage of employees working remotely. Most companies expect to see the biggest crowds on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
“Now we have the appreciation that there are really talented people who are able to be productive remotely,” said Tom Hopcroft, chief executive of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council. “I think people were skeptical about that [before the pandemic].”
This shift could have tremendous consequences for small businesses that rely on a steady stream of office workers every day, and for transportation policy in Greater Boston.
One-third of employers — 33 percent — said they expect public transit use to increase or return to prepandemic levels, while slightly more than a third — 35 percent — expect their workers’ use of public transit to decrease modestly. Roughly one in six, or 16 percent, said they expect mass transit use by their employees will drop substantially.
Faced with these anticipated trends, business group A Better City issued a report on Tuesday, done in collaboration with the city of Boston, that urged the MBTA to work with employers to design products that reflect shifts from traditional peak-based commutes to more flexible schedules, and for cities to rework streets and sidewalks to allow for expanded dining, more walking and biking areas, and bus-priority lanes. ABC’s primary concerns revolve around fears of crippling traffic congestion returning or even worsening after the pandemic; state officials are already reporting the traffic is as bad now as it was in 2019 on many highways.
Then there’s the question of office space. More than a third (36 percent) of employers in the Partnership’s poll said they plan to pare back their physical footprint in Massachusetts, as more workers shift to hybrid or remote status. Only 6 percent said they expect a modest increase, and no employers predict a significant one.
For example, LogMeIn chief executive Bill Wagner has decided to halve the size of his Boston headquarters, normally home to about 600 workers. The provider of remote-work software on Tuesday announced plans to create a team focused on ensuring that the future hybrid experience is equitable and engaging for workers, and that they don’t feel left out or left behind if they spend most or all of their time working remotely.
LogMeIn will reopen its offices in July. But in a LinkedIn post on Tuesday, Wagner predicted that after an initial rush, the company likely will be left with partially-filled buildings. LogMeIn is “never going back to the office full time,” he said, and will not require people to come back for a set number of days each week. He warned his C-suite peers about thinking they have a perfect solution, saying “leaders need to get comfortable operating without a playbook, taking risks, and adopting a test and learn mentality.”
Another big question chief executives are confronting: What to do about employees who don’t get a COVID-19 vaccine? About one third said they’re likely to consider vaccine mandates, similar to a recent survey of primarily smaller employers conducted by the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber that showed about one out of four employers would require vaccines for employees at the workplace.
At PTC, the engineering software company began a voluntary return to its Seaport headquarters this month, for vaccinated employees. (The voluntary program will last until at least September, when the company’s new hybrid model will be adopted and its 1,250 Massachusetts employees will be expected to come in two to three days a week.) For insurer MassMutual, the process is similar: Face masks became optional in the workplace for vaccinated employees on June 1, although the return to the office remains voluntary until sometime in the fall.
Gupta, the Progress chief executive, said he’s requiring employees who aren’t vaccinated to wear masks and maintain social distancing in the office; as with most other big employers, Gupta doesn’t expect most colleagues to return until after Labor Day.
As a self-described “walk around the office” manager, Gupta expects it will be a bit weird to adjust to the smaller crowds once he does bring people back.
“I also fully understand that people realize spending an hour and a half or two hours a day commuting is a waste of their time and our time,” Gupta said. “I completely get it.”