Businesses around the world are all asking the same question: How will the return to the office work? Just as “fluid” was the watchword of the spring of 2020, “flexibility” will be the mantra during the fall of 2021, as people who haven’t seen their offices in a year and a half (or for some new hires, ever) resume commuting. One thing that must flex in Greater Boston? The way we commute.
People in Kendall Square are meeting this latest coronavirus pandemic moment imbued with pride in the outsized positive impact our companies and research institutions have had in curtailing the coronavirus pandemic and saving lives. Employers and employees alike are embracing hybrid work with a variety of approaches. Some companies are declaring fixed schedules (spoiler alert: you won’t find many of us in the office on Fridays) and others are leaving it to employees and managers to sort it out. We are going to learn, measure, and pivot a lot in the months ahead.
One thing is certain: Commuters can’t go back to Boston’s world-class traffic congestion.
The Kendall Square Association and MassINC completed a survey to learn more about how people at companies like Google, Microsoft, Pfizer, Bristol Myers Squibb, Biogen, Sanofi, and others are addressing reentry this summer and fall.
Of the nearly 1,000 Kendall Square employees who responded to the survey, 92 percent expressed a strong desire for staggered or flexible schedules and 79 percent anticipate working from home at least a few days a week. What does that mean for our commutes? A once in a lifetime chance to flatten Greater Boston’s notoriously congested “peaks,” with transit part of the solution.
Commuter rail service pre-pandemic was designed to serve those peaks, bunching service for the Monday-Friday 9 a.m. work start and 5 p.m. work end, with less service in the middle of the day. During the pandemic the commuter rail service has embraced hourly scheduling, which smooths out service throughout the day, making transit a more reliable — and flexible — option.
We’ve seen a lot of coverage about the Commonwealth-commissioned McKinsey & Company report predicting an abysmal 15 to 50 percent drop in commuter rail ridership. However, while our Kendall survey did show a small drop in employees who anticipate returning to transit as part of their regular commute, the numbers weren’t apocalyptic.
Fifty-seven percent of surveyed employees reported using public transit pre-pandemic as part of their daily commute, and 27 percent reported using it 2-3 times a week. In their return to work, the number of every working day public transit users drops to 24 percent, but the number of 2-3 times per week transit users jumps to 35 percent. That’s a strong indication of new work-from-home policies and a need for flexibility than it is a rejection of transit. In fact, over 80 percent of Kendall Square employees surveyed reported feeling comfortable taking public transit, including commuter rail, so long as everyone wears masks.
The MBTA should embrace this as the future of commuter behavior and partner with employers and riders to develop more flexible fares — a process that we understand will be complex and lengthy but, in the end, well worth it.
In a place fueled by science — the kind that has allowed us to gather with loved ones, eat at restaurants, and enjoy recreational activities again — we know a critical component of creating that comfort is getting everyone vaccinated. Ninety-six percent of Kendall employees surveyed are fully vaccinated. The comfort brought by highly vaccinated populations, paired with well-communicated policies about cleaning, social distancing, masking, and flexible schedules serve as our commuter roadmap to returning safely to work.
While the MBTA rolls out its “We’re Ready” campaign and works to deliver consistent and reliable service across all modes, employers are working hard to remove the barriers to flexible work. In Kendall Square, benefits packages are being revamped to make transit cheap or free and conference rooms are being retooled to enable meetings that are as effective for people in the room as those working from home. And nearly every company is working to address the anxiety that comes with making yet another big behavioral shift after a year and a half of intense stress.
While the pandemic has brought incredible hardship and uncertainty, each moment of transition has offered us an opportunity to rethink old habits and make improvements for our collective future and our individual health and happiness. In Kendall Square, we believe the future of commuting is on transit. See you on the T.
C.A. Webb is president of Kendall Square Association.