Business

Some start-ups forgo receptionists

Firms with a high-tech bent or shoestring budget are rethinking the traditional way visitors are welcomed

Paul Schwenk, senior vice president of engineering for the Web travel site Kayak, opened the door to the company’s offices in Concord, where visitors use a call button to get buzzed in.
Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe
Paul Schwenk, senior vice president of engineering for the Web travel site Kayak, opened the door to the company’s offices in Concord, where visitors use a call button to get buzzed in.

Many start-ups are deciding it’s not smart business to station a friendly employee in the lobby to greet visitors.

Some fledgling companies would rather apply the salary to a position they consider more important, while others figure a reception area is poor use of expensive real estate. In a shaky economy, they say, projecting an image of frugality is crucial and a traditional front desk receptionist sends the wrong message.

That thinking is creating challenges for architects who are being asked to design office entrances modest in size and unmanned, but still welcoming.

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“It’s now a big question for nearly every young company: Do we want or need a receptionist?” said architect Vince Pan, whose South Boston firm, Analogue Studio, was commissioned to design spaces for two companies that don’t employ receptionists. “In the start-up world, you don’t want to look like you’re wasting money.”

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Thomas White, a principal with ACTWO Architects in Wayland, was hired to configure the new Concord office of the travel site Kayak.com without a receptionist.

Paul English, Kayak’s chief technology officer and cofounder, said receptionists “serve as a buffer. They make the organization seem too formal.” English prefers for employees and guests to meet “on equal terms,” in the company’s comfortable lounge area. So in the new office, visitors are buzzed in via intercom to a long hallway configured to represent Kayak’s business.

On one wall, orange-tinted glass offers a view of a cluster of computer servers.

Overhead projectors splash graphical information on the opposite wall: up-to-the-minute Internet searches of Kayak.com or a real-time map of worldwide commercial flights.

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At the end of the hallway, guests emerge into the company combination lounge and lunchroom.

“It’s kind of do-it-yourself reception,” White said.

At least two companies are already offering robotic substitutes. WinTech LLC in Las Vegas sells a “virtual receptionist” named ALICE that is based on an interactive, touchscreen video panel. And California-based Anybots Inc. makes the $10,000 QB Robot, a free-standing mobile robot that some companies are using as a receptionist.

Flesh-and-blood receptionists, understandably, are cool to the trend.

“I get why some companies don’t want receptionists — it’s cheaper,” said Carrie Downing, 25, who greets visitors at the Partners+Simons Inc. advertising firm in Boston. Although technology companies may be able to get by without a receptionist, it wouldn’t work for an ad agency, Downing said.

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“I’m good at keeping clients at bay,” she said. “I can talk to them and make them happy even if the person they want to talk to can’t call them back for an hour.”

That’s why Downing was given the job title “director of first impressions.”

“I’ve always thought that if you have a people business then your interface ought to be alive,” said Tom Simons, chief executive at Partners+Simons.

But White Rhino, a Burlington advertising agency, says it can engage people without a human greeter. Katy Flammia, founder and principal of THEREdesign, an architecture and design firm in Allston, said she is in the process of “rethinking the greeting” for White Rhino. Because there’s no receptionist at the agency’s offices, Flammia’s firm is creating a high-concept display that plays off a rhinocerous-hunter theme. She describes it cryptically as a “minimuseum of natural history” full of artifacts that will evoke the company’s adventurous spirit.

“They wanted something to entertain visitors while they waited to meet someone from the firm.” Flammia said.

“It’s also designed to communicate an identity, to say you’ve arrived at the company.”

While it might be true that prospective receptionists need not apply at White Rhino or to most tech start-ups in the region, that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities elsewhere.

According to the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall employment for receptionists will increase 24 percent between 2010 and 2020, faster than the 14 percent average for all occupations. The health care industry — specifically medical and dental offices and community care facilities for the elderly — is expected to drive the demand, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s unlikely, however, that wages will grow significantly. According to a federal survey, the median annual salary for a receptionist in 2010 was $25,240.

At the Perseus Books Group office in South Boston, the reception area is basic, with an alcove and two comfortable chairs. No receptionist.

The space was created by Leslie Saul, president of Leslie Saul & Associates, an architecture and interior design firm in Cambridge. Visitors to Perseus use a phone outside the locked front door to call employees they are meeting. That might sound cold, but Saul said it works out well. “In the end, it’s friendlier if the person who knows you comes out and greets you,” she said.

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com