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By Anissa Gardizy & Catherine Carlock

Firms that signed big leases right before COVID are trying to design an office worth coming back to.

After repeated false starts during the pandemic for returning to the office, the future of in-person work for white-collar professionals around Boston is becoming slightly more clear.

In many industries, the five-day work week has yet to return. Many firms are implementing hybrid plans that call for two or three days a week in-office, though few enforce them. And fully remote situations remain common.

But one thing hasn’t changed: the office lease. Employers across the Commonwealth with years of big rent checks ahead of them are rethinking the role — and look — of the office in a post-COVID world.

Take Akamai Technologies, which moved into a gleaming headquarters in Kendall Square in fall 2019. The company designed the building, weaving an “Aka-mile” foot path through its 19 floors. But today, just a fraction of the space is occupied at any given time, with 95 percent of Akamai employees able to work remotely for as long as they want.

“We saw people able to continue to do their jobs really well remotely,” said Khalil Smith, vice president of inclusion, diversity, and engagement at Akamai. “It became less about peeking over people’s shoulders, or having to have them return to these beautiful offices that we built.”

So what about its 15-year, $700 million lease with Boston Properties?

What was a building just for Akamai is now being remade internally: four of the 19 floors will be sublet to other tenants, while Akamai’s remaining space will be reconfigured, now that employees won’t use it as often.

The new floor plan includes “a high level of unassigned seating,” said John Civello, Akamai vice president of global real estate and workplace productivity. Employees who commit to come in four days a week will get their own desk; everyone else will select a desk for the days they’re in the office from Akamai’s internal intranet.

“If we just sent everybody back to their old seats… you may not see another person the entire day,” Civello said. ”We had to make this transition just to ensure that employees have a decent experience when they do come in.”

Akamai is one of several big Boston-area employers in similarly dicey positions: They made major real estate commitments just before COVID-19, and now have to create a workspace employees want to come back to, as well as one that justifies the investment they made in the first place.

Indeed, even two years after initial COVID shutdowns eased, many Boston office buildings are far from full.

In downtown Boston, offices are running at 30 to 35 percent of their pre-pandemic daily occupancy, according to estimates and data from employee entry cards tracked by real estate company Newmark. Suburban offices, meanwhile, are closer to half-full. Fewer people come in Mondays and Fridays, Newmark research director Liz Berthelette said.

State Street Corp., which in 2019 signed onto a new headquarters at the One Congress tower now under construction, is also rethinking its office design. The new space will center on an unassigned desk arrangement, allowing for those who do come in the freedom to work from different areas throughout the day, said Dustin Sarnoski, the company’s head of global realty.

There will be four types of workstations: a standard desk; a pod-style bench area with no computer monitors to distract from collaborative work; heads-down desk space with short dividers that limit interaction with others; and airport-lounge style spots with no power outlets, allowing for a quick sit with nice view but not a place to post up all day.

The One Congress space, which State Street plans to move into next year, will serve as a test-case for how all the locations of the financial services giant will look and feel post-pandemic.

“We’re using this, then, to inform design decisions elsewhere around the globe,” Sarnoski said. “This is our best space.”

With strict attendance rules off the table, there’s more pressure on companies to make offices a place people actually want to be.

At Meta’s office in Kendall Square, it’s the cafeteria, dubbed the “Hack Shack,” that’s bringing employees back. On a recent weekday, more than 150 people showed up at lunchtime, filling meal trays with free helpings of tofu tikka masala, soft shell crab sandwiches, and tiramisu.

Kim Wilson, a site lead at the Cambridge office for the company formerly known as Facebook, said employees are increasingly choosing to work from the office a few days a week.

“Folks will come in once for a meeting,” she said. “And then they’re like, ‘Oh, I miss it,’ and start coming in on a regular basis.”

Meta, which employs about 500 people locally, recently signed a lease that will triple its office footprint in Kendall Square — a statement in itself about the future of in-person work. But Meta isn’t requiring employees to return to the office until early July and even then, will only mandate they spend about half of their time working in-person.

Cambridge-based CarGurus is asking people to come into the office two days a week beginning this month. Employees who come in get a $15 lunch stipend. Parking fees are also covered, and the company offers membership to a local gym nearby.

So far, the commute has been the biggest impediment to bringing employees back, but the perks help, said chief executive Jason Trevisan. In-person work will only help with mentorship, employee engagement, and efficiency, he said. Indeed the company is bullish enough on in-person work that it stuck with a pre-pandemic lease for more than 225,000 square feet at a headquarters building under construction in Back Bay.

“So many things that are currently 30-minute Zooms can be handled in a five-minute conversation, and you can do that if you walk by someone’s desk,” Trevisan said.

Of course, some executives still question whether it’s worth paying for underutilized office space.

Matt Carroll, chief executive of Boston-based software company Immuta, adopts a philosophy he calls “The Birds” to describe different types of employees: “eagles” make quick decisions, “owls” prefer to hunker down in silence, “parrots” enjoy collaborating with others. No one team, no two employees, he added, are quite the same.

“It’s easy for people to say, ‘come back to the office,’ or ‘don’t come back,’ or ‘do hybrid,’” he said. “But I think the future of offices … is every employee has an individual plan.”

On a recent weekday, a few dozen workers were at Immuta’s headquarters. They held impromptu conversations at each others’ desks, gathered for in-person and hybrid meetings, and grabbed food and coffee from the kitchen.

Immuta grew during COVID from about 15 employees in Boston to more than 60 and has leased a 16,000-square-foot office in the Seaport District. While employees are not required to come in, many do, including Bob Boule, 49, who drives in from Leominster several times a week.

“I struggled a little bit during the pandemic because Zoom was a hard communication method for me,” Boule, a senior product manager, said. “I spent my entire career going to an office and being able to sit down with folks.”

Before joining Immuta, Boule worked in Boston’s suburbs for 15 years. Though his commute was shorter, he said, “Burlington is not exactly the cultural mecca of the state.” Coming in to Boston allows him to be more social after work, whether that means having a beer with a colleague or heading to a Red Sox game.

“I just get up early so I can avoid all the traffic,” Boule said.

 

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