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Who needs an office? Companies ditch headquarters and connect workers remotely

Some companies have virtual offices where employees’ avatars can attend meetings in video-game-like worlds.

Sometimes it’s maddening.

Sitting in traffic, or enduring interminable Red Line delays, only to get to the office and do pretty much the same thing you could do at home — only with more people around. And better lunch options.

At a time when technology seamlessly connects people around the globe, and work can be done from almost anywhere, companies are realizing that employees who sit at computers all day don’t necessarily need to be in the same place to get their jobs done.

An estimated 100-odd companies with at least 10 employees, including a handful in the Boston area, have ditched their physical offices or never opened any to begin with, according to FlexJobs, a job-search site whose workforce is fully remote. And workplace analysts expect the trend to grow, especially as executives realize they can stop shelling out big bucks for office space and start attracting employees with no geographic boundaries.

With sky-high housing prices driving people out of expensive cities and everyone clamoring for more time with their families, many employees are thrilled to hunker down at home. Some companies even have virtual offices where employees’ avatars can attend meetings in video-game-like worlds.


But putting the entire office in the cloud takes some getting used to.

Zapier, a Web-services company with a San Francisco mailing address and 250 employees scattered around the globe, including several in Boston, faced skepticism when it started raising funds in 2012. Investors would say, “So this remote thing, that seems weird,” recalls chief executive Wade Foster. “Do you really think you can be successful that way?”

Today, he said, it’s a “total 180.”

“Some of those same people are, like, ‘This is the future . . . can I invest?’”

Less than 5 percent of the US labor force works remotely full time, according to census data, But nearly 50 percent of all workers do so occasionally, up from just 9 percent in 2007. In Massachusetts, the concept could become even more popular if Governor Charlie Baker’s proposed telework tax credit goes through.


Some companies are dipping a toe in the all-remote waters, trying it out one department at a time. But cutting all ties to a particular location, especially an expensive one, is a game changer, executives say.

“When your workers can’t afford to live in the city you’re headquartered in, that really makes it hard when you’re trying to grow a company,” Foster said.

For employers, going virtual can save an estimated $22,000 per employee per year in an average US city, according to the consultancy Global Workplace Analytics, based on real estate and transit subsidy savings, increased productivity, and reduced turnover and absenteeism.

Hiring time also decreases when people can work from anywhere, and job performance jumps. A recent Stanford study found that employees who worked from home four days a week were 13 percent more productive than their onsite counterparts.

Of course, this arrangement can be a double-edged sword: When you work from home, you’re always at work.

The cloud services provider Egenera recently moved its engineering team out of its Boxborough office and made its workforce 100 percent remote.

“I take calls after dinner; I take calls after the kids are in bed,” said chief executive Scott Harris, who has worked from home for six years. “If you hire the right type of people . . . you’ll get as much work out of them, if not more.”


There was some resistance when Egenera announced the change, Harris said — mostly from managers. “There’s always that fear of: How do you keep track of your workers?” he said.

Having no headquarters to report to also gives employees the flexibility to relocate without missing a beat. One employee for an all-remote Boston-area company is working from Seoul while her husband teaches there. When Kate Criniti, the Lexington-based chief legal officer for the all-remote health care technology company Redox, visits her mother in Connecticut, the only co-workers who notice are the ones she video-conferences with regularly. They might say: ‘That’s a different painting behind you’, ” she said.

These frequent video calls can give remote workers a uniquely intimate window into one another’s lives. Doug Gaff, vice president of engineering for Zapier, works out of his Milton home, sometimes with his cat, Ginger, staring into the webcam beside him.

“Somebody’s kid will pop their head in the window,” he said. “People kind of like it, actually.”

Not everyone is cut out for remote work, however. It can be isolating. And there are no random moments of inspiration when you bump into someone at the printer.

Robert Glazer, the Needham-based founder and chief executive of the marketing agency Acceleration Partners, is careful about hiring “raging extrovert” types who say they work better around other people. Most of his 160 employees are located within an hour of one of 10 hub cities to make it easier to gather employees together — though there are no offices. This means less gossip, but also little word-of-mouth communication.


“It’s always forced us to be super intentional about everything we do,” said Glazer, including a weekly newsletter he writes to keep employees connected.

This hyper-focus on communication can bring co-workers closer together than they ever were at traditional companies, said Becca Van Nederynen, head of people operations at Help Scout, a fully remote software company founded in Boston that pairs up employees for “intentional water cooler talk” via video calls.

At Zapier, workers are encouraged to get involved in their community. Join a sports team. Volunteer. Whatever it takes to combat the isolation office-less workers can experience.

The real estate firm eXp Realty, with more than 21,000 agents around the world, regularly brings its workers together in virtual reality. The company has its own campus in the cloud-based world VirBELA, a program created by Dartmouth native Alex Howland on top of a video game platform.

The agents’ avatars get together there, while in real life the agents — including Tom Truong, a Southborough resident who runs a team of 300 — are miked together at their home computers. Some staffers spend their whole day there, working side by side. If they want to change things up, they can jump on a virtual power boat.


People feel so present in the space that at a recent meeting someone complained that his avatar didn’t have a chair.

At a time when many companies have a mix of onsite and remote work, some far-flung employees note there is a “proximity bias” favoring co-workers in the office. Having no physical location can be a great equalizer.

Criniti, the Lexington lawyer, previously worked from home for such a hybrid operation. “It’s almost like we worked for two different companies,” she said.

Now, with all of her colleagues working remotely, she said: “It doesn’t matter where you are; you’re in the same circle.”

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