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‘We’re not going to get the all clear’: More employers need to learn to live with COVID

Waiting for the virus to go away could mean never getting back to the office. Some white-collar companies aren’t waiting anymore.

Emma Lees, who leads the Cambridge offices of Bristol Myers Squibb, said she’s seen the benefits of a hybrid approach.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

There are many reasons why companies should continue to allow office workers to stay at home during a pandemic.

But as we approach the two-year anniversary of COVID-19′s arrival in Boston, these reasons are starting to feel like excuses. Enter inertia.

The professional world is divided into two camps: Those who long ago returned to regular in-person work, at least in some fashion (hospitals, universities, biotechs) and those who are still mostly hunkered down at home (financial services, tech firms, law offices).

There are hidden costs to keeping more than 100,000 employees at home waiting for the right moment to come back to our cubicles. Downtown remains a ghost town, restaurants are struggling, and MBTA trains rattle half-empty.


But what makes Boston so special is also in peril: our ability to collaborate and innovate like no other place in the world to develop life-saving drugs and other economy-altering ideas. Not one person has told me this is better done over Zoom.

It won’t be easy charting a path back to normalcy. But companies can no longer wait for the government to lead the way. It’s time for employers to control their own destiny. Some already have, but not enough.

“I know many organizations that have stayed fully open through Alpha, Delta, and even the Omicron surge,” said Joe Allen, an environmental health professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who has been advising organizations on how to safely manage COVID risks.

A discarded face mask on the sidewalk in Kendall Square.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Staying safe is no longer a matter of staying home. We know how to make the office a safe, healthy place through ventilation and masking. Allen points out that employers also possess a superpower that makes the workplace infinitely safer: mandating vaccinations.

Even though it’s clear the office can be made safe, Allen understands the hesitation among employers. It’s a complex decision managing differences in people’s perceptions of risk and a clear preference, among some, to spend less time commuting just to sit at a desk when they’ve proven the ability to work from home.


“There hasn’t been as much pressure to get back to the office,” Allen said.

It’s time, folks. It’s 2022, not 2020. We know so much more about COVID, and we live in one of the most vaccinated states in the country. Some companies are taking matters one step further and not only mandating vaccinations but also requiring employees to get boosted.

COVID fears are real, but they may no longer be rational. Consider a recent New York Times/Morning Consult survey of about 4,400 Americans indicated that those who are vaxxed or boosted are most worried about getting COVID within the next year, while the unvaccinated are the least concerned.

Yet so many of us are ready to move on. A Monmouth University poll released this week indicated that 7 out of 10 Americans agree with the sentiment that “it’s time we accept that COVID is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives.”

Exactly how we move on is where the private sector and smart CEOs can help. Returning to the office is daunting, but it’s not a mission impossible. It requires thoughtful planning and the expectation that any return comes with fits and starts. When case counts are low, more people should be in the office. When there’s a surge, it’s time to go remote again.


That’s living with COVID. That’s the new normal.

“What might qualify as a healthy and safe workplace in February 2022 might be different than in June 2022. There is growing understanding we need to adapt,” said Jim Tierney, market director for commercial real estate firm JLL New England. “If you have a static playbook, it’s not going to work out.”

He’s in the business of leasing and managing office space, and downtown towers remain eerily empty. Based on building card swipe data he’s seen for Greater Boston, occupancy dropped to 10 percent in December after being closer to 20 percent toward the end of last summer. That’s low, but it’s a huge improvement from the 5 percent figures seen at the end of 2020.

Tierney said he’s still seeing a spectrum of return-to-office plans. Some companies are back like the Before Times (consider JLL and its own 300-person office in Post Office Square), some have gone hybrid, and others continue to work remotely as return dates get pushed steadily into the future.

He understands how all the uncertainty with Omicron and the next variant can make some employers uneasy. But Tierney said that’s something we’re going to have to get used to.

“We’re not going to get the all clear,” said Tierney. “It takes a little willingness — just own it and try to figure it out.”

Take it from Emma Lees, who leads the Cambridge offices of Bristol Myers Squibb. About two-thirds of her 500-person staff work in the lab developing drugs, and they have been back since the summer of 2020.


As Omicron wanes, some businesses are starting to bring workers back to the office. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Corporate employees began trickling back the following summer in what Lees described as a “soft start,” first with managers coming in a few days a week. By the fall, more people were back on a hybrid schedule. People have worked well from home, and Lees no longer expects everyone to be on site everyday, herself included.

“I was sitting on the Turnpike for hours a day,” said Lees, who also heads the drug company’s Mechanisms of Cancer Resistance Thematic Research Center based in Cambridge. “There are things I don’t want to do again.”

To bring people back safely, the drug company began offering PCR tests in the summer of 2020 to anyone who wanted one. Later the company made weekly testing mandatory for employees who came on site. Bristol Myers also requires US employees to be vaccinated and strongly encourages boosters.

Lees could have kept her corporate staff remote, but she didn’t think it was fair that one group of employees could work from home, while others could not.

“The danger was that you created two different populations,” said Lees.

She also wanted to offer flexibility to all employees, which meant lab researchers, too, could work from home at least one day a week on tasks that don’t require in-person science.

“The key through the whole thing is talking to people, trying to be as flexible as possible,” said Lees. “What has been most important to our employees is we have trusted them.”


Her biggest piece of advice to employers crafting return-to-office plans?

“Don’t overthink it. Go and try it.”

When COVID-19 shut down Boston’s business world in March 2020, Synlogic chief executive Aoife Brennan was determined to find a path forward. The synthetic biology company became part of a group of a dozen life science firms in Kendall Square that banded together to provide screening for employees who had to return to their labs.

“You cannot have a princess complex and expect someone to come and solve your problems,” said Brennan.

At the time, tests cost about $80 each, or roughly $3,000 a week. Brennan didn’t blink at the investment. Before the pandemic, that’s how much her company would spend in two weeks on team lunches.

At first, she worried employees would see the offer of PCR tests as invasive. Instead, people appreciated how they could easily get tests that at times have proven difficult to schedule through the health care system. The perk enabled people to travel more readily or visit an elderly parent safely.

“It rapidly became the most valued benefit over the last two years,” said Brennan.

When rapid tests became available over the counter last year, Synlogic stocked them in its office supply closet and offered them free to the startup’s 85 employees. The company also provides free masks and requires vaccination.

Corporate staff started to come into the office two or three times a week last summer and fall, though it was limited to 50 people at a time. As the winter surge set in, Synlogic temporarily decided that only essential laboratory-based personnel would be on site.

Going forward, Synlogic is adopting what Brennan calls a “hub and home” approach. Certain tasks, such as lab research and team collaborations, are better done in the office, while reading, data reviews, and other independent work can be completed at home.

“We will never go back to how we worked in 2019,” said Brennan, but “everyone is so exhausted with Zoom.”

Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at