Nicole Tsai has amassed millions of views on TikTok by sharing videos of a typical day working for Google.
Upon entering the office in one, she grabs a handful of sweets at reception, takes a couple of video calls in themed meeting rooms adorned with gold sequin or butterflies and hangs out with “dooglers” (the dogs of staffers). “And, of course, everything you see in the office is free,” she declares in her voiceover over lunch before “wrapping up her day” in a massage chair.
Last Sunday, though, Tsai went viral with a starkly different video after posting “a day in the life getting laid off at Google”. Captioned with the hashtag #corporatelife, the montage of shots included a grey computer screen locked out of work accounts, Tsai crying, and scenes at Disneyland where she had sought solace.
Like tens of thousands of tech workers in recent weeks, Tsai found herself out of a job amid a brutal reckoning sweeping through the industry. After a years-long hiring spree to support ambitious growth plans, Big Tech is reining in its cost base after sector-wide plunges in share prices triggered by higher interest rates.
Alphabet’s chief executive Sundar Pichai last week said the company had “hired for a different economic reality than the one we face today”, as the Google parent announced it would cut 12,000 staff. Similar justifications were trotted out at Meta, Microsoft and other tech groups dismissing large numbers of people.
“Many people predicted this would be a permanent acceleration that would continue even after the pandemic ended...Unfortunately, this did not play out the way I expected,” said Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, as he reduced staffing by 11,000 people.
The chill wind in the sector is not just being felt in job losses, but also in that most distinctive feature of tech life: the office perk. Amid fierce competition for people at a time of huge profits, workers have had a sweetheart deal from Silicon Valley. Companies used an array of benefits and freebies to attract and retain talent as well as to keep employees in the office, preferably wearing branded clothing.
When signing a contract at a big tech group, staffers have grown to expect free or heavily-subsidised food, with multiple cuisines in the canteen. Trendy office space is another must, with plenty of breakout spaces for catching up with colleagues and blowing off some steam. Offices are often kitted with gyms and games rooms to keep body and mind healthy.
But with the balance of power tilting away from employees in the current market and with investors putting pressure on executives to boost profitability, companies are cutting back.
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In the past year, Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, has reduced its health and wellness benefits, cutting its in-house laundry service, ended taxi credits and slimmed food budgets. Alphabet’s job cuts are reported to have included some 27 in-house massage therapists and Salesforce is said to be ending “wellbeing days” — a day off once a month to focus on health issues.
Meanwhile, Elon Musk has slashed perks along with staff numbers at Twitter following his $44 billion takeover in favour of what he calls a hardcore work culture. The company is reported to be transitioning to a “partially paid” food policy and has reduced spending on subsidised travel and mobile phones. And more consequentially for some workers, reports have indicated fertility support benefits are being reduced.
For some employees who have come to like working remotely in the pandemic, office perks might be less of a draw than it once was to spend hours in the office. The adage that there is no such thing as a free lunch still applies.
As one analyst put it: many workers are keeping their heads down and hoping that cutting toro from the sushi bar is the only cut that affects them.
“Strangely, while the loss of perks can feel annoying in the moment, the gifting or removing of perks tends to have very limited impact on our opinions on our workplaces,” says Bruce Daisley, Twitter’s former European vice-president turned consultant on workplace culture. “The Smoothie Delusion is when firms think that gifting small luxuries makes us like our job more. In truth, it has no impact.”
Some cutbacks may have been inevitable. A prescient former vice-president at Facebook is said to have cautioned staffers at a company off-site a few years ago: “None of this is real; it won’t last forever.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023