‘We’re never going back’: Here’s what a few experts say about the future of work and commuting

“I think we have to realize that we’ve opened Pandora's Box."

Lane Turner / The Boston Globe

Like it or not, “we’ve opened Pandora’s Box” when it comes to what the future of work and commuting may look like in Boston.

At least, that’s what Rosemary Sheehan of Massachusetts General Brigham believes.

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce hosted a panel discussion with Sheehan, the chief human resources officer for Massachusetts General Brigham, Monica Tibbits-Nutt, executive director for the 128 Business Council, and Joseph Aiello, senior fellow for International Environment and Resource Policy, the Fletcher School, Tufts University. Tibbits-Nutt and Aiello also served on the now-disbanded MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board as vice-chair and chair, respectively.


While the panel discussion was focused on the future of work and transportation, Tibbits-Nutt and Sheehan said that as far as they and their workers are concerned, the days of commuting every day are dead.

“I think we have to realize that we’ve opened Pandora’s Box, we’re never going back,” Sheehan said. “We have to adapt to this new way of working and new way of living, quite frankly.”

This is coming from one of the leaders of what is the largest employer in the state, according to the Boston Business Journal – roughly 74,000 people work there. 

When the pandemic first broke out, about 40,000 MGH employees were sent to work from home, Sheehan said. Realistically, about 25 percent of the organization can work fully remotely or via a hybrid model, while the remaining 75 do go into the office on a regular basis, but that may not be every day. Sometimes it’s two to three days a week.

But bringing people back to the office isn’t a one size fits all, Sheehan noted. There are some who enjoy getting out of the house, but others who may have a longer commute that are not as eager to head back.


“The key message we’re trying to convey is when you bring employees back into the office, it should be for meaningful collaborative events,” Sheehan said. Having someone commute a total of two hours each day only to sit in Zoom meetings isn’t worth it, she noted.

When MGH surveyed its workforce, Sheehan noted that avoiding the commute was the top reason why people enjoy remote work, and that was for all demographics.

“I was not a millennial issue or a boomer issue, it literally cut across all demographics,” she said. “They all felt that way.”

The feelings were similar at 128 Business Council, according to Tibbits-Nutt.

“Quite honestly at this point, meeting with my staff, there’s no way they would ever go back five days a week,” she said, “because it just doesn’t make sense, and I think when you’re talking about the work-life balance, this is probably the first thing we’ve done to move the needle to increase that balance for people.”

The biggest issue, when it comes to recruiting people and keeping them, has been commuting, Tibbits-Nutt said.

“Very few people, almost no one, has the ability to live near where they work, and much of the commonwealth, but especially when you’re talking about the 128 [corridor], there is just not enough housing supply,” she said.


Tibbits-Nutt noted that it’s already difficult to get employees currently, and it would be more difficult if they were told to commute every day.

“People will not come back five days a week,” she said. “I never, ever see that happening ever. You will never be able to get employees. No one’s gonna want to do that … It will never happen, and I honestly am not sure that it should.”

Then there’s the equity side of it, and that’s not just when it comes to income, but also considering the way commuting burdens parents, and those perhaps taking care of elderly family members. Working from home has been an equalizer, Tibbits-Nutt said. It’s given people the ability to work or live anywhere.

Then there’s housing, which Sheehan called MGH’s top issue. 

“The reason people have long commutes is that they’ve had to push way out,” Sheehan said. “They can’t afford to live near where they work. And so they’re not going to want to come into the office, and those who have to are essential workers. It’s a very inequitable system and so I think that’s probably top of mind for us.”

This isn’t just for workers, but also patients attempting to benefit from MGH’s healthcare, Sheehan said.

One thing she is concerned about is the cities where people used to gather.


“Because we’re anchor institutions, we’re going to be here, so what happens to the neighborhoods around where we are, if we dont’ have a lot of people coming in, what happens to those businesses?” she questioned. “And so of course we’re worried about that, but from a health equity lens, it’s housing. That’s our number one one issue.”

When it comes to housing and other regional issues, Aiello stressed that the MBTA needs to be brought into those talks.

“It can no longer be separated from the discussions of 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 cocoon.”

While he said the T is in a “much better place” than it was four years ago, with the last two years including recruiting important people and launches various initiatives, there’s still far to go.

“A big lift remains to get the T where it needs to be,” he said, citing issues with employee levels and dwindling federal aid, among other things. “Boston is a globally premier competitive regional market, it needs a transit authority that meets the same standard.”


This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com