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Three days a week, in January. John Hancock unveils back-to-the-office plan for its Back Bay HQ

Voluntary returns begin Sept, 20, with a mix of remote and in-person work expected long-term

John Hancock said this week that it plans to bring workers back to its Back Bay campus in January, though most will only return three days a week.
John Hancock said this week that it plans to bring workers back to its Back Bay campus in January, though most will only return three days a week.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

One of Boston’s most prominent white-collar employers won’t be requiring workers to return to the office until January, and the bulk of the employees who do go back will probably spend only three days a week there.

That was the word on Wednesday from John Hancock president Marianne Harrison, the latest top local executive to unveil back-to-office timelines and protocols.

In a memo to John Hancock’s roughly 5,000 US employees, Harrison said the life insurer’s Back Bay headquarters will open to employees on a voluntary basis Sept. 20. Returning to the office will be optional through the end of the year, Harrison said, to help ease the transition and regain comfort with the commutes and other routines that were once a daily fact of life.

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Many John Hancock employees will adopt a hybrid model, showing up in the Back Bay on Mondays, Wednesdays and one flexible day, while working remotely the other two days.

The life insurer employs about 3,500 people in New England, although hundreds of them will continue to stay at home, in part because the company recently decided to close satellite offices in Westwood and Portsmouth, N.H. About 900 people used those two offices, and just a minority will shift to the Back Bay headquarters — a two-building, 715,000-square-foot complex that has seen only a skeleton crew since the COVID-19 pandemic sent most people home in March 2020.

John Hancock has no plans to downsize the Back Bay campus, which will eventually be occupied by about 2,500 people on the busiest days.

John Hancock and its Canadian parent company, Manulife Financial Corp., are also trying to put reasonable limits on the time spent in meetings, in part by requesting that they be limited to 45 minutes. Unvaccinated employees will be asked to wear masks in the office.

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Like many other Boston-area executives, Harrison is trying to balance the flexibility employees gained during this era of remote work with the importance of in-person collaboration.

“So much of my own experience as a member of this team comes from how excited I feel walking through the doors of the Berkeley and Clarendon [Street] offices, being able to think big together in person, grab a coffee in the cafeteria and catch up, or take a walking meeting through the Back Bay,” Harrison wrote. “So much of our success has been rooted in those one-off conversations we have post-meeting or bumping into someone in the hallway.”

That’s a common sentiment among bosses at big white-collar employers here, and most such companies are eyeing returns this summer or fall. But the details vary.

For example, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, the state’s largest health insurer, has told its 3,800 employees that it intends to allow optional returns to its offices in Boston, Quincy, Hingham, and Worcester Oct. 4 through the end of the year. Dell Technologies, with about 6,000 employees in the area, told its US workers their offices would reopen Sept. 7, but most of the workforce will have the option to work flexibly and not go in.

Aaron Jodka, director of research in Boston for the real estate brokerage Colliers, wrote on July 1 that the local market has hit a turning point, with more than 4 million people in Massachusetts fully vaccinated and workers starting to stream back to their old offices, with many employers expecting to reopen after Labor Day. Boston, he wrote, should start to feel more like Boston again by the end of September.

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“The ‘Great Return’ has begun,” Jodka added. “How it ultimately plays out remains an open question.”


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