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Silicon Valley finds remote work is easier to begin than end

by Mary Sewell

SAN FRANCISCO — 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 how it needs to be is proving even more difficult.”

Given how they set the tone for remote work, tech companies’ return-to-office policies will likely have ripple effects across other industries. That transition has been complicated by the rapid spread of the delta variant, which has scrambled many tech companies’ plans 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 to wait until next year. Employers’ next steps could redefine how and where people work, predicts Laura Boudreau, a Columbia University assistant economics professor who studies workplace issues.

Silicon Valley

“We have moved beyond the theme of remote work being temporary,” Boudreau says. She says the longer the pandemic has stretched, the harder it’s to tell employees to return 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 prominent 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 is: Tech companies have long believed that employees clustered together in 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 desirable 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. “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.’ No data support that happens in real life, yet we all subscribe to it,” Lake says. “ Twilio isn’t 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 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 most prominent 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 expect 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.

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 made their products indispensable for many workers, aren’t giving employees much choice. 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 “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 the 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.

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