Business

Biogen Idec provides coach commuting for suburban workers

Biogen Idec employees board a luxury  bus in Weston for the morning commute to Cambridge.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Biogen Idec employees board a luxury bus in Weston for the morning commute to Cambridge.

Early morning at the Weston offices of Biogen Idec Inc. finds the typical trickle of early risers pulling into the parking garage. But one group peels away from their colleagues heading into the adjacent offices to queue outside the garage for yet another leg in their daily commute.

At 6:50 a.m. sharp, a bright blue luxury motor coach wrapped in the logo of Biogen Idec pulls up and breathes in the 15 employees shivering in the December cold. While other commuters fight the traffic on their own or jostle onto crowded MBTA vehicles, the Biogen Idec employees settle into an hour or so of repose before another hectic workday begins.

“This bus is like a sanctuary; it has changed
my life,” said Susan Okuhara, an IT manager, as she settled into a soft leather seat. “You know
what it is like, sitting in traffic for hours every day, stressed out, feeling unproductive. Now I can relax. The worst part of my day is gone.”

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With the fierce competition among companies for talented workers seeming to be without end, along comes a new perk: concierge commuting, in the form of high-end buses that remove much of the hassle of the daily round trip. Like Biogen Idec, Boston Scientific launched a bus in June that collects city-living employees and shuttles them to its sprawling campus in Marlborough, some 30 miles outside of Boston. The buses are equipped with television service, fresh coffee, and Wi-Fi.

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“The bus was a major reason I even took a job with Biogen,” said Soo Hwang, an IT manager who lives in Marlborough and has three children. “Think about it: Because of the bus, my days are two hours longer than they used to be. And I am home in time to pick up the kids. It is fantastic.”

Biogen Idec said the bus service was a necessary perk for employees affected by the company’s unusual decision a year ago to move its corporate headquarters back to Cambridge, only three years after building a new campus in Weston.

“We want to be the best biotech company on the planet,” said Kenneth DiPietro, executive vice president for human resources. “If you are a talent in the biosciences, we want you here. We sure did not want to lose people in this relocation.”

Biogen Idec now has four bus lines bringing employees into Cambridge, originating in Worcester, Plymouth, Londonderry, and Marlborough, and is testing a fifth from Hampton, N.H.; about 180 riders are signed up.

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The Marlborough bus starts at 6:10 a.m., with stops in Sudbury, Wayland, and Weston. One recent morning there were 34 employees nestled into the coach by the time it made its final run into Cambridge, and a concentrated kind of quiet had settled over them.

Toward the rear of the bus, Troy Morgan, a compliance officer, opened his computer and plowed into e-mail, corresponding with colleagues in Japan and Europe over legal aspects of clinical trials the company is conducting.

Troy Morgan works on his laptop aboard the Biogen Bus that shuttles employees between the Weston Biogen campus and Cambridge Biogen campus. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Troy Morgan works on his laptop aboard the Biogen Bus that shuttles employees between the Weston Biogen campus and Cambridge Biogen campus.

“This bus has made a huge impact on quality of life for me,” Morgan said. “I often have to be on the phone early in the morning, but that’s not do-able when I drive. Now I can do online calls as I go and look at slides at the same time.”

Morgan paused for moment, then added: “You know, when I get to my actual office, I am ahead instead of behind.”

A few rows over, information technology manager Susan Okuhara conferred with a colleague about a problem that had come up the day before.

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“It is amazing how productive one can be on this bus,” Okuhara said, a comment repeatedly echoed by other riders.

Biogen Idec employee Susan Okuhara looks out the window aboard the Biogen Bus that shuttles employees between the Weston Biogen campus and Cambridge Biogen campus along the Massachusetts Turnpike. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Biogen Idec employee Susan Okuhara looks out the window aboard the Biogen Bus that shuttles employees between the Weston Biogen campus and Cambridge Biogen campus along the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Biogen Idec said the idea for the buses came from San Francisco, where Google, Microsoft, and Facebook provide high-end private bus service to transport thousands of employees to Silicon Valley some 40 miles away.

“We saw how some West Coast companies had done a nice job creating an experience around commuting,” DiPietro said. “We wanted to get people excited and make commuting unique for our employees, as well.”

In San Francisco, the private buses have triggered a backlash over the spiraling cost of housing and high incomes paid by those tech companies. On the other hand, the buses provide an environmental benefit by taking many cars off congested highways.

Biogen Idec will not say how much it is paying for the bus service. Employees pay about $50 per month, which represents the taxable portion of the commuting benefit. Outside contractors for the company can use the buses for a monthly fee of $336.

For the riders, the service can elicit cases of bus envy. Almost everyone mentions friends who work in Kendall Square and have asked: “So, can I take the bus?” The answer is: “Sorry, no.”

There is another benefit for employees caught up in the fast-paced environment of Kendall Square, where setting boundaries can be a challenge: The company bus leaves at 4:15 p.m. — sharp.

“So, I don’t have to argue with anyone about why I am leaving at four o’clock,” said Sundar Narayanasamy, who works in commercial drug supplies. “I just block it in my calendar, and people remind me that I can’t miss the bus.”

And missing the bus is a problem. The company provides vouchers for cab fares in emergencies, for example if someone is sick at home. But in general, riders are on their own if they miss the coach, which typically means a public transport odyssey several hours long or a cab ride.

By 7:15 a.m. the bus was headed east into a rising sun on the Massachusetts Turnpike; some employees were quietly working away, others catching a short nap. Outside, the traffic was moving at a crawl, prompting Donna Brock, a human resources executive who was part of the team that conceived of the service, to recall an earlier commute on the bus.

“One day I was looking out the window and there was this MBTA bus,” she said. “I could see people were cramped and uncomfortable, and here I was, sipping coffee and working away. I mean, how lucky we are.”

Stefanie Friedhoff can be reached
at stefanie.friedhoff@globe.com.
Follow her on twitter @Stefanie2000.