Tech giants were some of the first to send workers home. Now they’re figuring out how and whether to bring them back.
Amazon, on the other hand, believes the best way to keep its foothold as a leading tech giant is by bringing everyone back to an “office-centric culture,” as soon as it’s safely possible. In between are companies such as Google and Apple, which are allowing two work-from-home days every week.
Big tech companies were some of the earliest to shut down and lead the way for remote work at the start of the pandemic. Now many are evaluating the future, some choosing at least limited returns to expensive tech campuses, in which the largest companies have invested billions.
As they announce their plans, it’s becoming clear: Many of the same companies behind the technology that has made remote work possible for the past 15 months are not willing to buy into a fully remote workplace for themselves.
That has created tension among some white-collar tech workers, as the companies try to balance retaining control with the demands of employees who have grown used to managing their own locations and schedules. They’ve commiserated on internal forums and pushed back on early offerings from employers.
Now, many tech companies are inviting (or requiring) their employees to come back to the office a few days a week, most commonly three. Some including Google and Apple are adding on stretches of remote-work time, so people can take two or more weeks of working vacation from wherever they choose. A few like Facebook are letting some people apply to be fully remote, with plans of hiring more people to do so in the future.
As a whole, however, the companies’ plans acknowledge that 2020 changed how people work, and there’s no going back, at least not entirely.
“What bosses need to understand is that this experience we’ve all lived through has had as big an impact on how we think about life as any other world event in history,” said Jared Spataro, Microsoft’s executive overseeing modern work technology. “If you then go try to run a company like it’s 2019, workers might say, ‘I’ve changed, but you haven’t? Then I think I have to go make a change.’”
Microsoft announced most of its workers will be able to work remotely up to 50 percent of the time after offices are fully open, if their jobs allow and the workers choose to. The company, like many others including Slack and Twitter, conducted a survey of its employees to see what they wanted their work life to look like after the pandemic. Across the companies, many people want to come back to offices at least part time, and a smaller slice wants to go back full time.
Companies have slowly been releasing and adjusting their back-to-work plans.
Facebook has not committed to any new work-from-home policies yet. After some offices start opening to a portion of workers July 2, people who are back will be able to work from home one day a week, which was Facebook’s policy before the pandemic.
“As we get closer to re-opening our offices at scale, we’re considering our approach to in-office time, and expect this will likely evolve,” said Facebook spokesperson Katelyn Brehony in a statement.
Some employees at Facebook are unhappy with the system for choosing who can work fully remotely. The company is letting only workers at certain levels of seniority apply, though it varies between departments. According to Facebook, of the people who have applied to go fully remote so far, nearly 90 percent have been approved.
Google’s plans include most workers showing up in the office three days a week, though 20 percent of staff may end up working from home permanently, and another 20 percent might switch offices. Inside the company, it’s still unclear what exactly expectations will be and how they will differ between work locations and teams, one engineering employee said on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.
“The return-to-office plans announced so far for desk workers like me have so far been quite vague, so folks are generally waiting to see what we learn as more details are announced,” said Andrew Gainer-Dewar, a software engineer in Google’s Cambridge, Mass., office and member of the Alphabet Workers Union, in an email. “However, workers in Google’s child-care centers in the Bay Area have been called back to work without any provision for transportation, which was previously provided by Google’s network of shuttles.”
Google is helping those affected workers find short-term transportation, including carpools, spokesperson Katie Hutchison said. In a May memo, Google said leaders would be sharing remote-work details with specific teams by mid-June.
The exact terms of work could vary widely across the large companies, depending on specific teams and managers. While Amazon plans to return to “office-centric” life, the e-commerce giant also noted that employees had some flexibility to manage their work life before the pandemic, and that will continue. The company says it isn’t concerned about the potential impact on recruiting talent.
“We know people come, and stay, at Amazon because of the high levels of ownership they have over their work and the innovation happening around every corner,” Amazon spokesperson Jose Negrete said in a statement.
Apple announced its remote-work policy on Wednesday. In a memo sent out to employees, Apple said that workers would be back in the office in September and that they had to come to the office three days a week. Working from home will be available only Wednesdays and Fridays.
Still, companies may be forced to compete with one another to win the best talent and may offer more remote options as they recruit.
“This is what is required in order to stay at the top of our game,” said Slack chief people officer Nadia Rawlinson. She pointed out that tech recruiting has long been competitive and that flexibility in work life is now a must. Allowing remote work is especially important for companies hoping to have more racial diversity and inclusion on their teams, Rawlinson said.
Slack will allow most of its employees to apply to stay remote, with adjusted salaries based on location. Even chief executive Stewart Butterfield has moved away from the San Francisco Bay area to Colorado and plans to work from there.
In May 2020, at the height of San Francisco’s coronavirus shutdown, Slack employee Kendall Fallon packed up and moved to Dallas. The analyst relations senior manager had already planned to relocate before the pandemic to be closer to family and to accommodate her husband’s new job, and then the whole company went remote, too.
Now her three-person team is spread across different time zones, staying in touch over phone calls and — of course — Slack, where Fallon mixes work conversations with photos of her new puppy, Frank. She was originally hesitant about being fully remote, but having everyone else at home has helped make it seem less isolating.
“When we do shift to this flexible working environment, there’s just going to be this empathy of knowing what it’s like to work remote full time,” she said.
Filling seats at billion-dollar campuses
One major factor in the tech giants’ decisions is the billions they have spent on their campuses.
Before March 2020, many of the big technology companies in Silicon Valley were pouring money into elaborate new headquarters — from fancy downtown office towers to sprawling all-inclusive suburban campuses with parks and public spaces. The campuses are designed in part as a recruiting tool, with companies such as Google and Facebook offering perks such as free meals and napping pods.
Apple spent $5 billion on its four-year-old spaceship campus in Cupertino, Calif. Google is working on a planned 595,000-square-foot building in Mountain View and an 80-acre campus in San Jose. Facebook expanded its campus recently with new Frank Gehry buildings in Menlo Park.
Amazon never fully closed its 11 million-square-foot urban Seattle campus dotted with office towers, where some workers have kept going in during the pandemic. The company is building a second headquarters in Northern Virginia, where it says it will invest $2.5 billion. It plans to bring back the rest of its office workers as early as this summer and into the fall.
“Our plan is to return to an office-centric culture as our baseline,” Amazon said in a blog post in late March. “We believe it enables us to invent, collaborate, and learn together most effectively.”
(Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Uber’s new campus in the Mission Bay area of San Francisco was completed during the pandemic. The office, which was built to hold 5,000 workers, sat empty for months but was one of the first to welcome back a small number of employees at the end of March, though employees can work remotely until Sept. 13. Uber said it was returning to its pre-pandemic remote-work policies: Any employees had to come into the office they were hired to work in at least three days a week
The location of tech giants in hubs along the West Coast has been a big part of their success, experts said.
“There’s a reason all these companies are situated here, and the biggest reason of all is talent and knowledge-sharing,” said Patrick Kallerman, vice president of research at the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, a public-policy advocacy group. He predicts fully remote workforces will be the exception, not the rule.
Office life has changed forever
Already, some early volunteers who are going back are discovering a shortage of the usual perks and, in the case of Google’s child-care workers, necessities.
In Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., office, hot catering has been momentarily replaced by more sanitary boxed lunches. And regular shuttles between the dozens of buildings on its sprawling campus have been halted. Microsoft said the services will return as more employees come back to the office.
For the companies launching a hybrid work model, there are likely to be growing pains. Work experts point to problems with potential inequality when some workers get face time and others are remote. Others might change their minds about going back when they see co-workers doing it.
“I wonder how much FOMO we will see as people watch some of their colleagues or competitors go back to the office,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist at jobs listing site Indeed. “They might feel behind or left out if they work remotely.”
At Slack, if one person has to dial in to a meeting, everyone else does, too — even if that means people in the office will take the call from their desks.
At Microsoft, in-office workers can still go into conference rooms but are asked to face their chairs toward huge screens and dial in on their own devices on mute. That way, remote workers can still see their colleagues’ (virtual) faces up close and feel connected.
Microsoft’s Spataro said one thing the company’s early return to headquarters has revealed is just how isolating it can be for the few remote people on a conference call, staring at a group sitting near one another in real life. It’s a big shift from the past year, when nearly everyone was remote, to now have a split.
“We totally underestimated how bad it would feel to be the one looking in,” he said.
Google, which defined the Silicon Valley office of the mid-2000s and 2010s with its colorful slides between floors, outdoor volleyball courts and round-the-clock free food, has had a team working on ways to redesign how its workspaces look throughout the pandemic, the company said. Ideas include “balloon walls” that can inflate to provide extra privacy and separation, or circular conference rooms with a camera in the middle and large TV screens around the sides so people calling in aren’t limited by not being able to see their in-person colleagues, and vice versa.
Twitter, which announced a permanent remote-work policy already underway during the pandemic, has transformed its San Francisco headquarters, chief human resources officer Jennifer Christie said in an interview. When it partially reopens July 12, there will be no more assigned desks and team locations. Instead, certain areas will be designated as “quiet” and others as “social.”
It will continue to host its all-company meetings, which once were in the San Francisco headquarters’ auditorium, via video conference, she said. And it’s requiring employees who are a certain level, even executives, to work partially from home so employees who don’t come into an office aren’t left behind.
“We’re making sure there’s no advantage for coming into the office, that it’s not a center of gravity,” Christie said.
Still, people are excited for the office to reopen, she said. They miss their colleagues and they miss socializing, the company hears from regular employee surveys.
“We think we’re going to have a mad rush of people wanting to come in, and it’s probably going to stay that way for a while,” Christie said. But she expects it will quickly settle down as people figure out how often they want to work from home or be up close and personal with other people.
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