Tech companies cautiously bring people back while employees falter

Atsuko Bolinguit, with tech startup Fast, works in her office on March 24, 2021 in San Francisco, California.

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Starting Monday, Google is bringing most employees back to assigned physical offices three days a week. The company has said since the start of the pandemic that it eventually wants people to return.

Many workers don’t understand why, and expressed their concerns at a recent town hall meeting.

“Google has made record profits during the pandemic,” CEO Sundar Pichai said, reading a question submitted by an employee and upvoted by many other members of Google’s internal board called Dory. “Why doesn’t the RTO policy work from the desktop when you want it to or when it makes sense?”

Google’s balancing act is shared by many employers, especially as soaring gas prices are making long commutes and traffic jams even more unpleasant than they were two years ago . Tech companies in particular have outperformed during the pandemic, thanks in part to a wide array of cloud-based collaboration tools. Employees have become accustomed to flexibility and family time.

Companies now face a test to see how employees will react as some optional work situations become mandatory and the labor market continues to tighten. Megan Slabinski of consultancy and recruitment firm Robert Half said two-thirds of employers say they want workers back to “almost full-time”, and half of employees say they would seek new employment if that was necessary.

“It’s fascinating the level of disconnect between employers and employees,” said Slabinski, who oversees the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, Utah and Northern California as district chairman Robert Half.

Walk backward

Some companies have already changed their policies several times before returning to the office.

In June, Amazon reneged on its original return plan, telling company employees it would allow them to return to the office three days a week instead of full-time. The company said it “learns and evolves as it goes.” In October, Amazon said the decision would be left to individual teams.

Microsoft and Google have added 30-day “transition” periods to make it easier for workers to return to their new schedule.

Last spring, when Google first tried to bring employees back to the office before Covid-19 cases spiked again, the company said employees could apply to work remotely for up to 12 months. , but would only be approved in “the most exceptional circumstances”. They could also be called back to an assigned desk at any time.

Management has since softened the tone. Google says it approved 85% of relocation or permanent telecommuting requests.

Sean Gallup | Getty Images News | Getty Images

“You are adults and we trust you to do what is right for you, your families and your life, while respecting the new baseline,” Prabhakar Raghavan, who oversees research, ads and marketing, wrote recently. Commerce, in a memo to employees. “We don’t expect 100% fidelity to the 24/7 hybrid 3-2 workweek.”

At the town hall, Pichai said “there’s a real desire for people to communicate and collaborate, so we’re trying to balance all of that,” according to audio obtained by CNBC. “We will continue to watch all of this closely,” he said.

One reason for the partial return, Pichai said, is for people to get to know their colleagues.

“We’ve hired so many people over the past two years who just have no idea how the business works,” he said.

Even Twitter, which announced in 2020 that employees could work remotely “forever,” told employees last month that “distributed work will be much, much harder.” CEO Parag Agrawal, who replaced Jack Dorsey at the end of last year, said he had hoped to see people in the office because working in person “will bring this culture to life in such a powerful way”. .

wait and watch

Slabinski said some companies wait to see what their peers are doing before making big decisions. Amazon, for example, hasn’t announced a new return date.

“I think there’s an element where somebody has to start demanding people come back,” Slabinski said. “Amazon backed off when they started seeing attrition and now Google is demanding people be back in place and it’s like hoping the rest of the industry will join us and it won’t become a reason for resignation.”

Another challenge for employers is to synchronize schedules. Apple has designated Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays as attendance days. Other tech companies have kept their plans vague.

Colin Yasukochi, executive director of real estate firm CBRE, said he expects the San Francisco commercial real estate market to become more competitive in the second and third quarters, when there will be better direction of the request.

“They’re all acting cautiously because they don’t really want to lose key employees,” Yasukochi said, adding that some people end up not seeing the point of coming in when they feel office emptiness.

“There’s nothing worse than ‘Oh, I made that effort to come in and put on some real pants today and I’m the only one there,'” Yasukochi said. He said his San Francisco CBRE office was at 20% to 30% capacity “on a good day.”

‘Roll the dice’

Employee retention and satisfaction are more critical than ever in the tech industry as record numbers of people in the United States leave their jobs and explore new opportunities. Forcing people to move is an additional risk.

“They’re rolling the dice and that’s a bet I’m not sure I want to make in this environment,” Slabinski said.

Small businesses could have the upper hand over talent, she added.

“They could really differentiate their opportunities where they might not be able to compete for the competition, but they could provide flexibility and confidence,” Slabinski said.

Google falls back on one of its best tricks: perks.

Before the company announced a new return date, David Radcliffe, Google’s vice president of real estate and workplace services, wrote an email to employees in the Bay Area, announcing that on-campus amenities such as fitness centers, free meals, lounges, game rooms and massages were open back.

There are signs that other things are coming back as well. Brandi Susewitz, founder and CEO of corporate furniture retailer Reseat, said her business had more than doubled since December. Most of his clients are “cautiously optimistic” in their office planning. Reseat works with companies like Yelp, Uber, and Oracle.

Susewitz said she gets some pretty interesting furniture requests. One thing people want is individual phone booths.

“Instead of having assigned seating, they’re doing renovations to make it open seating, a hotel environment,” she said. They “design spaces to be more like living rooms.”

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