Big Tech wants its workers back in the office

Why are the world’s greatest disrupters clinging on to tradition?

Tech workers, like a lot of employees, do not want to go back to the office full time. Photograph: iStock

Tech workers, like a lot of employees, do not want to go back to the office full time. Photograph: iStock

 

The San Francisco exodus is over already. According to data from the US Postal Service, the number of people moving out of the Bay Area is back to pre-pandemic levels. Big Tech wants its workers back where it can see them.

In the midst of a truly disruptive global trend, the world’s greatest disrupters are clinging on to tradition. Companies such as Google may have delayed office reopenings but they have not given up completely. This conservatism contrasts with radical changes elsewhere in the sector. In May, cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase declared that it would close its San Francisco headquarters for good. In-person gatherings would be arranged for collaboration but day-to-day work would be remote. “If we had let our office-based inertia carry us into the future of work, we’d still be where we were almost a year ago,” wrote Dominique Baillet, head of employee experience.

Tech workers, like a lot of employees, do not want to go back to the office full time. Being evaluated on work rather than presenteeism is popular. So is avoiding time-consuming commutes and noisy open plan offices. In a survey of tech workers by job site Indeed, 95 per cent of people with the option to work from home permanently said they intended to take it.

Websites such as Build Remote are now tracking the companies that offer the option to work from anywhere. Q&A site Quora and cloud computer company Snowflake both joined the list this year. Twitter, Pinterest and Dropbox are among those that have moved to a “remote first” policy in which offices are available but remote work is supported.

Why then are so many of the world’s biggest tech bosses stuck on the idea that in-person work is better? Netflix boss Reed Hastings simply claims he sees no positives in remote working. Alphabet and Google chief executive Sundar Pichai says that seeing workers in offices fills him with “optimism”. Apple’s Tim Cook wrote that there was “something essential missing from this past year: each other”, according to a memo seen by The Verge.

This, of course, is not true. Thanks to the tools that tech companies themselves created, those of us whose job involves sitting in front of a computer have remained in constant contact throughout the pandemic.

Sounding insincere

Bosses who claim they want employees in offices because they like them risk sounding insincere. But declaring that the company has sunk millions into purpose built campus buildings and is concerned about managing a very large workforce at a distance would probably not make it past the internal comms team.

The problem with demanding that employees return to offices is how successful the involuntary remote work trial has been. It is hard to overstate the positive shock that working remotely works, declared Silicon Valley entrepreneur Marc Andreessen in an interview this summer. If it is feasible during a pandemic, it should work even better afterwards.

Andreessen, one half of the influential venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, is known for his evangelical belief in tech’s ability to improve the world. But he is right that remote work has not derailed employee productivity or company profits. Big tech companies have acknowledged this by accepting that full time office hours are not necessary. Some have even embraced it. Facebook will allow employees to request permanent remote work.

Others, however, still frame remote work as an employee perk. The hybrid arrangements they favour require workers to spend the majority of their working life in an office, meaning they cannot move away from expensive cities and must continue to spend hours commuting. In June, Apple told workers they would be expected to go back to the office for at least three days each week to “optimise our time for in-person collaboration”. Amazon has a “baseline” of three days a week in the office. Microsoft wants employees back half the time. Uber wants office-based employees to spend at least 50 per cent of their time there.

Smaller companies

Perhaps this is where smaller companies will get the chance to shine. Remote work cuts costs but it could also win over new hires. Competition is fierce. Offering employees the chance to choose where they work is one way to gain an edge over larger, wealthier companies.

Tech industry titans led the world in closing offices in the earliest days of the pandemic. They became immensely rich selling services that facilitated working from home arrangements. Their rejection of fully remote work is a strange conclusion to an extraordinary 18 months. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

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