Last week, Sarah Merrill picked out an outfit for work for the first time in 15 months.
But the 25-year-old Somerville resident, who works as a revenue operations analyst at a Boston software company, wasn’t getting ready to return to the office. Her employer, Motus, decided last year that it would never go back to a traditional work setting. Instead, Merrill was preparing to see her co-workers at Guy Fieri’s Tequila Cocina, a restaurant on Causeway Street in Boston.
With moveable whiteboards, lots of extension cords, upgraded Wi-Fi, and food and beverages provided throughout the day, the 6,000-square-foot restaurant near TD Garden has turned into a sort of pop-up office for a team that has been working remotely since March 2020.
“It was indescribable,” Merrill said after the event. “We sat down with our laptops and got assignments done, but we had the opportunity to get up and ask people questions in person instead of over Slack.”
With the relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions in Massachusetts, employers are gauging how and when to repopulate office buildings that have largely remained empty during the pandemic. But Craig Powell, chief executive of Motus, isn’t.
He cringes at the thought of ever stepping foot back inside his company’s old headquarters — even though he kind of liked it. Long-term leases for office space used to be the company’s second-largest expense, an investment Powell said he thought was worth it, since he viewed it as critical to fostering culture and collaboration.
But during the early months of the pandemic, when Motus employees were forced to work remotely, Powell started to weigh the price he was paying for real estate.
“The office is, in large part, there for community, engagement, and social interaction . . . aren’t there a thousand other ways we can [do that]?” he said.
That inspired Motus to set up a working group to evaluate how the company would “work forward,” or reimagine how it would function without a traditional home base. The group landed on an idea to start a series of pop-up office events, at which employees would occasionally get together and work for one day at a restaurant or nightclub. Those locations tended to be lightly occupied during weekday work hours.
“Restaurants have tables and chairs that look a lot like what our desks used to look like,” Powell said. “They have a private dining room, which is what you call them at night, but they could easily turn into a private conference room.”
Kerry Lynch, the director of sales at Big Night Entertainment Group, which owns Fieri’s restaurant, said the pandemic wiped out the company’s events calendar last year, from canceled concerts to social gatherings. That allowed it to think about other ways to use its 17 venues, such as by hosting indoor workout classes and other unconventional events in its nightclubs.
“We’ve gotten these requests over the years, and we’ve said, ‘Oh, we can’t do that because we have a show that night,’ ” Lynch said. “All of a sudden, we could say yes.”
She called Motus’s pop-up office idea a “no-brainer,” since the restaurant it wanted to use doesn’t open until 5 p.m. It also helps Big Night, since its event bookings remain below pre-pandemic levels.
“So many people are not even back in their offices yet, so until they are able to bring their entire workforces back, people are not ready to do these big parties and meetings,” Lynch said.
Bryan Hancock, a partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., said many employers have not abandoned their office spaces altogether, as Motus has, but most firms are planning to be more deliberate about where their workers spend their time. Even if managers don’t think they need to physically see their employees to know they are doing their work remotely, he said, they should still make an extra effort to check in with them on a personal level.
“In a previous work environment, you could walk around the office and tell by someone’s body language how engaged they were with colleagues . . . you could tell when something was up,” he said. “In a remote world, where we are Zooming in and out of meetings all day, it’s harder to get that ‘Well, how are you doing?’ unless you are intentional about it.”
Powell expects that Motus, which has about 375 employees, will hold more pop-ups in Boston, as well as in Chicago and Milwaukee, where it also used to have offices.
“We are trying to figure out where our major cities are, because when COVID happened a lot of our young people moved all over the place,” he said. “We may be doing this pop-up concept in cities we historically have never operated in.”