Cambrian Resident

Reopenings may signal future of work

Google, Twitter, other companies launch experiment­s in how, when to bring their employees back to office

- By Ethan Baron ebaron@bayareanew­sgroup.com

A grand Silicon Valley experiment in how and where work will be done in a post-pandemic world has just gotten underway, with technology giants Google and Twitter last week announcing sharply different office reopening plans as other local firms wrestle with how and when to bring workers back to company desks.

Google wants most workers back in its Bay Area offices for three days a week in a “hybrid” workplace scheme, while Twitter said it would open all offices Tuesday but let most employees come in whenever they wish — or even work full time and permanentl­y from home.

“We're in the midst of a change and it could be a sea change,” said Russell Hancock, CEO of think tank Joint Venture Silicon Valley. “The old model was, `Go to work, stay at work, we're going to make it enticing to be at work, we're going to provide you food and an incredible array of amenities, just always be here.' We're not going back to that. If your employer is saying you must come work in the office 100% of the time, that will be seen as unacceptab­le, Stone Age behavior.”

It's too early to say which employment models will prevail in Silicon Valley, but many companies are preparing to test the waters very soon, said Kelly Obranowicz, policy and regulatory counsel for the Bay Area Council, which represents hundreds of employers including Silicon Valley technology giants.

The council's monthly employer survey in February, the 11th over the past year of about 200 firms, showed 70% of companies planned to start bringing workers back by the middle of this month, Obranowicz said.

“We haven't seen numbers that high so far,” Obranowicz said. “It is going to be a new test phase where we see, `How does this more hybrid environmen­t work?'”

The moves by Mountain View digital-advertisin­g firm Google and San Francisco social media company Twitter come on the heels of a dramatic loosening of COVID19-related restrictio­ns in the Bay Area and California. But the popularity of remote work among employees, combined with unique features of the Silicon Valley tech industry and uncertaint­ies about possible future coronaviru­s variants, mean decisions about new workplace schemes are complicate­d and fraught, experts said.

“It's perfectly clear people like working at home but that's not the end of the story — it's also clear that people like going to the office,” said Hancock of Joint Venture Silicon Valley. “There's still a whole bunch of sorting out. I think in another six months' time we'll sort of know where we've landed.”

A poll late last year by the Bay Area News Group and Joint Venture Silicon Valley revealed that 70% of the region's employees who were able to work from home wanted to work remotely most or all of the time once the pandemic ends. “If it's discovered that in bidding wars for talent that it really matters what the remote policy is, (companies) will adjust it accordingl­y,” Hancock said. “In Silicon Valley, let's not forget, it really is about the talent.”

And the talent is unlikely to be dragged back to the office against their will, said Homa Bahrami, a senior lecturer at UC Berkeley's Haas business school. “I don't think the workforce is willing to give up any flexibilit­y in that worklife balance,” Bahrami said.

Workers' appreciati­on for their newly acquired flexibilit­y is probably behind Google's decision to allow workers to apply for exemptions to the office-return order, the Bay Area Council's Obranowicz said.

Research indicates that about 30% of tech workers don't want to go into the office at all, said Nicholas Bloom, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “But the evidence suggests it may be harder for these employees to innovate, connect to the rest of the firm, and ultimately get promoted,” Bloom said.

Whether it makes sense for a company to have a particular worker in the office depends on the employee's job, Bahrami said. Someone in sales may need to come into an office a couple of times a month, or for all-hands meetings, Bahrami said, but “if you are in an innovation game where you're exploring, you're developing new things, there are definite benefits in being face to face,” she said. “I can see why Google says it wants to be back in the office because Google prides itself on being innovation-driven,” Bahrami added.

For many companies, remote work can weaken the norms and the informal rules that make up company culture, said Santa Clara University Leavey School of Business professor Jo-Ellen Pozner. Other companies may want to exert more overt control over employees by monitoring their work and hours closely, and resist letting employees work from home, Pozner added.

Most companies whose business allows for remote work have been saying that when they do bring employees back, they will, as Google has done, impose a hybrid model requiring workers to come into their offices three days a week, Obranowicz said.

But even that may not happen at first. “There's going to be a significan­t ramp-up phase,” Obranowicz said.

Although many business experts believe hybrid schemes will come out on top once all the experiment­ation is done, Pozner is not so sure.

“Hybrid has worked out for us as a patch, but I don't think hybrid work is the wave of the future,” Pozner said. “The evolution of the contempora­ry workplace, the pre-pandemic workplace, happened over the course of, like, three centuries. I suspect that we'll go back to something that looks like a pre-pandemic workplace over time because it evolved for a reason.”

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