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‘A magnet, not a mandate:’ How one Boston-area life insurer is rethinking the office, and doing away with HQ

Insurance company is adopting a ‘work from anywhere’ approach to attract and retain employees

Sun Life U.S. will no longer consider the Wellesley campus to be its headquarters.Photo courtesy of Sun Life

Wellesley-based Sun Life U.S. last week became one of the latest white-collar employers to delay their return-to-office plans because of a surge of COVID-19. And when the benefits provider’s local employees finally return to their office, it will no longer be considered the headquarters.

In fact, the US division of Toronto-based Sun Life will go without any headquarters at all.

The change reflects a shift in how Sun Life U.S. is approaching work, postpandemic. It employs 3,500 people, including about 1,200 in Massachusetts. But president Dan Fishbein told them in July that the vast majority will be able to work remotely, whenever they want to, well after the pandemic is over. Fishbein hopes that stripping the Wellesley location of its “head office” designation will help remove any perceived hierarchy among office locations, or between those who choose to come into the office and those who do not.

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“We want the office to be a magnet, not a mandate,” Fishbein said.

The main reason for the new policy, he said, is to provide more flexibility and work-life balance. Another key benefit is being able to hire from anywhere: Since January 2020, two-thirds of Sun Life’s new hires in the United States have joined with the understanding their jobs would be fully virtual, Fishbein said, and most of them don’t live near a Sun Life office. Fishbein said removing that geographic constraint is helping Sun Life with its diversity and inclusion efforts.

“It has supported us hiring some great talent that we never would have considered before,” Fishbein said.

Sun Life officials expect relatively few people will be in the office on a full-time basis, postpandemic. Nearly everyone has been remote for the past 16 or 17 months, he noted, and it has worked out just fine.

Workers in Wellesley who were surveyed about returning to the office offered more comments about commuting and its attendant headaches than they did about COVID-19, Fishbein said. Many have replaced those 90 minutes a day or so spent in the car with exercise, having dinner with their family, or doing more work.

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“Commuting is a really big issue that’s emerging of why people want to work differently,” he said.

Fishbein will be among those taking advantage of this newfound flexibility. A Maine resident, Fishbein said he and his wife had been renting a place in Massachusetts before the pandemic, returning to Maine on weekends. Now, Fishbein, who lives near Portland, expects he might be in Wellesley for a few days every other week.

For now, just a small group of employees, about 40 a day, is regularly coming into Sun Life’s offices in Wellesley, with much fewer going to its offices in southern Maine, and Windsor, Conn. That number won’t grow at least until a broader return-to-office date is established. On-site workers must show proof of vaccination, at least through the end of the year, and now they need to wear masks as well, even at their desks.

Fishbein said Sun Life would certainly reduce the amount of office space it occupies, though it’s too early to say by how much. Sun Life owns a roughly 375,000-square-foot, multibuilding campus in Wellesley, but was already leasing much of it out to other tenants before the pandemic; the company currently occupies about half the space, and plans to exit another 30,000 square feet in the near future. And next year, Sun Life will consolidate its offices in Scarborough and South Portland, Maine, into a new building on the Portland waterfront. But Fishbein said the new remote work policy is not being motivated by financial savings.

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Fishbein said the company plans to reconfigure much of the remaining space around convening and collaboration, noting that most meetings will occur via Zoom, no matter where employees are sitting.

Insurance companies tend to be more traditional when it comes to office space compared with Sun Life, Fishbein said.

Boston life insurer John Hancock, a similarly-sized US business that’s also owned by a Canadian parent, is paring back its office use as well, shifting to a hybrid model where most employees will spend three days a week in the office when they’re required to return in January, while hundreds more will remain remote on a full-time basis. Likewise, MFS Investment Management, a sister company of Sun Life U.S. based in Boston, is targeting early 2022 for a return-to-office date, with plans to put a “flexible hybrid model” in place. (For now, the fund manager’s 2,000 employees can go into the office voluntarily but they need to be vaccinated; a spokesman said fewer than 10 percent are doing so on any given day.)

The Sun Life policy reflects a shift that Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber, expects to occur at many white-collar employers nationwide, as they chart new models for their workforces after working remotely since March 2020.

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“I think we’re going to see a lot of experimentation from a lot of companies in what they want and what they need,” Reibman said. “Probably some of the decisions that are made now will look very different in a few years.”


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