Silicon Valley finds remote work is easier to begin than end
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Technology companies that led the charge into remote work as the pandemic unfurled are confronting a new challenge: how, when and even whether they should bring long-isolated employees back to offices that have been designed for teamwork.
“I thought this period of remote work would be the most challenging year-and-half of my career, but it’s not,” said Brent Hyder, the chief people officer for business software maker Salesforce and its roughly 65,000 employees worldwide. “Getting everything started back up the way it needs to be is proving to be even more difficult.”
That transition has been complicated by the rapid spread of the delta variant, which has scrambled the plans many tech companies had for bringing back most of their workers near 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 wait until next year.
Given how they set the tone for remote work, tech companies’ return-to-office policies will likely have ripple effects across other industries. Employers’ next steps could redefine how and where people work, predicts Laura Boudreau, a Columbia University assistant economics professor who studies workplace issues.
“We have moved beyond the theme of remote work being a temporary thing,” Boudreau says. The longer the pandemic has stretched on, she says, the harder it’s become to tell employees to come back to the office, particularly full time.
Because they typically revolve around digital and online products, most tech jobs are tailor made for remote work. Yet most major tech companies insist that their employees should be ready to work in the office two or three days each week after the pandemic is over.
The main reason: Tech companies have long believed that employees clustered together in a physical space will swap ideas and spawn innovations that probably wouldn’t have happened in isolation. That’s one reason tech titans have poured billions of dollars into corporate campuses interspersed with alluring common areas meant to lure employees out of their cubicles and into “casual collisions” that turn into brainstorming sessions.
But the concept of “water cooler innovation” may be overblown, says Christy Lake, chief people officer for business software maker Twilio.
“There is no data that supports that really happens in real life, and yet we all subscribe to it,” Lake says. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle and tell people, ‘Oh you have to be back in the office or innovation won’t happen.’ “
Twilio isn’t bringing back 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 figure how frequently they should come in.
This hybrid approach permitting employees to toggle between remote and in-office work has been widely embraced in the technology industry, particularly among the largest companies with the biggest payrolls.
Nearly two-thirds of the more than 200 companies responding to a mid-July survey in the tech-centric Bay Area said they are expecting their workers to come into the office two or three days each week. Before the pandemic, 70% of these employers required their workers to be in the office, according to the Bay Area Council, a business policy group that commissioned the poll.
Even Zoom, the Silicon Valley videoconferencing service that saw its revenue and stock price soar during the pandemic, says most of its employees still prefer to come into the office part of the time. “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to returning to the office,” Kelly Steckelberg, Zoom’s chief financial officer, recently wrote in a blog post.
But the biggest tech companies, which have profited even more than Zoom as the pandemic that made their products indispensable for many workers, aren’t giving employees much choice in the matter. Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have made it clear that they want most of their workers together at least a few days each week to maintain their culture and pace of innovation.
That well-worn creed sounds like backward thinking to Ed Zitron, who runs a public relations firm representing technology companies — and which has been fully remote since it launched in 2012.
The only reason to have an office, he says, is to satisfy managers with vested interests in grouping people together “so that they can look at them and feel good about the people that they own … so that they can enjoy that power.”
Switching to hybrid work is ideal for people like Kelly Soderlund, a mother of two young children who works in offices in San Francisco and Palo Alto, California, for travel management company TripActions, which has about 1,200 employees worldwide. She couldn’t wait to return when the company partially reopened its offices in June, partly because she missed the built-in buffer that her roughly one-hour commute provided between her personal and professional life.
“When I don’t have that, I wake up in the morning, I start doing work and I take my kids to their camp or their daycare,” Soderlund says. “And then I come back and I work and then we pick them up, make dinner and then I go back to work. So, it feels like it’s just work all the time.”
Soderlund believes being together in an office leads to more collaboration, although she also learned from the pandemic that workers don’t need 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 business software maker Adobe cite for coming back to the office, said Gloria Chen, chief people officer for one of Silicon Valley’s older companies. Working from home “is here to stay, but we also continue to value people coming together,” she said.
The transition from the pandemic should enable smaller tech companies to adopt more flexible work-from-home policies that may help them lure away top-notch engineers from other firms more insistent on having people in the office, says Boudreau, the Columbia University scholar.
“Labor markets are relatively tight now, so employees have more bargaining chips than they have had in a while,” Boudreau says.
Ankur Dahiya, who launched his software startup RunX last year during the pandemic lockdowns, believes that remote work has helped him hire employees that otherwise may not have been candidates. The eight-worker startup rents a San Francisco office one day a week so Dahiya can meet with employees who live nearby, but other employees are in Canada, Nevada, and Oregon. The workers living outside of California have been flying in once every three months for “super productive” meetings and brainstorming, says Dahiya, who has previously worked at Facebook and Twitter.
“I’ve worked in offices for the last 10 years and I know there’s just so much time lost,” Dahiya says, recalling all the random conversations, lengthy meetings, aimless wandering, and other disruptions that seem to occur in those settings.
Twilio’s Lake is hoping the remote-work experience will transform employee behavior in the office, too, once they come back. She hopes that the remote experience will have given employees a chance to better understand how their teams work.
“I think more than anything it is going to cause us to become more intentional about when, why and how we come together,” she says.
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
RunX CEO Ankur Dahiya, center, takes part in a video meeting with employees JD Palomino, top left, and Nitin Aggarwal, right, at a rented office in San Francisco, Friday, Aug. 27, 2021.
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
RunX CEO Ankur Dahiya, center, takes part in a meeting with employees JD Palomino, right, and Nitin Aggarwal, left, at a rented office in San Francisco, Friday, Aug. 27, 2021.
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Kelly Soderlund, right, works with a colleague at the TripActions office in San Francisco, Friday, Aug. 27, 2021.
Kelly Soderlund via AP
In this photo provided by Kelly Soderlund, shows Kelly working remotely from her home in Walnut Creek, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.
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Remote work is here to stay for workers in industries who don't need to be in a building to do their jobs. Work and personal lives met in unprecedented ways during the COVID-19 pandemic, with workplace aspects like productivity and collaboration meeting the personal aspects of childcare, eldercare, and mental health of employees. While lives were upset in many ways, workers mostly reported seeing increased benefits of working from home, forcing a reckoning of what "back to normal" will look like as it becomes safe to re-enter the office. Employees mostly reported increased benefits of working from home, while employers aren’t so sure if they want to let the trend continue.
As offices begin to bring workers back, just what that looks like varies across industries and specific workplaces. Some companies are toying with bringing their whole workforce back into the office full-time, while others are considering closing the office entirely, like Twitter just did with its New York and San Fransisco offices. Still others are exploring a hybrid model, asking employees to come into the office a couple times a week or for specific meetings and team collaboration.
To see where these discrepancies lie, Pyn compiled statistics from PwC's U.S. Remote Work Survey, which outlines the concerns and expectations of executives versus employees when it comes to the future of remote work. The survey defines an executive as someone who makes high-level decisions in the workplace, such as the return to in-person work. In November and December 2020, PwC surveyed 133 executives and 1,200 office workers to find out what practices are here to stay and what's about to change. Read on to see where employers and employees differ on remote work.
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Of the employees surveyed, 34% of employees reported increased productivity when working remotely, compared to 52% of executives. Not all positions are better as remote jobs, some employers have found. A large-scale study by the McKinsey Institute found remote productivity can't be measured by specific industries, but by the kind of activity each employee is doing. Some creative jobs—like graphic design or tech-based vocations that involve computers—can see more productivity when they're at home with a laptop, but workers in other jobs don't experience the same increase in productivity. Even though teaching or running business strategy can be performed from home during emergency situations like a pandemic, some say the tasks involved are simply more effectively done in person.
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Everything happened in a flash: On Jan. 21, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the U.S., and by March 19, California became the first state to issue a stay-at-home order. Given such a quick shift, managerial qualifications came into question: 27% more executives than employees believe managers were properly trained to lead in remote environments. Employers and employee priorities came into strict focus. Outside of the medical community, no one could have known the extent to which COVID-19 would affect everyone’s lives. With little time to prepare, employees at all levels were forced to adapt to the new normal. This drove up the demand for workforce training, which also includes training on non-technical topics like diversity and inclusion. Connecting remotely is different from face-to-face interaction, so training on leadership looks different in that environment.
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Child care needs vary from home to home, depending on the needs of each family and its children. Of those surveyed, 81% of executives say their company successfully expanded child care benefits under remote work, but only 45% of employees said the same. The nonprofit Catalyst found that working mothers who have the option to do their work remotely are 32% less likely to leave their jobs than working mothers who don't have the option to work from home. Increased flexibility is a big reason for this finding, but employers expanding child care benefits is another factor that can have a dramatic effect on parents' abilities to stay in their jobs and perform well.
Some parents juggled managing young children's online schooling while simultaneously performing their work duties remotely—both experiences oftentimes being new and unfamiliar and coming at the same time. In two-parent homes, one caretaker may have been on the front lines while the other was left to work and take care of a student with a learning disability. Experts on work-life balance say that parents' personal lives were highlighted in a new way because of remote work, and employers should be making child care benefits a priority.
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Employers say the office's main purpose is to increase employee productivity, while employees say it's to provide space for collaboration. There is currently a debate on whether productivity and collaboration are at odds, and this data point suggests they are. Some employees can see collaborative spaces as distracting to productivity. Because of this, many companies, research centers, and experts have looked into what is actually considered "productive" versus "distracting." In a 2015 Google study, researchers found the average office worker spends most time at work on mundane tasks like tracking, analysis, and formatting, not creativity and idea generation. What may look productive may not be productive at all. If employees are going to be working from home most of the time, one management author says, collaboration needs to be thoughtfully integrated via technology. The author also points out that collaboration is not a given with in-person workspaces that don't also thoughtfully design offices that allow for collaboration without the distraction and interruptions that many open-offices actually facilitate.
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In the same way that needs vary in homes where the employee is also a parent, mental health needs are different in each case. When it comes to mental health management, 26% more executives than employees thought their companies had done enough to support workers' mental health. Caring about workers' mental health isn't just the humane thing to do; neglecting care can negatively affect productivity in the workplace too. According to the Business Group on Health, 62% of missed work days are attributed to mental health, and many mental health issues affect focus and productivity levels. If employees are reporting they don't have enough support, it could bring the productivity of the entire company down—which should be of real concern to employers for whom productivity is a top priority. The COVID-19 pandemic increased mental health burdens of workers and highlights inadequate care, from employees lacking good health insurance to employers not accounting for the increased stressors and grieving their employees experience.
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By December 2021, 91% of surveyed executives expect workers to spend at least 50% of their time in the office, but only 77% of employees expect to work half of their time in-person by that point. There's no consensus on whether all employees want to return to the office, but there are strong opinions on how much work is necessary to do in person. Some workers found benefits they didn't anticipate from working from home more days during the week, like greater focus, while others simply prefer to put on an outfit and go to the office every day.
Employees now risk a different set of struggles if their companies allow them to stay home, like increased surveillance. One tracking software company, Awareness Technologies, told NPR they saw their business triple during the initial COVID-19 outbreak. If workers are staying home, some employers expect to still have some say over what workers can and can't do during work hours.
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Some workplaces are easing their employees back into the office with a mixed in-person and remote approach. Of those surveyed, 55% of employees said they'd prefer to work at least three days a week remotely, but 68% of surveyed executives said employees should spend at least three days a week in the office. There are five different hybrid models that companies are considering, each with its own benefits. The PwC survey indicates employers are favoring an "office-centric" hybrid model, where most of the week is spent in the office.
Other options include "remote friendly," which places parameters on which days or which employees can work from home, and "fully flexible hybrid," which lets everyone choose when they want to come in. Unsurprisingly, more employees want the bulk of the week to be spent working from home, while employers would prefer their workers spend more time in the office than out of it.
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While 29% of employees want to work remotely full time, only 5% of surveyed employers believe exclusive remote work can support company culture. The elements that make up company culture have drastically changed during the pandemic. The after-work drinks, seminars, lunch-and-learns, and company traditions halted altogether or were transferred to Zoom. But many employees who went remote found that missing the workplace culture aspects of their job didn't affect their productivity—and some workers don't miss the "culture" at all.
Workplace activity is still lower than pre-pandemic levels, Bloomberg reported this June, with many employers choosing to keep their workforce working remotely or slowly filtering some employees back into the office, sometimes just a day or two per week. With continuing health risks, COVID-19 variants, and mask and vaccine mandates to consider, many workers don't want to return to the office any time soon, if at all.
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26% of executives said they prefer limiting remote work but are prepared to offer remote flexibility to retain and attract talent. Employers found themselves in a pickle in recent months, when many wanted workers to return to the office and faced pushback and refusals from employees who have grown accustomed to working from home. Some workers are deciding to quit rather than return to in-person working. Accordingly, executives who don't necessarily want a remote workforce are willing to allow remote-work flexibility in order to retain or attract talent.
Still, empty office buildings are not the goal for these employers. In New York, Manhattan has the most available office space square footage ever since 2003. Expensive rents and supplies like desks and office chairs could go to waste.
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Though they disagree on the extent, employers and employees overall agree remote work will continue post-pandemic, and about 72% of executives say they've invested in tools for virtual collaboration. These tools go far past Zoom. Companies are investing in software for meeting transcription, and offering multiple channels for employees to communicate with one another from anywhere. Document-sharing software is becoming important for teams who collaborate from afar. Human resource experts say the pandemic exposed the digital readiness, or lack thereof, companies had pre-pandemic. Catching up means exploring all the different tools out there and deciding what works best for each team.
This story originally appeared on Pyn and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.