Vaccines, reopenings, and worker revolts: Big Tech’s contentious return to the office
All across the United States, the leaders at large tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook are engaged in a delicate dance with thousands of employees who have recently become convinced that physically commuting to an office every day is an empty and unacceptable demand from their employers.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced these companies to operate with mostly remote workforces for months straight. And since many of them are based in areas with relatively high vaccination rates, the calls to return to the physical office began to sound over the summer.
But thousands of high-paid workers at these companies aren’t having it. Many of them don’t want to go back to the office full-time, even if they’re willing to do so a few days a week. Workers are even pointing to how effective they were when fully remote and using that to question why they have to keep living in the expensive cities where these offices are located.
Some tech leaders (like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey) agreed, or at least they saw the writing on the wall. They enacted permanent or semipermanent changes to their companies’ policies to make partial or even full-time remote work the norm. Others (like Apple’s Tim Cook) are working hard to find a way to get everyone back in their assigned seats as soon as is practical, despite organized resistance.
In either case, the work cultures at tech companies that make everything from the iPhone to Google search are facing a major wave of transformation.
It didn’t start in 2020
The gospel of a remote-work future has long been preached by a dedicated cadre in Silicon Valley and other tech startup hubs. Influencers, writers, and business consulting gurus have for years been saying 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 work besides a sort of management control-freak insecurity, proponents argue. And to support their case, they point to studies that suggest that some employees in certain kinds of jobs are happier and more productive when remote work is an option. Studies also debunk the assumption that productivity is always lower when remote work is the norm.
The movement reached something of a fever pitch in the late 2000s, when tech-unicorn optimism was sweeping the business world and some prominent executives in the new wave of startups seemed cozy with the idea. But remote work went on to face dramatic setbacks. Notably, Yahoo!—then known as one of the most remote-friendly large tech companies—changed course in the early 2010s under the leadership of then-CEO Marissa Mayer, who mandated that a vast fleet of remote workers had to relocate and show up at their assigned desks.
Since that and other similar incidents around that time, the remote-work movement has been quieter.
Remote-work advocates and the business establishment seemed to settle into a compromise. Companies like Google or Twitter would let employees work from home periodically as the need arose (for example, to take care of a sick child or even for the occasional mental health day). But in most cases, the culture dictated that workers not play this card too often. Remote work was a privilege, not a right, and employees usually could not relocate out of daily commuting range from the cities where these companies were based.
As housing prices skyrocketed and traffic worsened in cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Austin—and as economic inequalities worsened in those places as a result—prominent commentators still occasionally penned op-eds that essentially said, “Gee, maybe some of these problems would be lessened if business leaders were more open to remote work.” But the most radical vision of the remote-work movement nonetheless seemed dead in the water.
And then the pandemic happened.
The involuntary revolution
Companies whose leaders long claimed remote work would never function were left with no other options. In traditional businesses, the digital-transformation movement accelerated dramatically to meet the need. And in some tech startups, the transition was so seamless that many employees (and even managers) found themselves wondering why all this hadn’t been tried before.
There are exceptions in some kinds of tech companies, of course. For example, large game development studios struggled to maintain prior levels of productivity in the new remote way of working, leading to delays or a reduction in quality for some releases. But more often than not, the changes made in response to the pandemic led people to believe that this remote thing might actually work out after all.
Between the threat of future pandemics in crowded cities and insane housing prices in tech hubs, a lot of workers recently began to make plans to evacuate from places like the Bay Area for cheaper, greener pastures—but with the hope that they could keep their high-paying jobs.
According to Glassdoor’s data, the average software engineer salary in pricy tech hotspot San Jose, California, is $137,907. Shockingly, that’s not enough to bankroll the whole American dream in the Bay Area. But if that hypothetical engineer relocates to St. Louis or Tucson on that salary, they can live like royalty.
An Apple divided
Few tech companies have experienced as much widely publicized drama over this issue as Apple. Though many employees in the Cupertino headquarters and elsewhere mostly worked from home through 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 for at least three days of every week beginning in September. They would also be able to go fully remote for up to two weeks per year, provided they secure management approval.
Employees then circulated a survey amongst themselves to reveal that Cook’s mandate was out of step with what they wanted or expected, according to reporting by The Verge’s Zoe Schiffer. Ninety percent of the survey’s 1,749 respondents said they “strongly agree” that “location-flexible working options are a very important issue for me.” Workers wrote a letter to Cook asking him to rethink the new policy. Sixty-eight percent agreed “that the lack of location flexibility would likely cause them to leave Apple.”
The threats may be legitimate because some other tech companies (like Twitter) have taken a much more permissive approach. These companies may give dissatisfied Apple employees somewhere else to go.
Apple executives did not back down from their plan. Over the summer, the upcoming change has led to turmoil in the industry giant, with longtime employees pledging to quit over a required return to the office. Some workers went to the press with claims that Apple management has begun rejecting remote-work requests more than normal in response.
A few Apple employees wrote another letter arguing for a compromise: more lenient remote-work policies in exchange for a system wherein employees in cities with lower costs of living would accept proportionally lower salaries. However, this proposal angered other employees still, who argue that Apple can afford to pay them a competitive salary regardless of where they choose to relocate to mid- or post-pandemic.
Postponed on account of delta
But now the battle over remote-work culture at companies like Apple looks like it is going to be extended. This summer’s initial optimism about an imminent return to normal in the wealthy parts of the world has waned across the industry. Credit the rapid spread of the delta COVID-19 variant and rising cases among the unvaccinated in the US.
The state of California reintroduced an indoor mask mandate, even for people who are vaccinated, because studies have shown that even relatively healthy-seeming vaccinated individuals can spread the deadly delta variant to the vulnerable unvaccinated. California’s mandate directly affects many of these companies, and more states are likely to soon follow.
Apple has nudged its return-to-office plan amidst the internal turmoil and growing health concerns. The timeframe has reportedly moved from September to October, and there’s a strong possibility it will be pushed back even further.
This week, Twitter announced that it is closing the US offices it had recently partially reopened. Google extended its current work-from-home policy through mid-October, and Lyft postponed a plan to move back into its office this coming September all the way back to February of next year.
Several big tech firms are requiring some or all employees to get vaccinated to return to the office, including Lyft, Google, and Facebook. And even in companies that haven’t yet announced any vaccination requirement, like Apple, employees are being asked to fill out surveys disclosing their vaccination status.
Others like Microsoft are still pushing to get workers back at their desks, despite the new developments, though they might 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, though, despite its plans to press forward with reopening offices.
Don’t expect these discussions to resolve soon. Some executives are still trying to get employees back at their desks, some employees are still saying “not so fast” or “not at all,” and COVID-19 is still sweeping the planet.
Every workplace is handling things differently, and whether the fully remote dream actually becomes a reality at some of these companies or not, long-time remote-work prophesiers are right about one thing: the old ways aren’t going to cut it anymore, and tech is never going to be the same again.
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