Across the United States, the leaders of major tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook are in a delicate dance with thousands of employees recently convinced that commuting physically to an office every day is an empty and unacceptable demand from their employers.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced these companies to work with mostly outside labor for months. And since many of them are located in areas with relatively high vaccination rates, calls to return to the physical office started ringing in the summer.
But thousands of well-paid workers at these companies don’t have 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. Employees even point to how effective they were when completely remote, and use that to wonder why they should continue to live in the expensive cities where these offices are located.
Some tech leaders (like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey) agreed, or at least saw the writing on the wall. They made permanent or semi-permanent changes to their company’s policies to make partial or even full-time remote working the norm. Others (like Apple’s Tim Cook) are working hard to find a way to get everyone back to their assigned seat as quickly as 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 committed cadre in Silicon Valley and other tech startup hubs. Influencers, writers and business consulting gurus have been saying for years that today’s technology makes office work a thing of the past.
There’s no apparent justification for resistance to remote work, other than some sort of management-control freak insecurity, proponents argue. And to support their case, they cite studies suggesting that some workers in certain types of jobs are happier and more productive when remote working is an option. Studies also disprove the assumption that productivity is always lower when remote work is the norm.
The movement reached a sort of fever pitch in the late 2000s, when the optimism of the tech unicorn swept the business world and a number of prominent executives in the new wave of startups seemed to like the idea. But remote working faced dramatic setbacks. Notably, Yahoo!, then known as one of the most distance-friendly major tech companies, changed course in early 2010 under the leadership of then-CEO Marissa Mayer, who ordered a massive fleet of remote workers to relocate and appear at their assigned desks.
Since then and other similar incidents around that time, the remote working movement has been quieter.
Proponents of remote work and business seemed to be reaching a compromise. Companies like Google or Twitter would have 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, culture dictated that workers should not play this card too often. Remote working was a privilege, not a right, and workers were usually unable to move outside the daily commute of the cities where these companies were located.
As housing prices skyrocketed and traffic deteriorated in cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles and Austin — and as economic inequality in those places worsened as a result — prominent commentators still occasionally wrote op-eds that essentially said, “Gosh! , perhaps some of these problems would be alleviated if business leaders were more open to remote working.” But the remote work movement’s most radical vision nevertheless seemed dead in the water.
And then the pandemic happened.
The involuntary revolution
Companies whose leaders have long argued that remote working would never work had no other options. In traditional businesses, the digital transformation movement accelerated dramatically to meet the need. And at some tech startups, the transition has been so seamless that many employees (and even managers) wondered why all this hadn’t been attempted before.
There are, of course, exceptions in some types of technology companies. For example, major game development studios struggled to maintain their previous levels of productivity in the new way of working remotely, leading to delays or a drop in quality for some releases. But more often than not, the changes made in response to the pandemic caused people to believe that this far-flung thing could actually work after all.
Between the threat of future pandemics in crowded cities and insane house prices in tech hubs, many workers recently began making plans to evacuate from places like the Bay Area to cheaper, greener pastures, but in the hopes of keeping their high-paying jobs.
According to Glassdoor’s data, the median salary of a software engineer in the expensive tech hotspot San Jose, California is $137,907. Shockingly, that’s not enough to fund the entire American dream in the Bay Area. But if that hypothetical engineer moves on that paycheck to St. Louis or Tucson, they can live like royalty.
A divided apple
Few tech companies have gotten as much publicity on this issue as Apple. While many employees at Cupertino’s headquarters and elsewhere were working from home for most of 2020, CEO Tim Cook emailed staff in early June 2021 that a policy change was imminent.
Employees should return to the office at least three days a week from September. They could also work completely remotely for up to two weeks a year, provided they get management approval.
Employees then circulated a poll to reveal that Cook’s tenure was not in line with what they wanted or expected, according to Zoe Schiffer’s reporting of The Verge. Ninety percent of the survey’s 1,749 respondents said they “strongly agree” that “location-flexible work options are a very important issue to me.” Workers wrote to Cook asking him to reconsider 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 lenient approach. These companies can give disgruntled Apple employees elsewhere.
Apple executives did not back down from their plan. Over the summer, the impending change has sparked unrest in the industry giant, with longtime employees pledging to quit due to a return-to-office requirement. Some employees took to the press alleging that Apple’s management has begun to deny remote work requests more than usual in response.
A few Apple employees wrote another letter advocating a compromise: a more lenient remote working policy in exchange for a system where workers in cities with a lower cost of living would accept proportionally lower wages. However, this proposal still angered other workers, who argue that Apple can afford to pay them a competitive salary no matter where they choose to move to mid- or post-pandemic.
Postponed due to delta
But now, the battle for the remote working culture at companies like Apple seems to be expanding. This summer’s initial optimism about an imminent return to normal life in the affluent parts of the world has waned across the industry. Credit the rapid spread of the delta-COVID-19 variant and the rising cases among the unvaccinated in the US.
The state of California has reintroduced an indoor mask recommendation that has become a mandate in many states, even for people who have been vaccinated, as studies have shown that even relatively healthy-looking vaccinated individuals can spread the deadly delta strain to the vulnerable. unvaccinated people. The change in California directly affects many of these companies, and more states are likely to follow soon.
Apple has pushed its return-to-office plan amid internal turmoil and growing health concerns. The time frame has reportedly been pushed back from September to October, and there’s a good chance it will be pushed back even further.
This week, Twitter announced it was 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 in September until February next year.
Several major tech companies are demanding that some or all employees be vaccinated before returning to the office, including Lyft, Google and Facebook. And even in companies that have not yet announced a vaccination requirement, such as Apple, employees are being asked to complete surveys to disclose their vaccination status.
Others, such as Microsoft, continue to push to get employees back to their desks despite the new developments, though 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 continue to reopen offices.
Don’t expect these discussions to be resolved any time 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 the dream of complete remoteness is becoming a reality for some of these companies or not, old prophecies about remote work are right about one thing: the old ways won’t last, and technology will. never be the same.