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INNOVATION BEAT

This Boston startup has the scoop on return-to-office rates

Parts of Downtown Crossing were closed off in April of 2022 to celebrate the return to downtown at Mayor Michelle Wu’s “Boston Blooms” block party.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

More companies are requiring workers to return to the office this month, typically for a few days a week. But so far the rate of return, according to data from Boston startup Robin, is still far below what it was pre-pandemic.

Robin makes software for scheduling office visits, desk assignments, and meetings for thousands of customers around the world, including Toyota, Peloton, and Hulu. The software isn’t used by companies that are fully in-person all of the time, so the data doesn’t give a complete picture.

As of last week, Robin customers’ North American offices were 22 percent full on average (measured by desk space usage), up from 16 percent back in March. That equates to just over one day in the office per week. Worldwide, offices are slightly fuller at 26 percent, up from 20 percent in March.

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The stubbornly low rate of office use indicates that many workers may not be following employer mandates to be in at least three days per week, for example.

“If we look across industries, tech being one of them, it is very challenging to force employees back to any sort of schedule whatsoever, and we’re seeing uprisings across all sorts of organizations,” Robin chief executive Micah Remley said in an interview.

Data from other sources also shows relatively low levels of workers returning to the office. Office use reached a peak of almost 48 percent of pre-pandemic levels last week in 10 cities (not including Boston) tracked by Kastle Systems, which monitors building entries.

Some attribute workers’ reluctance to follow the directives to the still-tight labor market. Workers know they will be hard to replace if they are let go for not coming in. But Harvard Business School professor Raj Choudhury said his research shows that even as the economy weakens, companies will have a hard time forcing workers back.

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“What’s happening is the company will lose not every employee, but some of their best employees,” Choudhury said. “The best employees always have outside options. If you force every employee to come in five days, four days, even three days a week, some of the best employees will join a competitor.”

Robin’s data also shows a correlation between childcare availability and return rates, Remley said.

“At the end of school, we really saw things slow down from a return-to-office standpoint,” he said. “Certainly, we’ve heard anecdotes about that. But we see in our metrics ... it’s hard not to think there’s a strong causal relationship.”

The company raised an undisclosed amount of funding this week from the venture capital arm of Australian software company Atlassian. The deal follows Robin’s $30 million Series C round that closed in July and included Tola Capital, FirstMark, Accomplice, Boldstart, and Allegion Ventures.

Robin will use the new funding for more hiring. Remley also is looking to acquire smaller software companies to boost the company’s footprint outside the United States.

Robin acquired Croatian real estate software company Flow and Form earlier this month. The deal will allow Robin to serve customers in Spanish, French, and German. “I’m going to continue to lean into our international opportunities,” Remley said.


Aaron Pressman can be reached at aaron.pressman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ampressman.