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COVID opened a 'Pandora's Box' in the landscape of work, executive says

Zoom panel on future of work in Mass.

Mass General Brigham Chief Human Resources Officer Rosemary Sheehan cautioned that the balance of remote and in-person work may never return to pre-pandemic norms during a panel discussion on Wednesday. Clockwise from top left are Sheenan; Monica Tibbits-Nutt, executive director of the 128 Business Council; Joe Aiello, senior fellow for the Tufts University Center for International Environment and Resource Policy; and Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce CEO James Rooney.

BOSTON — The widespread embrace of remote work during the COVID-19 crisis “opened Pandora’s Box” in Massachusetts, setting off an economy-wide evolution that will never fully reverse, the head of human resources for the state’s largest employer said Thursday.

As many workers and employers who turned to home offices in the past two years weigh their plans for the future, Mass General Brigham Chief Human Resources Officer Rosemary Sheehan said during a panel discussion that she does not expect the landscape of work will 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 stands in the midst of what one panelist called a “great sorting-out” with implications on the future of downtown spaces, transit and housing.

“We have to realize that we’ve opened Pandora’s Box,” Sheehan said at a virtual event hosted by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. “We’re never going back. We have to adapt to this new way of working and new way of living, quite frankly.”

Mass General Brigham — which according to the Boston Business Journal was the largest non-government employer in the state with nearly 73,000 employees last year — directed about 40,000 of its staff to work remotely when the pandemic hit in March 2020, Sheehan said.

The health care giant has since brought many workers back into offices and facilities, and Sheehan said a survey it ran last summer estimated about a quarter of MGB’s workforce is working in a hybrid or full remote pattern. But those who work in person, she said, are often not coming in every day.

Scores of workers in construction, retail, food service and other industries that depend on physical interactions were never able to shift to remote models, but among those for whom home offices were an option, the interest remains significant nearly two years since the pandemic upended the world.

Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce CEO James Rooney said his group’s members are “all over the spectrum” on work models, with the “great majority” still opting to keep a mix of in-person and virtual options in place.

Joe Aiello, a former transit official who today is 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 feels sometimes like a middle school science project, 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 changing gradually over time with more flexibility. Like any jolt, usually there’s an overreaction and a bit of hyperbole — ‘oh, we’re all going to work from home forever.’ I think we’ve gotten over that period, and now there’s this great sorting-out about how to move forward.”

Employee preference represents a key tension marbled into deliberations about how to balance remote and in-person hours. Without commutes to start and end the day, many people have put more hours directly into their jobs and boosted productivity or instead have made time for appointments, exercise, leisure and other activities important to a healthy work-life balance.

”People will not come back five days a week. I never ever see that happening, ever,” said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, executive director of the 128 Business Council.

”I agree,” Sheehan replied.

”You will never be able to get employees,” Tibbits-Nutt continued. “No one’s going to want to do that. We all know we still can’t get employees under these circumstances, but it will never happen. And I honestly am not sure that it should.”

Still, Sheehan said she worries that younger employees in particular may miss out on professional development opportunities if they spend less time in the office observing their colleagues and making in-person contacts.

A new, transformed model of work sends ripples into the state’s transportation systems, particularly the MBTA, which relies on fare revenue from commuting Boston-area employees for a chunk of its annual operating budget.

Before the omicron-fueled winter spike, average T ridership had rebounded to only around 50 percent of pre-COVID levels on the T’s subway lines, 50 percent on commuter rail lines and nearly 70 percent on bus routes.

Both Aiello and Tibbits-Nutt, who respectively chaired and vice-chaired the now-dissolved MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board, praised the agency for some of its COVID-era adaptation, including a new commuter rail schedule offering more service at traditionally off-peak times and flexibility in running buses based on demand.

In the long run, Aiello said, the most pressing questions for the agency are “less about COVID” and “more about us and how we as a region are going to move forward” to tackle issues like housing affordability and climate change.

”The MBTA has to be part of the discussion. It can no longer be separated from discussions about equity and housing,” he said. “It absolutely, positively has got to be at the table, and it traditionally hasn’t. It’s wanted to live in its own cocoon.”

Tibbits-Nutt said that she believes Massachusetts needs to do more work to have “shovel-ready” projects lined up at the MBTA and clearer goals about investments to ensure the state is in the mix for available federal dollars, particularly with a new infrastructure funding law in place.

”It’s going to have to be a collaboration not just with transportation, but with housing and economic development,” she said. “If we don’t start building in housing concerns into a lot of these transit projects, which I think this discussion around regional rail has, it’s going to be very, very hard to be competitive in getting these funds.”

Housing and transportation go hand in hand for most workers. Tibbits-Nutt said it remains “significantly cheaper to drive” to a Boston-area office than to take the commuter rail from one of its more distant stations, where monthly passes can cost hundreds of dollars.

And Sheehan said a lack of affordable housing is “top of mind” for MGB as well.

”The reason people have long commutes is they’ve had to push way out. They can’t afford to live near where they work, so they’re not going to want to come into the office, and then for those who have to — our essential workers — it’s a very inequitable system,” she said.

”People are going to live and work everywhere,” Sheehan added. “They’re going to have really flexible work models. They’re going to come in half days, they’re going to come in one day and next week it’s four days, and I think that’s hard for the T and the state to respond to.”

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