09/13/2022 Getwork

Are all tech companies returning to offices?

Is work-from-home over?

In March 2020, the world of work moved online, but as Covid-19 cases drop and we begin to live beyond the pandemic, some employers are encouraging employers to return to offices. From hybrid work mandates to 40-hour office-based working, what does this mean for the world of work?

Apple CEO Tim Cook has mandated that all Apple employees should return to the office three days per week from September 5th onwards. The move to hybrid working, which was initially set to begin in November 2021, has been pushed back time and time again due to spikes in Covid-19 cases. Now, with workers returning to the office every Tuesday and Thursday, and one further day dependent on their team, employees will be asked to wear masks in common areas.

The move by the Apple boss has been criticized internally and a petition has been circulated by a group of workers called Apple Together. This group feels that a “uniform mandate” is unfair to workers who are happier and more productive at home. Reportedly, over 10,000 Apple employees have joined a Slack channel called “Remote Work Advocacy”. 

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has had a similar three-days-a-week rule in place since April. However, this rule excludes employees who are unvaccinated. 

Alphabet employees have pushed back, citing that they have worked so efficiently during the pandemic that the company enjoyed its fastest revenue growth in 15 years, so why should they return to offices? 

In the six months since Alphabet employees have returned to the office, there have been a number of Covid-19 outbreaks. In LA, Google’s Covid-19 outbreak is the highest of any employer in the city whilst both Silicon Beach and Playa Vista campuses have reported over 100 cases. The internal image-sharing site, Memegen, is now filled with staffers sharing memes about confirmed Covid-19 cases in the offices. 

53% of employees are more likely to prioritize health and wellbeing over work than before the pandemic. Yet Alphabet appears to be demonstrating to employees that return to work is far more important. 

Never doing anything by halves, Elon Musk, Tesla CEO, told his employees in May that they must return to the office 40 hours a week, or quit. In a leaked email with the subject line “remote work is no longer acceptable”, Musk stated that “Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean *minimum*) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla. This is less than we ask of factory workers.” For anyone looking for an exemption, these would have to apply to Musk directly. 

In what has been called a “draconian” move, Tesla workers are tracked by their badges, to ensure that skipping out of the office for a day is simply not an option. 

Time and time again, Musk has been anti-remote work stating that people working from home are just “pretending to work” and that no innovation can come from remote work. 

Research from Microsoft into work trends has shown that employee priorities have shifted substantially after over two years of remote working. Their research has shown that good leaders must create a culture that embraces flexibility and wellbeing in order to have a competitive advantage. 

It appears that there is a substantial disjoint between what employers are planning and what employees are looking for. 50% of leaders say that their company either already has, or plans to in the next year, require employees back to the office full time whereas over half of workers plan to consider shifting to remote or hybrid in the year ahead. 

For organizations looking to attract talent, LinkedIn has reported that 1 in 7 roles advertised has a remote option, compared to 1 in 67 in the weeks prior to the pandemic. Remote roles attract 2.6 times more views and nearly 3 times more applicants compared to onsite roles. 

Given this research, it is no surprise that Microsoft has adopted a more flexible approach. With each role advertised they list which work site options are available. These are up to 50% work from home, up to 100% work from home, and Microsoft on-site only. To help leaders develop hybrid teams, they have published guidance on developing team agreements so that all employees are aware of certain team habits and expectations to boost collaboration and productivity. 

Many tech companies have gone one step further and developed a “trust-based” approach which allows employees to work in a way that suits them. 

Spotify launched its work from anywhere program in February 2021. Each employee and their manager were empowered to decide the working arrangement, with the organization providing complementary co-working space membership for Spotify employees who live far away from Spotify offices but would like a desk. 

Meanwhile, Twitter CEO, Parag Agrawal, published a company-wide announcement on Twitter. He stated that wherever an employee feels most productive and creative will be where they are allowed to work. 

However, Agrawal did note the challenges of distributed working. He recognized that when everyone is working from home it is a lot easier, but when some people are office based, some remote, and some hybrid, this creates challenges. He especially comments on hybrid meetings, and the pain points these create. 

Proximity bias is just one of the challenges facing the most flexible employers. In 2015, a Chinese travel agency randomly selected call center employees to work from home or work in the office for a period of nine months. Of these employees, the work-from-home employees were 13% more productive, 9% of which was down to taking fewer breaks and fewer sick days. Home workers also reported more job satisfaction and were less likely to leave their job or be laid off. 

However, despite these benefits performance related promotions fell for the work-from-homers by around half. Evidence of proximity bias is that those in the office under the leaders’ and managers’ noses are more likely to be noticed. 

Furthermore, more recent research has suggested that in fact, working from home long term gradually makes us less productive. Fewer water-cooler moments and organic collaboration across teams mean less innovation.

Microsoft’s approach to “team agreements” that cover everything from meeting etiquette to beginning meetings at 5 minutes past the hour or the half hour to allow breathing space between meetings, could be the solution. Ensuring that employees who are remote all the time or some of the time are always engaged and that office-based employees are encouraged and committed to engaging with these employees they may never meet face-to-face. 

The fact of the matter is, the research so far is inconclusive, only in another few years when we are able to compare these approaches longitudinally will we be able to more certain conclusions. 

As employers, we must prioritize the wellbeing of our employees and where they feel most productive. Employee opinion should inform internal policies moving forward to reduce attrition.