Back-to-office plans are playing out much differently than anyone expected.
Anticipation for a momentous post-Labor Day return has come and gone, but now a growing number of employers are repopulating their offices gradually and on a voluntary basis, rather than pinning all their hopes — and anxieties — onto one date.
That model is unfolding in business districts from downtown Boston to Kendall Square, where some employers are starting to see more workers return, even as the Delta variant has delayed formal office reopenings. Companies have a wide range of masking, testing, and vaccine requirements, and even for the employees choosing to work in-person, concerns about public transportation and unvaccinated children at home persist.
At the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, which had about 1,000 scientists working in-person over the last year, any employee can come back to the Cambridge office starting Oct. 12 on a schedule worked out with their manager.
“We finally said, there’s not going to be a magic day when the virus goes away,” said Frances Brooks Taplett, the institution’s chief people officer, who added that several previous return dates have been delayed. “There’s something about getting over the hump, getting used to coming back, that we wanted to give people, before the time period stretched out so long that it became insurmountable.”
Meanwhile, on a recent workday, dozens of employees trickled out of Boston office buildings on State Street around lunchtime, with masks in hand or hung around their chins, returning with compostable to-go bowls from Sweetgreen or bright yellow sandwich sleeves from Al’s Cafe.
“It’s not nearly as many people [downtown] as there were before,” said Jennifer Newman during her lunch break. “I was able to walk right into [Al’s] and before, there would be a line out the door.”
Newman, 34, who works as a research scientist, said she’s been voluntarily commuting to downtown once a week from Wilmington on the commuter rail since June, when COVID restrictions were lifted in Massachusetts. It allows her to get out of the house after months of working remotely and have more engaging work meetings with colleagues.
Brayan Reyes, 23, a banking associate at Citizens Bank who started his job in June, chooses to work from his company’s downtown office four days a week.
“It is so early in my career, it just makes sense to get in-office exposure and be able to learn from everybody,” he said. “I expected more people to be out and about, especially during lunch.” Unlike some of his coworkers, he lives nearby and can walk to the office.
In some buildings that are open, signs of a pandemic are hard to spot.
“It looks like it did in February 2020,” said Andy Porter, the chief people experience officer at Relay Therapeutics, referring to his Kendall Square office setup. Last year, he was laying social distancing tape on the ground and mounting mirrors to the walls so people didn’t bump into each other when they turned corners.
Relay reopened its office over the summer with no pandemic restrictions and a voluntary hybrid model. All employees are vaccinated, except for a few medical exemptions, and masks are optional. Most employees use an app to pick their desk in the morning before coming into the office, since they’re no longer assigned. The biotech’s kitchen is open and three times a week Relay picks up the tab for a group lunch. On a busy day, Porter said, about 120 of the company’s 200 employees might be in the office and lab.
“We had a big debate that I’m sure a lot of companies are having: Do you mandate people to come back or ask them?” he said, adding that Relay chose the latter. “If people come into the office and they see that there are benefits to that … they’ll come back.”
Neighboring biotech Rubius Therapeutics also made its remote-to-hybrid transition optional.
“As people got vaccinated, if they wanted to come work onsite, that was fine,” said Theo Proukou, the company’s chief people officer. “We never had an approach of saying Labor Day would be a grand reopening and we’re going to cut tape, pop champagne, and reopen.”
C.A. Webb, president of the Kendall Square Association, said executives have told her, somewhat surprisingly, that going back elicits a “rapid return to comfort and familiarity,” rather than the ”scary moment some employees had thought it might be.”
“People had not realized how much they missed being together,” Webb said. “It’s like what Apple always tells you about their products ... you can’t predict that you want a computer that fits in your pockets.”
Still, Webb said Kendall Square looks nothing like what she anticipated for September before the Delta variant became a concern. The relative few working in-person are offset by decisions from large firms such as Akamai, Google, Facebook, and Amazon, which collectively employ thousands of people in Cambridge and pushed back their reopenings to next year. In Boston, John Hancock, Liberty Mutual, and PTC are among the big companies eyeing 2022 return dates.
That has major implications for the surrounding businesses and street life, which rely on a steady stream of people. Chef Steve “Nookie” Postal of Commonwealth, which used to be “the spot” for lunch and post-work drinks in Kendall Square, said businesses that rely on office workers are barely hanging on.
“I don’t blame the companies at all for making decisions for their employees. ... I can’t make people come back to work,” he said. “But in order to make it through this, we need help.”
He’s seen a slight uptick this month in the number of people walking around Cambridge, but he said there are no “back-to-work” corporate events on his calendar. People are still cautious about large gatherings and indoor dining, he said. Commonwealth’s weekly lunch crowd used to reach 400 people pre-pandemic, and now Postal said he’s lucky if he sees 50.
And fears of the virus continue to shape people’s daily routine in other ways. Taplett of the Broad Institute lives in Gloucester and drives to Cambridge instead of taking the commuter rail, and she said she’s seen a “tremendous increase” in others doing the same. She said she would be taking the train if not for her unvaccinated children at home.
Public transportation is also a worry for Newman, though she said she enjoys being back in her downtown office and chooses to go in.
“I feel less comfortable on the commuter rail than I did in June, because the trains are getting more crowded,” she said. “For me, once a week is fine, but anything more than that, I’d be worried about exposure.”