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Return-to-office pushes can cause a ‘riot.’ These Boston-area companies are trying anyway.

Boston workers don’t want to work in person, but companies persist
WATCH: Employers are increasing in-office mandates and being creative in how they go about it. Reporter Katie Johnston predicts how long hybrid work will last.

Dave Porter was ready to bring his people back into the office on Fridays. They’d been working Monday through Thursday at the Seaport headquarters of Baystate Financial for nearly three years, but the workplace just didn’t seem as lively and collaborative as it did when everyone came in five days a week.

When Porter broached the topic at a meeting in November, however, “the body language got really bad,” he said. People slumped in their chairs. One employee did a Google search and announced “nobody is back” five days a week. A new hire proclaimed, “I wouldn’t have taken this job if I’d known I had to come in on Fridays.”

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Abigale Shields, the firm’s director of financial planning, was bombarded with messages from staffers after the meeting and conveyed their dismay to Porter. “I think I used the word ‘riot,’ ” she said.

Nearly four years after the pandemic upended the longstanding Monday-through-Friday commute for many white-collar workers, most employers have settled into a hybrid arrangement. Office occupancy has been about 50 percent for the past year in major metro areas studied by Kastle Systems, and only 4 percent of CEOs said bringing workers back full time is a priority, according to a new survey by The Conference Board.

“I think that’s a thing of the past,” said Harvard Business School professor Prithwiraj Choudhury, whose recent study identifies the “sweet spot” for hybrid work as two days a week in the office, on average, for optimum job satisfaction, work-life balance, and performance.

Still, a growing number of managers want butts in seats more often, citing the connections, collaborations, and innovations that in-person work can bring. State Street Corp., for instance, the Boston financial services firm, brought people back four days a week in November. Last year, 88 percent of employers nationwide said they expected workers to be in a certain number of days a week, up from 69 percent in 2022, according to a customer survey by Robin, the Boston workplace management software company.

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But the increasing number of return-to-office directives being issued could backfire. New research from the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business found that RTO mandates diminish employees’ job satisfaction and don’t improve employers’ financial performance.

Many companies are proceeding with creativity, and caution — encouraging attendance instead of requiring it, in many cases, well aware that people have become very attached to working from home. Almost three-quarters of human resources professionals told researchers at the University of Chicago that getting workers back to the office has been an issue; a fifth described it as a “major problem.” David Solomon, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, one of several major companies back in the office full time, admitted that getting people to come in on Fridays has been a challenge.

Indeed, about half of recent US job candidates at Copyright Clearance Center in Danvers, which has no in-office requirements, have told hiring managers they are looking for new jobs because of return-to-office mandates at their current employers.

Abigale Shields, director of financial planning at Bay State Financial, poses for a portrait at the company's Seaport office. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

But not all RTO mandates are created equal. Employees at MassMutual, the Springfield-based life insurance provider, started coming in at least three days a week in September but work off-site the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and July Fourth and can take an additional four remote weeks of their choosing.

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At Baystate Financial, Porter listened to workers’ concerns about losing work-from-home Fridays, many revolving around their “brutal commute” into the Seaport. For Shields, who spends an hour each way to get there via ferry from Hingham, the best part of working from home on Fridays is having breakfast with her 3-year-old son. The thought of losing that left her feeling “deflated.”

So, last month, Porter announced a compromise. If the company hits its quarterly goals, which bonuses are already tied to, the roughly 300 people who work in the company’s 12 offices could work from home on Fridays for the next quarter. (The 600 financial advisers on staff have always had a flexible schedule). Employees are already paying closer attention to the firm’s performance, Porter said: “The whole company is going in the same direction now.”

But the threat of a riot still looms. “There’s going to be . . . another wave of anger if we don’t hit those goals,” Shields said.

Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco who examined 43 industries found that remote work has not had an impact on productivity. Still, some employers are so determined to make sure people are in the office that they’re tracking attendance. Eighty percent of 800 employers surveyed by ResumeBuilder.com in December said they planned to monitor employees’ badge swipes or Wi-Fi logins or even use sensors under workers’ desks. Google is among those tracking badge swipes for its three-day-a-week in-office policy, according to CNBC, and plans to include office attendance in performance reviews.

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Some workers are finding ways around these methods. Nearly 60 percent of hybrid workers surveyed by Owl Labs, the Boston video-conference provider, said they have “coffee badged,” meaning, went into the office for a few hours to show their face.

At some companies, in-office requirements are focused on new hires. The Boston staffing agency The Hollister Group expects all new employees to come in at least three days a week for the first few months. Chief executive Kip Hollister, who has been “slow dripping” people back into the office, recently started basing each person’s in-office attendance on their individual performance and allows employees who have been doing well remotely to come and go as they please.

“We want that as a carrot,” she said.

The new approach will be “a wake-up call but also a gift” for those who aren’t performing well, said Hollister, who isn’t worried about it being viewed as punishment: “If coming into the office . . . is going to help you be more productive and have greater results, won’t you want that for yourself?”

As the CEO of a staffing firm, Hollister is well aware how hard it is for employers who require more than three days a week on-site to attract talent. But sometimes, that’s what it takes.

Susan Kreis, operations manager at Baystate Financial, spoke with Abigale Shields, director of financial planning, while in their Seaport office.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

One of her managers recently suggested that a sales associate start coming in four days a week instead of three to learn and help boost his staffing placement numbers. The associate, Nicolas Coppolo, 23, who has been there for just over a year, acknowledged that being around more experienced colleagues is helpful, even if it’s just overhearing how they talk to clients on the phone.

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At the Boston marketing automation provider Klaviyo, where employees live determines their in-office expectations. Starting this month, anyone who lives within 30 miles of a US hub in Boston, Denver, and one opening soon in San Mateo is supposed to come in twice a week — Tuesday and Thursday for most teams — a change from last year, when those within 50 miles came in three days a week every six weeks.

Commuter benefits have also increased from $90 to $300 a month.

Remote hiring, which was responsible for more than half of the company’s growth during the pandemic, has also come to an end, and some positions are now taking longer to fill, said Klaviyo chief people officer Lisa Maronski.

The twice-a-week, 30-mile policy applies to just over 60 percent of the company’s 1,800 employees, but exemptions are being granted.

Tori Shulman, Klaviyo’s senior manager of performance media, lives in Westwood and takes the commuter rail in twice a week. A new hire on her team who lives just beyond the 30-mile mark has also been coming in two days a week, but if she needs to scale back, that’s fine, too.

“Ultimately, the goal is for each individual to do their best work,” Shulman said.

To Maronski’s knowledge, so far no one has left Klaviyo over the new policy: “I don’t have anyone that specifically said, ‘I am out. I’m quitting because, you know, two days a week is just completely crazy.’ “


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her @ktkjohnston.