Top Exec: COVID opened up ‘Pandora’s Box’ work model


BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS) – The widespread adoption of remote work during the COVID-19 crisis has “opened Pandora’s box” in Massachusetts, triggering an economy-wide shift that will never fully reverse, said the head of human resources for the state’s largest company. the employer said Thursday.

As many workers and employers who have turned to home offices in the past two years are weighing their plans for the future, Mass Gen. Brigham, chief human resources officer, Rosemary Sheehan, told a roundtable that she does not expect the work landscape to ever return to pre-pandemic norms.

COVID-19 remains a potent threat, but with the state of emergency months in the rearview mirror and the availability of vaccines and treatments reducing health risks, Massachusetts finds itself in the midst of what one panelist called a “big sorting” with implications for the future of downtown spaces, public transit and housing. “We have to realize that we’ve opened Pandora’s box,” Sheehan said during a virtual event hosted by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. “We will never go back there. We have to adapt to this new way of working and this new way of life, quite frankly.

Mass General Brigham — who, according to the Boston Business Journal, was the state’s largest nongovernmental employer with nearly 73,000 employees last year — ordered about 40,000 of its staff to work remotely when the pandemic hit in March 2020, Sheehan said. The healthcare giant has since brought many workers back to offices and facilities, and Sheehan said a survey he conducted last summer estimated that around a quarter of MGB’s workforce worked in a hybrid or fully remote model. But those who work in person, she said, often don’t come every day.

Dozens of workers in construction, retail, restaurants and other industries that depend on physical interactions were never able to switch to remote models, but among those for whom home offices were an option , interest remains high nearly two years since the pandemic upended the world. Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce CEO James Rooney said his group members are “across the spectrum” on working models, with the “vast majority” still choosing to keep a mix of options in person and virtual in place.

Joe Aiello, a former public transit official who is now a senior fellow at the Tufts University Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, described the state of play as “a period of experimentation.” “It sometimes feels like a science project in middle school, and you don’t know if it’s going to work when you get in front of the teacher,” Aiello said. “COVID sent a jolt to the story of how the workplace was gradually changing over time with more flexibility. Like any jolt, there is usually an overreaction and a bit of hyperbole – “oh, we’re all going to be working from home forever.” I think we’re past that period, and now there’s this big sorting out of how to move forward.

Employee preference represents a key marbled tension in deliberations about how to balance remote and in-person hours. Without commutes to start and end the day, many people spent more hours directly at work and increased productivity or instead set aside time for appointments, exercise, hobbies and other activities. important for a healthy work-life balance. “People won’t come back five days a week. I never see that happening, ever,” said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, executive director of 128 Business Council. “I agree,” Sheehan replied. “You’ll never be able to find employees,” Tibbits-Nutt continued. “Nobody will want to do that. We all know that we still cannot recruit employees under these circumstances, but that will never happen. And honestly, I’m not sure that should be the case.

Still, Sheehan said she worries younger employees, in particular, will miss out on professional development opportunities if they spend less time in the office shadowing co-workers and making in-person connections. A transformed new work model is sending ripples through the state’s transportation systems, particularly the MBTA, which depends on Boston-area employee fare revenue for a portion of its annual operating budget. Prior to the omicron-fueled winter spike, average T ridership had rebounded to only about 50% of pre-COVID levels on the T’s subway lines, 50% on commuter rail lines and nearly 70% on bus lines.

Aiello and Tibbits-Nutt, who respectively chaired and vice-chaired the now disbanded MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board, praised the agency for some of its adaptation to the COVID era, including a new train schedule from suburbs offering more services at traditionally off-peak hours and flexibility in managing buses according to demand.

In the long term, Aiello said, the most pressing questions for the agency are “less about COVID” and “more about us and how we as a region will move forward” to address issues such as housing affordability and climate change. “The MBTA needs to be part of the discussion. This can no longer be separated from discussions of equity and housing,” he said. “He absolutely, positively needs to be at the table, and usually isn’t. He wanted to live in his own cocoon.

Tibbits-Nutt said she thinks Massachusetts needs to do more work to have “shovel-ready” projects aligned with the MBTA and clearer goals around investments to ensure the state is in the mix for federal dollars available, especially with a new infrastructure funding act in place. “It’s going to take collaboration not just with transportation, but with housing and economic development,” she said. “If we don’t start integrating housing issues into a lot of these transit projects, which I think this regional rail discussion has, it’s going to be very, very difficult to be competitive to get these funds.”

Housing and transportation go hand in hand for most workers. Tibbits-Nutt said it’s still “much cheaper to drive” to a Boston-area office than to take the commuter rail from one of its more remote stations, where monthly passes can cost hundreds of dollars. And Sheehan said the lack of affordable housing was also “a priority” for MGB.

“The reason people have long commutes is that they had to go out. They can’t afford to live close to where they work, so they won’t want to come into the office, and then for those who have to – our essential workers – it’s a very unfair system,” he said. she declared. “People are going to live and work everywhere,” Sheehan added. “They’re going to have really flexible work models. They’re coming in half a day, they’re coming in a day, and next week it’s going to be four days, and I think it’s hard for the T and the state to respond.


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