Across the United States, executives from big tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook are engaged in a delicate dance with thousands of employees who have recently become convinced that physically going to an office every day is an empty and unacceptable demand. from them. employers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced these businesses to operate with a predominantly remote workforce for consecutive months. And since many of them are based in areas with relatively high vaccination rates, calls to return to the physical office started ringing over the summer.
But thousands of well-paid workers in these companies don’t have it. Many of them don’t want to go back to the office full time, even if they are willing to do so a few days a week. Workers even point out how effective they used to be when they were completely away and use it to wonder why they have to continue living in the expensive towns where these offices are located.
Some tech leaders (like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey) agreed, or at least saw the writing on the wall. They have adopted permanent or semi-permanent changes in their company policies to make part-time or even full-time remote work the norm. Others (like Apple’s Tim Cook) are working hard to find a way to put everyone back in their place as soon as possible, despite organized resistance.
Either way, the work cultures of the tech companies that make everything from iPhones to Google Search are facing a wave of major transformation.
it didn’t start in 2020
The gospel of a remote working future has long been preached by a dedicated executive in Silicon Valley and other tech startup hubs. Influencers, writers, and business consulting gurus have been saying for years that, thanks to today’s technology, working in an office is destined to be a thing of the past.
There is no apparent justification for resisting remote working, other than a sort of management control insecurity, supporters argue. And to support their argument, they cite studies that suggest that some employees in certain types of jobs are happier and more productive when remote working is an option. Studies also refute the hypothesis that productivity is always lower when remote working is the norm.
The movement peaked in the late 2000s, when tech unicorn optimism swept the business world and some prominent leaders of the new wave of startups seemed comfortable with the idea. But remote working has seen dramatic setbacks. Notably, Yahoo !, then known as one of the big tech companies most suited to teleworkers, changed course in the early 2010s under the leadership of then-CEO Marissa Mayer, who demanded that a vast fleet of remote workers had to relocate and show up. at their assigned offices.
Since that and other similar incidents around this time, the remote working movement has been quieter.
Remote work advocates and the business establishment seemed to have come to an agreement. Companies like Google or Twitter would let employees work from home periodically as needed (for example, to care for a sick child or even for an occasional mental health day). But in most cases, the culture required workers not to play this card too often. Remote working was a privilege, not a right, and employees generally could not relocate outside of the daily commute range of the cities where these companies were based.
As house prices skyrocketed and traffic escalated in cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles and Austin, and economic inequalities worsened as a result, prominent commentators still occasionally wrote editorials that were basically saying, “Well, maybe some of these problems would be alleviated if business leaders were more open to remote working.” But the most radical vision of the telework movement seemed dead in the water.
And then the pandemic arrived.
The involuntary revolution
Companies whose executives have long said remote working would never work have found themselves with no other option. In traditional businesses, the digital transformation movement has accelerated dramatically to meet the need. And in some tech startups, the transition has been so smooth that many employees (and even managers) have wondered why it hasn’t all been tried before.
There are of course exceptions in certain types of tech companies. For example, large game development studios struggled to maintain previous productivity levels with the new remote working method, resulting in delays or reduced quality for some releases. But more often than not, the changes made in response to the pandemic have led people to believe that this remote thing might ultimately work after all.
Between the threat of future pandemics in crowded cities and insane housing prices in tech hubs, many workers have recently started planning to evacuate places like the Bay Area for cheaper and greener pastures, but with l hope they could keep their high-paid jobs.
According to Glassdoor data, the average salary for a software engineer in the expensive tech hotspot in San Jose, California is $ 137,907. Surprisingly, that’s not enough to fund the entire American Dream in the Bay Area. But if that hypothetical engineer moves to St. Louis or Tucson with that salary, they can live like royalty.
A divided apple
Few tech companies have seen as many high-profile dramas about this issue as Apple. Although many employees at Headquarters in Cupertino and elsewhere primarily worked from home for much of 2020, CEO Tim Cook emailed staff in early June 2021 that a policy change was imminent.
Employees would be required to return to the office at least three days a week starting in September. They could also walk away altogether for up to two weeks a year, provided they get management approval.
The employees then circulated a survey among themselves to reveal that Cook’s tenure was out of step with what they wanted or expected, according to the report by Zoe Schiffer of The Verge. Ninety percent of the 1,749 survey respondents said they “strongly agree” that “flexible work options in terms of location are a very important issue for me. “. The workers wrote a letter to Cook asking him to rethink the new policy. Sixty-eight percent agreed “that the lack of localization flexibility would likely cause them to leave Apple.”
Threats can be legitimate because some other tech companies (like Twitter) have taken a much more permissive approach. These companies can give dissatisfied Apple employees another place to go.
Apple executives have not backed down from their plan. Over the summer, the coming change caused unrest at the industry giant, with long-time employees pledging to quit for a mandatory return to the office. Some workers have taken to the press to say that Apple management has started rejecting remote work requests more than usual in response.
A few Apple employees wrote another letter pleading for a compromise: more lenient remote work policies in exchange for a system in which workers in low-cost cities would accept proportionately lower wages. . However, the proposal has further angered other employees, who argue that Apple can afford to pay them a competitive salary, regardless of where they choose to relocate in the midst of or after the pandemic.
Postponed due to delta
But now, the battle over the remote work culture at companies like Apple seems to be spreading. Initial optimism this summer about an imminent return to normal in wealthy parts of the world has faded across the industry. Credit the rapid spread of the COVID-19 delta variant and the increase in cases among the unvaccinated in the United States.
The state of California has reintroduced an indoor mask mandate, even for people who have been vaccinated, because studies have shown that even relatively healthy-looking vaccinated people can spread the deadly delta variant to unvaccinated vulnerable people. California’s mandate directly affects many of these companies, with more states expected to follow soon.
Apple has pushed its plan to return to the office amid internal turmoil and growing health concerns. The calendar would have been moved from September to October, and it is quite possible that it will be pushed back further.
This week, Twitter announced that it was closing the U.S. offices it had recently partially reopened. Google has extended its current work-from-home policy until mid-October, and Lyft has postponed a plan to return to its offices next September until February of next year.
Several large tech companies require some or all employees to get vaccinated to return to the office, including Lyft, Google and Facebook. And even in companies that have yet to announce a vaccination requirement, like Apple, employees are being asked to complete surveys revealing their vaccination status.
Others, like Microsoft, are still striving to get workers back to their desks, despite new developments, although they may change course again in the near future. Microsoft has generally been more proactive than Apple in laying the groundwork for long-term hybrid work support, despite its plans to move forward with the reopening of offices.
Don’t expect these discussions to end soon. Some executives are still trying to get employees back to their desks, some employees are still saying “not so fast” or “not at all”, and COVID-19 is still sweeping the planet.
Every workplace handles things differently, and whether or not the all-remote dream becomes a reality in some of these companies, longtime remote-work prophesies are right about one thing: the old ways are no longer going to cut it off. , and technology will never be the same.