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Many workers will never go back to the office post-coronavirus

Employers are finding the work-from-home experiment more effective than expected.

Melody Smith at Cummings Properties in Woburn. The company has opened its management space and is at 25 percent capacity under Phase 1 guidelines for business reopening in Massachusetts.
Melody Smith at Cummings Properties in Woburn. The company has opened its management space and is at 25 percent capacity under Phase 1 guidelines for business reopening in Massachusetts.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Paul English thinks about his 80 colleagues at Lola.com, the travel software firm he cofounded, and realizes most of them won’t ever come back — to the office.

Like just about every other office employer in Greater Boston, Lola switched into work-from-home mode in March as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in full force. But even if a vaccine is found and the coronavirus becomes a bad memory, most of Lola’s workers probably will stay remote.

English said his team was polled and only 25 people want to return. So the company decided to let employees work from anywhere, as long as they stick to East Coast time for their work hours.

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“Commuting really grinds on people,” English said. “I would have said before that we were ‘remote friendly.’ Now, it’s like we are going to be ‘remote first.’ ”

Lola is one of countless white-collar employers rethinking the corporate office as they watch this giant work-from-home experiment unfold. Major companies are keeping workers home through the summer, if not the end of the year, in large part to protect them from the virus and curb its spread. A widely available vaccine isn’t expected until 2021, at the earliest. What happens once that glorious day finally arrives? Many workers, it turns out, still won’t leave the house.

The implications could be huge for transportation, office real estate, and the retail and restaurant scenes in downtown hubs such as Boston’s. It’s too early to know how widespread the shift to a distributed workforce will be — or how permanent. However, the concept is already prompting plenty of speculation among HR managers, commercial office brokers, and relocation consultants.

“There’s a huge camp of people that say the office is dead,” said Liz Berthelette, research director at brokerage Newmark Knight Frank’s Boston office. “There’s a camp of people that say work-from-home is a complete fail. I think the answer is somewhere in the middle.”

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Companies such as Progress Software will likely occupy that middle ground. In normal times, about 500 people commuted to the firm’s local offices in Bedford and Burlington. They are all remote now. Once the pandemic ends, chief executive Yogesh Gupta expects to see between 300 and 400 in those offices on any given day. Some will commute every day, some will arrive every other day, and some will come once a week or less. “We will offer tremendous flexibility,” Gupta said.

Similar changes could happen at Eastern Bank’s corporate office in downtown Boston, where about 150 people normally work, and at other offices as well. Chief executive Bob Rivers said he was surprised by how many employees embraced remote work in a mid-May survey. Before, such arrangements were handled on a case-by-case basis. But all WFH-eligible employees (primarily nonbranch personnel) will get the opportunity if they want it in the future.

And at Imprivata, a cybersecurity firm that once had 280-plus employees at its now-empty Lexington headquarters, chief executive Gus Malezis anticipates a less dense office after the pandemic: More employees will work from home, or rotate in and out so fewer are in the office at any given time.

A few companies will take an extreme step and do away with traditional headquarters offices altogether. That’s what is happening at Interactions, a 475-person firm in Franklin that provides software that helps clients handle customer service calls. Chief executive Mike Iacobucci said he had been about to sign a new lease that would double the size of the firm’s headquarters, where about 150 worked.

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Then the pandemic hit. Iacobucci scrapped the office expansion plan, and instead decided to keep everyone primarily remote after COVID-19 subsides. Doing so will save the company millions in rent every year and enable it to hire talent from anywhere. The firm will have a few smaller offices, he said, but they will serve as central meeting points, not employment hubs.

Aaron Jodka, managing director of research at brokerage Colliers International’s Boston office, said most bosses have been surprised by how effective the sudden WFH shift has been. Some who lead smaller groups are letting leases expire due to the uncertainty around COVID-19.

That’s one reason that the amount of sublease space that has hit the Boston market since March has reached the highest level of any quarter since 2004. (Another big reason: major layoffs at some employers.) Jodka estimates there are nearly 550,000 square feet of newly released office spaces in Boston available to be subleased right now. That’s higher than at any time during the Great Recession. And there are probably more to come: Some companies are holding off on putting their spaces on the market until there is stronger demand.

Still, Jodka doesn’t expect a dramatic long-term shift. For many employers, the cons of working from home will outweigh the pros. “A lot of the big occupiers of space benefit from proximity and being near one another,” he said.

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Some jobs are easier to do remotely than others, of course. John Maeda, chief experience officer at consulting firm Publicis Sapient, said call-center workers and software developers are among them. But Maeda said complex problems, particularly those with a high degree of risk, are generally simpler to solve when everyone is in the same room.

There are other downsides to WFH, such as distractions and interruptions from family or roommates. Kitchen and dining room tables make for less-than-comfortable makeshift work stations. And corporate culture can be hard to keep alive the longer that the workforce remains physically estranged from one another. It becomes particularly challenging as new hires come on board ― people who have never met their colleagues face-to-face.

“The longer you stay away, the harder it is to hold your organization together, and not only hold it together, but grow it,” said Doug Gensler, comanaging director of the Boston office at Gensler, the global architectural firm that bears his family’s name.

Gensler said his firm expects most companies will eventually revert back to the levels of office occupancy they had before the pandemic. The firm surveyed 2,300 workers across the country in the spring, and found 44 percent want to be back in the office five days a week, while another 26 percent prefer one or two days at home; only 12 percent said they were fine working from home all five days.

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Russ Campanello, executive vice president of human resources at iRobot Corp., said the company plans to cap office occupancy at its headquarters in Bedford at no more than half its former capacity of 800 until a vaccine is found. (About 70 go in now, on a rotating basis.) After that point, Campanello said, he expects some former HQ employees to continue at home, but it’s too early to know how many.

“We’ve been coming to work since the Industrial Revolution,” Campanello said. “By the time we get to the vaccine, or broad immunity, we’re going to have a different view of how work gets done or where it gets done.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.