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Those of us who enjoy freedom from the confines of an office have been warily eyeing a steady drumbeat of scary headlines: News of in-office mandate-related firings and forced relocations might give the sense that the tech industry is clawing back the remote-work culture cemented early in the pandemic. Even Zoom, synonymous with the post-office lifestyle, recently summoned some of its workforce on a part-time basis.
But outside of a few noteworthy showdowns between management and rank-and-file workers—usually from the usual suspects of in-office fanaticism, like Amazon and Goldman Sachs—experts say flexible, hybrid work is still the way of the future. While some tech companies are rethinking rules to perhaps yield more engagement or productivity, many are finding there is no universal answer for every team, HR execs and management researchers told Tech Brew.
“The [return-to-office] push that we see is just a few companies that are mentioned every time,” Prithwiraj Choudhury, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, said. “The data is showing that about 30% of all US workdays are being performed remotely, and it’s very stable. And the office occupancy numbers that I’ve seen are about 50%, and it’s been very stable…So I’m not seeing that big RTO push.”
More, smaller offices
That’s not to say that many bosses in tech aren’t deciding they want to see more of you. Some tech companies are indeed pushing toward a more hybrid structure than a fully remote one, sometimes at the expense of keeping employees who may have spread far and wide since the start of the pandemic. LGBTQ+ dating app Grindr reportedly lost nearly half its workforce after mandating workers move to a “hub city” and show up twice a week, and Meta has called in its employees to the office three days a week as of September. Some experts told CNBC that the workforce disruptions often caused by these moves make them tantamount to “layoffs in disguise.”
Colin Yasukochi, executive director of the Tech Insights Center at commercial real-estate group CBRE, said there has been a noticeable uptick in leasing activity from tech companies from a “fairly low” starting level around a year ago.
“I would say hybrid work for the tech industry—probably across all industries, but mostly in the tech industry—is something that’s definitely here to stay because it is a high priority for existing and new employees,” Yasukochi said. “No doubt that that’s resulted in most tech companies reducing the amount of space they want to have.”
But some of these companies—as well as existing tenants—are looking at how to deck out spaces to accommodate teams on varying schedules, he said. That generally means more hangout-type meeting spaces and fewer dedicated desks—something Yasukochi said that tech companies were already moving toward before the pandemic with their infamous foosball-table-and-kombucha-keg culture.
“Many of the companies have done some upgrades to their space to make it more welcoming, and a good experience for their employees,” Yasukochi said.
Choose your face-time
But the notion of “hybrid” work can mean different things to different people. The label might span everything from a few in-person days a week to a monthly travel bonanza. While surveys show that only around 15% of employees globally want to be fully remote, according to Brian Elliott, co-founder and former executive leader of the now-defunct Slack-backed work structure think tank Future Forum, there isn’t always agreement on what that will entail.
“The issue with three-day-a-week ‘Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday’ mandates is that one size does not fit all. The needs and rhythms of a sales team might be for a couple of days a week, while a product and engineering team does better with one week a month or a quarter,” Elliott said in an email. “In addition, if you’re telling people ‘be in three days a week to be with your team,’ it rings false with employees. In most larger tech firms, teams are now distributed…not just across buildings but across cities.”
For Wind River, an Aptiv-owned software company with about 1,700 global employees, management used to have “anchor days” where each team was expected to come into the office—every other Tuesday, for instance, according to the company’s chief people officer, Anuradha Mayer. But results from the program were mixed; some teams came in, others didn’t; many employees felt like they were coming in just to sit on Zoom all day.
Mayer said the company has since changed its tune, allowing each team to meet on a schedule that works for everyone involved, and meetings are designed to be more intentional in terms of why attendees are actually bothering to get together.
As for whether there will be a new norm established around this kind of setup, Mayer believes that will still depend on the specific needs of individual companies and teams. But they’ll likely fall somewhere on a spectrum that’s more flexible than the pre-pandemic status quo.
“I don’t think there’s going to be one-size-fits-all, I think it’s gonna be one-size-fits-one,” Mayer said. “Covid fundamentally changed how we work. And so there’s no way that we’re going to ever go back to where we were—I don’t care which company it is—they’re still going to have some level of flexibility in their models, otherwise, they won’t retain people.”
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