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At long last, employers are rolling out return-to-office plans (again)

The volume of morning commuters at South Station has increased, but the downtown business district is still a shell of itself.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Now that the Omicron threat is subsiding and COVID-19 restrictions are easing, large employers are again preparing to bring people back to the office, with several announcing return dates over the next six weeks.

For some companies, it will be a resumption of an aborted effort that began last year. For others, it will be the first time back since COVID-19 swept into Massachusetts two years ago. And for just about everyone, the new office plans will allow for at least some amount of remote work each week.

But the details of those plans, such as weekly in-office requirements and health protocols, vary widely.

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This week, a few thousand employees from State Street Corp., Bank of America, and TJX Cos. will be back to the office in hybrid form, commuting a few days a week. Wellington Management, CVS Health, and Putnam Investments will welcome more people back in mid-March, followed by the likes of Point32Health (Tufts/Harvard Pilgrim), Liberty Mutual, and Wayfair later in March or in April. And Akamai Technologies will welcome more workers back to its Kendall Square headquarters in May.

“As we approach this two-year mark, there’s a real desire to return to normal,” said Tamara Small, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, a real estate trade group. “We’re seeing more companies really saying, we’re now going to have a date where we’d like to have people come back.”

Commuters arrived at South Station in Boston during the morning rush on Feb. 23.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The movement back to the office after nearly all white-collar workers went home in March 2020 has been a series of fits and starts, as the pandemic dragged on. First, the focus was on Labor Day 2020, then on January 2021, and then last fall.

The Delta variant interrupted some fall plans. Then Omicron pushed many timelines out even further. Workers who had started to go into the office retreated to their homes, and others waited even longer for their first return-to-office dates.

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Many companies are giving employees the flexibility to decide when to head into the office. Fidelity Investments reopened its Boston office last week for employees who want to go in, after pausing the voluntary program in December, but it hasn’t set any required return date. And when restaurant-tech firm Toast reopens its Fenway headquarters to employees on March 14, most will be able to decide how often to return in-person, if they want to do it at all.

When Robert Bodian, managing partner of Mintz, sent an e-mail to the law firm’s employees about a formal return to office on April 4, he added that people should “give it some thought and do what works best” for them.

Half of Mintz’s nearly 1,200 employees work in the firm’s office near South Station, and Bodian knows how treacherous winter commutes can get, so weather factored into the decision to wait until April. He told his colleagues that they should expect to return for the equivalent of three days a week.

“There’s a general sense of, ‘It will be nice to start spending time with each other again,’ [but] flexibility is definitely going to be key,” Bodian said.

Starting in April, tech media and research firm IDG’s 500 employees in Needham can test out several working patterns — fully remote, fully in-person, or hybrid — for five months.

“We’re never going back to the way it used to be,” IDG chief executive Mohamad Ali said.

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Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said during a (still virtual) chamber meeting earlier this month that his membership’s approach is “all over the spectrum.” A few will require everyone back five days a week, and a few have gone completely remote.

“The great majority are somewhere in the middle,” Rooney said. “I think we’re in a few years of experimentation and figuring out what works.”

The patchwork of plans means the presence of office workers in downtown Boston will be unpredictable for a while. There’s hope that a mass return to the office, even in hybrid or sporadic form, will help resuscitate central business districts, where many cafes and other small businesses have shuttered or are on life support due to the loss of foot traffic.

A man checked his watch outside South Station during the morning commute in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Boston, in particular, has lagged other cities around the country.

Kastle Systems, a building security provider, reports that US offices, on average, are back to 36 percent of their pre-pandemic occupancy levels, based on a survey of keycard swipes in 10 major metro areas. (San Francisco is the lowest among those, at 25 percent.) Kastle doesn’t directly track swipes in Boston, but it does survey landlords. Ameet Amin, general manager of Kastle’s Northeast region, estimates Boston’s return rate is around 15 percent; it’s likely being held back, he said, by the city’s reliance on public transit and its winter weather.

Ted Lynch, a managing director at Bank of America at 100 Federal St., has been voluntarily commuting downtown three to four days a week since last summer.

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Ted Lynch, managing director at Bank of America arrived at South Station in Boston on Feb. 23.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Lynch enjoys working there, but he said the atmosphere in downtown Boston over the past few months has been “devastating.” On a given day, he estimates less than half of the firm’s employees work in-person, but that will change this week when Bank of America implements its return-to-work strategy.

The expectation in Boston is that all of the bank’s employees will be back in the office three to four days a week, Lynch said. Many people will see each other for the first time in two years. And he thinks recent office renovations — from collaboration spaces to foosball tables — will make the place more appealing to younger workers.

“There’s been so much life pulled out of the city, and we’re not going to get it back unless we are willing to go in,” he said.

For some employees, returning to the office in the coming weeks will involve a mix of mask-wearing, social distancing, and testing or vaccination requirements. Many of the larger employers have vaccine mandates.

While safety protocols may differ from company to company, Joseph Allen of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health said he thinks that’s only temporary. Mayor Michelle Wu has been relaxing COVID restrictions in Boston, recently lifting the city’s proof-of-vaccination mandate and hinting that the indoor mask mandate will be next to go.

Allen said businesses should keep safety measures top of mind, since employees might be wary of sitting in close proximity to coworkers again or taking public transportation.

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“It’s not ‘come back, we’re done with the pandemic, dismantle your COVID response team,’” Allen said.

Health concerns are certainly still valid, especially for immunocompromised workers and those with young, unvaccinated children, but Allen said “justifications for staying out of the office are becoming harder to find.”

A woman crossed Atlantic Avenue during the morning commute in Boston on Feb. 24.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Allowing remote work at this stage has become much less about employee safety and more about employee retention. Push workers to come in too frequently, the thinking goes, and employers risk losing them to another company with more flexibility.

“As employees, we want to maintain that semblance of work-life [balance],” said Steve Pemberton, chief human resources officer at Workhuman, an HR tech firm in Framingham. “My sense is that folks who mandate five days in the office will be in the minority. Even if they go down that path, they’re going to revert fairly quickly because of the retention issues.”

Despite the return-to-work movement that is underway, some firms are moving on a slower timeline. And others may never go back to the office.

While about 40 percent of Eastern Bank’s nearly 1,800 employees work in-person at bank branches and insurance offices, chief executive Bob Rivers said the rest prefer to work from home, and it may stay that way. The main reason: the commute.

“Generally, people have channeled a lot of that commuting time into actually working … in many cases working almost too much,” Rivers said. “There’s really no benefit in my mind to bring people back to the office to do work they can essentially do at home.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto. Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8 and on Instagram @anissagardizy.journalism.