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Where have all the receptionists gone?

Posted by Scott Kirsner  February 11, 2010 01:37 PM

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Every week, I visit almost as many offices as a hard-working Dunder-Mifflin paper salesman, all across eastern Massachusetts.

Increasingly, I've been noticing that the receptionist's desk is empty. Are receptionists a casualty of the recession? Are start-ups trying to prove they're being frugal with their investors' money? Both?

Today I was in Waltham, visiting a start-up that has raised about $40 million in venture capital funding. This is a picture of their receptionist's desk it has everything but the receptionist. As a visitor, you're expected to breeze past it, find someone sitting in the nearest office, and ask them for directions to the person you're there to see.

Often, the people who work in offices or cubicles closest to the door try to avoid eye contact when you enter; they don't like acting as the de facto receptionists, resenting the continual interruption of their work. Sometimes there's just a phone sitting on the receptionist's desk, with instructions about how to call the person you're looking for.

(You notice the lack of a receptionist when you call these companies, too: now, when you press 0 to talk to an operator, you inevitably wind up in a "general delivery" voicemail box. Does any human being ever check the messages left there?)

I wonder how long it will take before the vestigial receptionist's desk disappears from the layout of most offices or perhaps it'll remain as a symbol of corporate parsimoniousness?

There are a few companies that still invest, however, in making a good first impression on visiting journalists, job-seekers, and potential partners. The last time I was visiting VistaPrint's U.S. headquarters in Lexington (May 2009), I took this photo of the receptionist's desk, mostly because I liked her title: "Director of First Impressions." I hope that Dottie is still there...


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Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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