Top Places to Work
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    Top Places to Work

    Making remote workers feel like part of the office again

    Robots, video calls, and other advances make remote work less isolating and even a little more fun.

    The BeamPro gives telecommuters face time.

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    John LaPlante gathers his team for a quick meeting every morning. Twice a week, he’s a robot.

    On those days he skips the long commute from his home in New Hampshire to his job as engineering director for Burlington-based Desktop Metal. Instead, LaPlante holds court through a proxy body, a computer monitor held up by twin 5-foot-tall posts that wheels around on a Roomba-like base. Not only can he check in with employees from across state lines, he uses his computer to adjust the camera view and roll “himself” to the company’s R&D lab to check up on industrial 3-D-printing equipment, passing co-workers on the way.

    “People say, ‘Oh, hi, how are you? Didn’t know you were working from home today,’ ” says Amy Buntel, the startup’s director of people. “It feels more like the person is there. I don’t know if that’s the height of the screen, but there’s something that makes it drastically different than looking at a laptop screen.”

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    Not every company is turning off-site workers into cyborgs, but the BeamPro robot, made by California-based Suitable Technologies, is a striking example of the type of technology companies are adopting to make telecommuting easier. These include the basics, like Skype, virtual private networks, and easy-to-use chat-room systems like Slack. But some employers are going further.

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    Tufts Health Plan has spent more than $325,000 over the last three years on technology boosts for its Watertown campus — notably a live-streaming system for nearly every meeting room in the office — to accommodate the 700 employees who work off-site. The Tufts live stream is no Facebook Live broadcast, either. It has hosted as many as 800 people at a time, uses multiple camera angles, and allows remote workers to submit questions in writing. Growth in remote workers has let Tufts Health Plan shrink its headquarters and cut utility costs, says Lydia Greene, chief human resources officer.

    Other businesses are using advanced video-conferencing software, which allows users to speak in large groups or check in to smaller digital “lounges” for private conversations. Employers are introducing this technology as remote work continues to grow locally and across the country. About 3 percent of Boston-area commuters now work at home at least half time, up 130 percent in the last decade, according to San Diego consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics, which helps companies develop remote work policies.

    Remote work benefits are generally seen as a recruiting and retention strategy. Whether it’s full time or a couple of days a week, it’s a nice perk for potential employees and can expand the talent pool to include workers in far-flung locales.

    There have been some high-profile examples of companies veering away from the practice in recent years, however. Last spring, IBM summoned its remote workers back to the office, and Yahoo made a similar decree in 2013. The numbers indicate these reversals are not the norm. Still, some local companies balk at remote work.

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    Wordstream, a Boston firm that helps companies place search-engine advertisements, does not allow employees to work from home, barring the occasional doctor’s appointment or personal situation. Being in the office every day allows workers to develop relationships and learn from one another, says Michelle Cataldo, a recruiter for the startup. And with Boston’s bevy of talented young tech workers, the company doesn’t see the need to expand its talent pool by allowing remote work.

    But some companies swear by it. Lowell-based Kronos boasts that about 80 percent of its 3,600 US employees work from home at least one day a week, and 30 percent do so full time.

    The company, which fittingly sells workforce management software, points to product marketing manager Kristen Wylie, who worked from concert halls and buses for eight months as her daughters traveled the country performing in the musical Annie in 2016 and 2017. A few months into the tour, Wylie was promoted. Being away from the office for so long “got a little stressful,” she admits. “But the opportunity to be the mom I want to be for my kids, who have a little bit of extreme after-school activities, and to have a career I find fulfilling, is worth it.”

    Adam Vaccaro is a Boston Globe staff writer. He can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamtvaccaro.