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As the role of the office recedes, companies invest real estate savings into remote work

Vistaprint's employee Paul Hammerstrand talked about the new collaboration center in Waltham.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

WALTHAM — In November 2020, Cimpress instructed its 800 Boston-area employees to come back to the Waltham office one last time to pick up their belongings. It was a surreal moment.

Like much of corporate America, the parent company of the design and marketing business Vistaprint (now Vista) had been remote since the pandemic began, and it had decided to leave behind its 300,000-square-foot building with a gym, cafeteria, and game room for home offices or coffee shops — or anywhere employees feel like working. Forever. Refrigerators were cleaned out. Backpacks with company logos were distributed. Chairs and monitors were up for grabs.

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Chief financial officer Sean Quinn took a masked selfie in front of a banner reading, “It’s not goodbye, it’s Zoom you later!” But he wondered: “What are we if we’re not an office?”

The answer, it turns out, is a company that’s saving $9 million a year on real estate — and using most of that money to go all in on remote work.

The pandemic has compelled businesses to reconsider the role of the office in the world of work, as employees have proven how effective — and happy — they can be doing their jobs remotely. Many companies are retaining their offices and modifying the layout to create more flexible, collaborative spaces.

But nearly a quarter of employers have reduced their office space since the start of the pandemic, according to the research and consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics, which specializes in hybrid and remote strategies. And a few are downsizing drastically, investing the money they used to spend on square footage to strengthen their ability to operate with employees scattered far and wide.

Vistaprint's new collaboration center is a major downsizing from its previous office, as the company goes remote first. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

They’re buying technology to ease virtual collaboration. They’re helping employees pay for phone service and Wi-Fi, standing desks and ergonomic office chairs, and subscriptions to meditation apps and Peloton classes. One newly all-remote Boston staffing firm is even using some of its savings to build solar-panel farms to offset the carbon emissions its offices produced over the years.

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So far, dramatic cuts to physical space are more the exception than the rule, said Mark Bruso, senior research manager at commercial real estate company JLL. Companies snapped up office space in Boston at a record pace before the pandemic, he said, with many signing 10- to 15-year leases that lock them in for some time to come.

And going office-free is not for everyone.

A third of companies attempting “anywhere-work” will fail, predicts Cambridge-based Forrester Research, which just announced that it, too, will let employees work from anywhere. But the savings are hard to ignore.

When employees work remotely half the time, companies save nearly $11,000 per employee a year, after accounting for the added expenses of remote technology and home-office equipment, according to Global Workplace Analytics. Driving the savings are increased productivity and reduced turnover, absenteeism, and real estate costs, assuming a 25 percent reduction in space.

Interactions, an AI virtual assistant company in Franklin, was just about to sign a lease on a 50,000-square-foot headquarters — doubling its previous space — when COVID hit. Instead of moving, the 400-person company downsized to an 8,000-square-foot space in the building it already occupied, and closed two offices elsewhere. The move has saved the now-mostly-remote company $5.6 million, said chief people officer Mary Clermont, most of which it is reinvesting in employees through promotions, an increase to the 401(k) match, and new rewards and learning platforms.

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As existing leases end, the company plans to shrink its footprint even further. When Clermont went to the Franklin headquarters last week, she said, no one was there. “It was me and my dog, that’s it.”

The Boston-based staffing firm Aquent is saving roughly $600,000 a month by letting the leases expire on most of its 35 offices around the world. Along with paying to equip its 720 employees’ home offices and buying coworking-space memberships for those who need them, the company is also investing in employee peer groups, training leaders to become better digital facilitators and budgeting for monthly wellness webinars and team-building activities. The company went so far as to hire professional musicians to help employees write an Aquent-themed song. Aquent is also beefing up its corporate social responsibility by building four solar-panel arrays in Indiana and Ohio to offset the company’s carbon emissions for the past 35 years. With so few offices and so little commuting, Aquent expects to to be “carbon negative” by early next year.

At Cimpress, the move to remote-first was helped along by a bit of good luck. Executives knew they still wanted a physical space of some sort, and ZoomInfo, a business intelligence platform with a 70,000-square-foot office a mile down Interstate 95, was looking to grow. So the companies swapped spaces.

Cimpress remodeled the first floor of the former ZoomInfo building to create a “collaboration center,” a sleek, modern space with booths and white boards. Employees can book conference rooms on a touch-screen monitor in the lobby, not far from the wall of Christmas cards sent by employees who may never set foot inside the building. Upstairs is a “focus floor” with desks that can be booked via QR code and a “silent work area” on one end. The third floor, which is being used for storage, will be sublet. Outside, the vast parking lot is largely empty.

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There’s space for 250 people, although only about 20 to 30 a day come in right now, said Sara Emerson, the company’s concierge services lead and one of three people who shows up daily to run the place.

Including reducing space in Europe and closing its Washington, D.C., office, Cimpress has shrunk its square footage by nearly 300,000 square feet — with further decreases expected. That’s a savings of $9 million a year on rent, utilities, and maintenance — $7 million of which is being invested initially in the company’s remote-work experiment.

The hiring process is far more robust than it used to be, said Brittany Sohns, manager of remote onboarding, who is part of a new seven-person remote-first team and works from Gloucester. New employees — the company has 14,000 people worldwide — embark on a 100-day program, taking courses on the 360Learning platform to learn about the company’s history and completing training sessions such as “Remote Wellbeing” through Udemy.

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Cimpress moved its network operations center to the cloud so the IT team can monitor the company’s websites and systems from anywhere in the world. In lieu of a gym, employees get a $600discount on a Peleton bike and one third off the monthly subscription. Everyone also gets $500 to set up a home office and $100 a month to pay for Wi-Fi, air conditioning, and other services the company used to provide.

So far, it all seems to be working. In a survey conducted in October, the employee engagement score was four times higher than it was in 2019. The number of job candidates has quadrupled since the company went remote- first, in part because there are fewer geographic limitations.

“I think hybrid is maybe almost the worst place to land because you’re kind of stuck in the middle,” said Quinn, Cimpress’s CFO. His company chose to blow past that and go remote-first, which means it’s out on the edge. “And it doesn’t mean we’re going to be right,” he said.

Between the tight labor market and new habits formed during the pandemic, where people work is now up to them, in a way, not the company, Quinn said.

It’s too soon to tell how the great remote-work experiment will pan out, but for Cimpress, at least, there’s no going back.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her @ktkjohnston.