Kennealy: Remote work puts spotlight on cost of living issues

Massachusetts

A student listens to a live lecture on a laptop computer at home during a remote learning class in Princeton, Illinois, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. Illinois reported 1,337 new coronavirus cases Wednesday as the state’s positivity rate dropped below 4% for the first time in weeks. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

BOSTON (SHNS) – Remote work can make it easier for employers to attract candidates and for students to explore prospective careers, but when coupled with the high costs of living here it could also create a competitive disadvantage for Massachusetts, panelists said at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce event.

With many still-remote companies eyeing fall returns to the office — in some cases delayed because of concerns around the Delta variant of COVID-19 — policymakers, workers and business are watching with interest to see what pandemic trends remain long-term parts of the professional landscape.

During a virtual discussion on the future of work, Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy said equity and competitiveness are two main principles the state needs to keep in mind as it prepares for economic shifts brought on by hybrid and remote work models.

That means minimizing the state’s weaknesses, doubling down on its strengths, and keeping in mind the disproportionate impact of changes on women, people of color, and workers with a high school degree or less education, he said.

Kennealy pointed to the high cost of housing as one issue where these factors are at play.

“We’re at risk in a world where people can work in a hybrid or remote model, we could be at risk of job growth happening outside of Massachusetts versus in Massachusetts,” he said. “We’ve got to look at the cost of living and working in Massachusetts, and housing is foremost among our concerns.”

Scott Couto, head of North America for Columbia Threadneedle Investments, said his company had been moving toward a hybrid work model before COVID-19 took hold, starting with thinking about what tasks could be done from outside the office.

“I thought that it was the definition of insanity to ask a young professional who sits in front of a computer screen and maybe talks on the telephone for a big part of her day to drive an hour to get into the office, to drive an hour home, when the technology exists to facilitate all that engagement remotely,” he said.

Couto said the asset management firm has started to “build some new cultural norms” around its hybrid work model. Wellesley College President Paula Johnson said such efforts to rethink an office’s culture can present an opportunity to better incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

In response, Couto said he thought her point was an important one and is an idea that’s become a part of his company’s recruitment.

“We just made a job offer to a young professional who didn’t want to live in Boston,” he said. “Quite frankly, we would not have had the opportunity to hire this person. She’d like to be in Chicago. That’s fine. There’s another case where we’ve got another person from an underrepresented group that wants to live and work in Atlanta, and we’ve made that work, so we’re seeing that in very, very strong ways, so I think it will help our diversity over time.”

Though Couto presented that situation as a positive, Kennealy said it represented “exactly the dynamic I’m worried about” from a competitiveness standpoint.

“We have in our economy, particularly in greater Boston, vast numbers of people working in technology, professional services and financial services, in jobs that can be done remotely, and they may choose to make their lives outside of Massachusetts,” Kennealy said. “It’s something that ought to be concerning to all of us.”

Johnson said that one of the state’s strengths is the depth of its higher education sector and the different types of institutions, from community colleges to small liberal arts schools to research universities.

She said remote internships have “actually opened the door, in many ways, to students who may not have had opportunities.”

“A student may not have the ability to pay the cost of living to stay in a particular place, to have an opportunity to stay in the summer in Boston,” Johnson said. “So maybe they go home and they have an opportunity here. This kind of really opens the opportunity to experience different areas, areas of quick growth in technology and other STEM fields as well as other areas.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Only on WWLP.com | Digital First

More Digital First

Trending Stories

Donate Today