Zagaran Software is a rare bird in the Boston tech scene at the moment.
It’s an 18-person company at which everyone writes software — a task that can easily be done sitting in front of a screen at home.
And despite that, since mid-July, they’ve been back working together in their office on South Street, about two blocks away from South Station. In October, they even took on some additional space.
“A lot of other tech companies have really embraced the remote work thing,” says Chris McCarthy, a cofounder of the company. “If it’s working for them, that’s great.”
But for Zagaran, the value of collaborating in person simply makes its software development work more efficient and better quality, McCarthy contends. And he says that most people at the company “buy into this idea that collaboration, learning, knowledge transfer, and working together is good — this is part of what they want.” Zagaran develops custom web and mobile applications for universities, big companies, and state governments.
I wrote recently about tech companies that are giving up their office space, hiring new employees all around the country, and seeing employees (even a few CEOs) relocate out of state. But you can also find companies like Zagaran that ― despite the recent surge of COVID cases in Massachusetts ― believe in the value of being together in-person. Many of them, however, are still gently trying to suggest that being in the office is a positive thing or putting a pin on various dates in early 2022 when people will be expected to show up on a regular schedule.
But at Zagaran, “you’re expected to be in five days a week,” McCarthy says, and all employees are expected to be vaccinated. (There are generous work-from-home allowances given if someone is planning a trip to visit an elderly relative or immunocompromised friend and wants to quarantine beforehand.) Employees sit together at lunch and coffee — even though “they’ll tend to sit a little bit far apart,” McCarthy says. Some people opt to wear masks for the entire time they’re in the office.
Initially, McCarthy admits, “There was some push-back, and people were trepidatious.” But no one quit. (Before the company shifted back to in-office every day, it had polled employees about their preferred policies and asked about what they saw as the positives and negatives of working remotely.)
Part of the challenge many other companies are dealing with, McCarthy says, is that an option to work in the office whenever you feel like it doesn’t create critical mass. “If you come in and your office is empty, and you have to turn the lights on when you come in and turn them off when you leave, that creates an environment where people are saying, ‘Why am I spending 30 minutes commuting each way?’” But as people began using the Zagaran office over the spring and summer, employees joining meetings via Zoom would see two or three colleagues together in the office or hear about in-office conversations that occurred in a hallway or over lunch. They also noticed that nobody was getting sick from going in.
Jana Eggers runs an artificial intelligence startup, Nara Logics, that is across the street from Zagaran. (Her company has also been a customer of Zagaran’s in the past.) When I spoke to her, she sounded a little bit jealous of the critical mass. Nara Logics has 15 employees, and Eggers is determined to only hire people who can get into the Boston office on a regular basis.
But last week, she says, “I was the only one here on Monday, and we had three on Tuesday.” Wednesday is often a big day when more than half of the company shows up for regular meetings. “For a while, we had 30 percent of the company coming in almost daily,” Eggers says. “But the Thanksgiving holiday or the cold weather threw that off.” Mandating five-days-a-week attendance “wouldn’t work for us,” Eggers says. Right now, there’s only one day a month when there is a company lunch and meeting, when everyone is expected to show up. (There was also a COVID scare recently when one employee tested positive after being in the office for meetings. Eggers bought rapid tests for everyone else who’d been in, but the virus hadn’t spread.)
Eggers says she believes “humans trust each other more when they interact more” face-to-face and when they socialize over lunch or a drink. That, she says, builds stronger relationships than “just sending files back and forth” over e-mail or instant messaging. She points to recent research from the University of Washington that looked at companies that had shifted exclusively to video meetings during the pandemic and found that focused listening and relationship building tended to suffer.
Another South Street tech company, Privy, decided to go completely remote in March 2020 and maintains its office only for people who want to come in for meetings or an interruption-free work environment. The company has about 50 people in Boston, says CEO Ben Jabbawy, and only about five use the office on a regular basis.
At Pillar, a venture capital firm on the same street, most of its 12 employees commute on Monday and Tuesday, but everyone can opt to work from home or the office the rest of the week.
“Maybe two or three come into the office on Wednesday through Friday,” says Russ Wilcox, a partner at the firm. “We’re pretty happy with the hybrid system for now and not pressuring anybody to come in unless they feel comfortable.” One thing that younger employees appreciate about being freed from the five-day-a-week schedule, he says, is that they’re able to live further away from the city and purchase a home “sooner than otherwise.”
At Zagaran, they’re keeping an eye on the Omicron variant and other data related to COVID ebbs and flows in Massachusetts. “We’re computer scientists,” McCarthy says. “We like picking apart data looking for the objective truth.”
“I think it’d be really irresponsible to say, ‘Working in person is more efficient. That’s the answer. Goodbye.’ This is an emergent public health crisis, and the thing that would really be less efficient is our employees getting COVID, being sick, being miserable, and dying,” he says.
For now, though, you’ll find them at the office.