Work world won’t be the same 

Pandemic-driven changes are here to stay

EARLY LAST YEAR when the coronavirus pandemic hit, the nature of work was transformed within days. For some that meant replacing office chairs with couch cushions or leaning into $600-a-week unemployment checks. For others it looked a lot scarier.

Dream Nail Lounge in Lynn was thriving the first few months of 2020. Owner Yajaira Toribio said business was steady and she was optimistic the salon was on a trajectory of growth. Then the state shutdown slammed the door on business. Suddenly her own livelihood and that of her staff was teetering on the edge of an invisible cliff. 

Toribio was plagued by anxiety. She couldn’t sleep. She had a family to support and she knew that her staff, many of whom were contractors, weren’t eligible for unemployment. “I was just thinking … people’s livelihoods are on my hands,” she remembers. 

More so than for others, workers in customer-facing jobs were hit with uncertainty, health risks, and financial devastation. This week’s episode of Mass Reboot, a Codcast series examining how COVID-19 affected Massachusetts and how the state is adjusting moving forward, explores who got to stay home during the pandemic and who had to strap on masks and step back out.

Work-from-home privileges were largely drawn along socioeconomic lines. Survey data from the MassINC Polling Group showed that by the end of March 2020, 87 percent of workers with advanced degrees reported having worked remotely, a figure that shrank to 34 percent for those without a college degree. Only 44 percent of people earning less than $50,000 a year and 40 percent of hourly workers worked from home, while 75 percent of those making over $100,000 and 74 percent of salaried workers did so. 

The return to work has been similarly uneven. Many of those who could stay home during the pandemic found they didn’t miss their commute, or even the community of the office, enough to return. JD Chesloff, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, said that a survey of the business organization’s members showed nearly 80 percent anticipate a hybrid work model going forward. 

Flexible work options have even become a bargaining chip between employers and potential employees. Chesloff said one of the first questions people interviewing for a job are now asking is whether they can work on a hybrid model. 

Remote work may be here to stay, but the switch has a ripple effect. Many businesses rely on their close proximity to densely populated buildings, where tides of workers guarantee foot traffic and, thus, customers. The thinning of urban areas is especially bad news for small businesses overall and Black-owned businesses in particular, according to Segun Idowu, CEO of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts. 

Idowu said that the majority of businesses owned and operated by people of color rely on in-person customers. This is the community that lost out when sidewalks cleared, but these owners were also less likely to benefit from government assistance in the aftermath. 

The Paycheck Protection Program that emerged under the CARES Act in March 2020 highlighted the fraught relationship between Black-owned businesses and banks. A MassINC Polling Group survey at the beginning of last summer showed that small businesses and businesses owned by people of color were less likely to apply and be approved for PPP loans. 

Similarly, Idowu said, when the state set aside $10 million to aid small businesses, word spread faster among the white community. By the time entrepreneurs of color applied, the minimal funding had been gobbled up by others.

Even as life stabilizes, businesses that rely on in-person transactions aren’t on solid ground. Especially now, with the surge of the Delta variant, Idowu worries that another wave of the virus could permanently shutter many more doors.  

Meet the Author

Lily Robinson

Summer intern, CommonWealth
What many hoped would be a steady trajectory toward a new normal has proven much less predictable, leaving a myriad of questions for business owners and leaders. What will happen to those just getting by if Massachusetts masks back up? Will employees return to offices in the fall? If not, will workers migrate to more desirable climates to Zoom in from temperate verandas? What will happen to all the empty office space companies no longer need?

“Bottom line,” said Libby Gormley, host of MassReboot, “Massachusetts is looking at dramatic changes.” She forecasts a hybrid future with a drop in business travel, less predictable swells of traffic for urban storefronts, and lots more Zoom time.