Silicon Valley Finds Remote Work Easier To Start Than To End
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Tech companies that led the charge in remote working as the pandemic unfolded face a new challenge as the crisis ends: how, when, and even if they need to bring back employees for a long time isolated in offices that were designed for teamwork.
“I thought this period of remote work would be the most difficult year and a half of my career, but it wasn’t,” said Brent Hyder, director of human resources for the enterprise software maker. Salesforce and its more than 65,000 employees around the world. âRestarting everything properly is proving even more difficult. “
This transition has been complicated by the rapid spread of the delta variant, which has scrambled the plans of many tech companies to bring back most of their workers before or after Labor Day weekend. Microsoft has pushed those dates back to October while Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and a growing list of others have already decided to wait until next year.
Given how they set the tone for remote working, back-to-office policies from tech companies are likely to have ripple effects in other industries. The next steps for employers could redefine how and where people work, predicts Laura Boudreau, an assistant professor of economics at Columbia University who studies workplace issues.
âWe went beyond the topic of remote working being a temporary thing,â says Boudreau. The longer the pandemic lasts, she says, the harder it becomes to tell employees to come back to the office, especially full-time.
Because they typically revolve around digital and online products, most tech jobs are tailor-made for remote work. Still, most big tech companies insist their employees be ready to work in the office two or three days a week after the pandemic ends.
The main reason: Tech companies have long believed that employees clustered in a physical space will exchange ideas and spawn innovations that probably wouldn’t have happened in isolation. It’s one of the reasons the tech titans have invested billions of dollars in corporate campuses interspersed with alluring common spaces meant to lure employees out of their cubicles and into “the occasional collisions.” turn into brainstorming sessions.
But the concept of “innovation for water chillers” may be overstated, says Christy Lake, human resources manager for enterprise software maker Twilio.
âThere is no data to support that this really happens in real life, and yet we all agree with it,â Lake said. âYou can’t put genius back in the bottle and say to people, ‘Oh, you’ve got to be back in the office or innovation won’t happen.’ “
Twilio will not be bringing most of its roughly 6,300 employees back to its offices until early next year at the earliest, and plans to allow most of them to determine how often they should come.
This hybrid approach of allowing employees to switch between remote and office work has been widely adopted in the tech industry, especially among the larger companies with the highest payroll.
Nearly two-thirds of the more than 200 companies responding to a mid-July survey in the tech-centric Bay said they expected their employees to come to the office two or three days a week. Before the pandemic, 70% of those employers required their employees to be in the office, according to the Bay Area Council, a trade policy group that commissioned the survey.
Even Zoom, the Silicon Valley video conferencing service that saw its revenue and price soar during the pandemic, says most of its employees still prefer to come to the office every now and then. âThere is no one-size-fits-all approach to getting back to the office,â Kelly Steckelberg, Zoom’s CFO, recently wrote in a blog post.
But the biggest tech companies, which have profited even more than Zoom from the pandemic that has made their products indispensable to many workers, are not giving employees much choice in the matter. Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft have made it clear that they want most of their employees to meet at least a few days a week to maintain their culture and pace of innovation.
This well-worn credo sounds like backward for Ed Zitron, who runs a PR firm representing tech companies – and who has been totally distant since its launch in 2012.
The only reason for having an office, he says, is to satisfy managers with special interests in bringing people together “so that they can look at them and feel good with the people they have … so that they can take advantage of this power “.
The shift to hybrid work is ideal for people like Kelly Soderlund, a mother of two young children who works out of offices in San Francisco and Palo Alto, Calif., For travel management company TripActions, which has approximately 1,200 employees in the world. She was eager to return when the company partially reopened its offices in June, in part because she missed the built-in buffer that her roughly one-hour commute offered between her personal and work life.
âWhen I don’t have this, I wake up in the morning, start work and take my kids to their camp or daycare,â Soderlund says. “And then I come back and work, then we pick them up, cook dinner, and then I go back to work.” So I feel like it’s just work all the time.
Soderlund believes being together in an office leads to more collaboration, although she has also learned from the pandemic that workers don’t have to be there every day for teamwork to happen.
Camaraderie and the need to separate work from home are among the top reasons employees at enterprise software maker Adobe Software cited for returning to the office, said Gloria Chen, director of human resources for one of the most old Silicon Valley companies. Working from home “is here to stay, but we also continue to value people who come together,” she said.
The transition after the pandemic is expected to allow small tech companies to adopt more flexible work-from-home policies that could help them attract top engineers from other companies who are more insistent on having people in the office, says Boudreau, the Columbia University researcher.
âLabor markets are relatively tight now, so employees have more bargaining chips than they’ve had in some time,â says Boudreau.
Ankur Dahiya, who launched his software startup RunX last year during pandemic lockdowns, believes remote working has helped him hire employees who might not otherwise have been candidates. The eight-employee startup rents an office in San Francisco one day a week so Dahiya can meet with employees who live nearby, but other employees are located in Canada, Nevada and Oregon. Workers living outside California fly once every three months for “super productive” meetings and brainstorming, says Dahiya, who has previously worked on Facebook and Twitter.
âI have worked in offices for the past 10 years and know there is so much time wasted,â Dahiya says, recalling all the random conversations, long meetings, aimless wanderings and other disruptions. that seem to occur in these contexts.
Twilio’s Lake hopes the remote working experience will also transform the behavior of employees in the office, once they return. She hopes the remote experience has given employees a better understanding of how their teams work.
âI think more than anything that this is going to cause us to become more intentional about when, why and how we get together,â she says.