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March sees more employees returning to the office

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Call it back-to-the-office march. With omicron now on the wane, employers around the nation are bringing more workers back on-site this month, but they're also finding flexibility is a must. NPR's Tovia Smith has this report.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Driving into downtown Boston, it's almost like the old days with no open parking spaces on the streets anymore and even challenges finding a parking garage.

SAMRAWIT EMBAYE: It's full right now...

SMITH: It's actually full.

EMBAYE: Yeah, really.

SMITH: Seeing life return to the heart of Boston's financial district is a thrill for garage attendant Samrawit Embaye.

EMBAYE: If you see people coming, you feel like you are living real life (laughter), and it make you happy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi, Denise (ph). How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good, thanks. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good.

SMITH: It's legal secretary Maureen McLallen's second day back to work in one of Boston's tallest skyscrapers. After two years working from home, returning to the office is like a homecoming.

MAUREEN MCLALLEN: Everybody was hugging each other. Oh, it's just such a blessing to be back. I missed everybody.

SMITH: It's good for the firm too, McLallen says, 'cause she'll be a lot more productive working in person with the attorney she supports.

MCLALLEN: It's hard doing email, but if I can actually go into his office, and I'll stand there and go, hey - I'll tap my foot - I need the answers - he has to answer me.

SMITH: For McLallen, the upsides far outweigh even her hourlong commute and having to get up three hours earlier to shower and dress.

MCLALLEN: I have to get used to wearing heels again. I'm in my flats right now.

PRAGADISH KALAIVANAN: Definitely. It's been an ordeal.

SMITH: Twenty-seven-year-old marketing analyst Pragadish Kalaivanan doesn't think it's worth it to come back to the office, where he's often less productive.

KALAIVANAN: Like this morning, I think we spent about half an hour discussing coffee alternatives like these mushroom blends and, like, these cacao alternatives (laughter).

SMITH: Working from home, he says, allows him better focus and flexibility.

KALAIVANAN: Sometimes I don't feel like working, maybe, in the afternoons, and I used to take a quick nap at home. And I would work, like, after dinner, when I want to do it, when I'm most creative because it's part of my job.

SMITH: Kalaivanan's firm is one of a growing number adopting a hybrid model. Companies from American Express to Meta and Citigroup, who are calling more workers back on-site this month, are also allowing some remote days. They're all too aware that requiring workers to come in every day may actually end up pushing them out the door. Attorney Brian Palmucci, in Boston for a court appearance, is among those happy to just meet people on Zoom instead of in-person.

BRIAN PALMUCCI: I'm kind of an introvert, so, you know, less human interaction sometimes can be a good thing.

SMITH: Plus, he says, COVID is still a concern.

PALMUCCI: I have two young kids, and I think the long-term health ramifications of COVID are unknown. And so it's a risk I'm not willing to take.

SMITH: But Andy Waugh, managing director at a large insurance broker, says coming back at least part-time is critical, especially for young and new workers. It's important, he says, for training, for employee advancement and for company culture.

ANDY WAUGH: How we operate, what our ethos is, how to do their jobs, how to treat clients - they've got to learn all that, and they won't see it from their kitchen.

SMITH: For now, Waugh says, coming in is still optional. Just about a third showed up for Day 1 and far less for Day 2. But even that is a boon for the restaurants and cafes in town, which have been struggling. At one nearby place, assistant manager Cesar Jordan says business spiked 30% in a week.

CESAR JORDAN: We are happy for that because we are hiring a lot of people back. Like, we can give them opportunities.

SMITH: And those employees, Jordan says, are more than happy to commute into the city for work.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.