SF Technotes

When Is Big Tech Coming Home?

By Michael Castelluccio
June 10, 2020
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The decampments of the major tech firms back in March 2020 to work from home were among the earliest for major corporations. The numbers involved were considerable with Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple having about 1.3 million employees worldwide.

 

Now, it looks like big tech’s return to their campuses might be slower than others, with projections of late fall and early 2021 as targets for many. Employees of Twitter and Shopify have even been told they can remain at home for good, if they choose.

 

INFO-OBESITY

 

The effects of the captivity are beginning to emerge with some unusual, but not entirely unanticipated results. Five years ago, Stanford University Economist Nick Bloom published a study that showed employees from a Chinese call-center who worked from home were 13% more productive than those in a control group. In addition, they were happier and less likely to quit their job.

 

In a series of articles called “Uncharted,” The Atlantic has been considering possible repercussions of the current work-from-home model. In one piece titled “Work from home is here to stay,” writer/editor Olga Khazan speculates on a possible long-term relocation.

 

Khazan offers several reasons for a likely increase of at-home workers in the post-pandemic period.  First, “financial practicalities might speed up the work-from-home trend. After workers retreated to their homes, companies began desperately trying to shed office space. Getting rid of empty desks seems like an easy way to save cash as the economy collapses. Office real estate is already plunging in value as employers try to renegotiate their rent contracts.”

 

And there’s also anecdotal evidence that home workers put in longer days. With that, “Bosses might grow accustomed to the fact that workers are always on and always available.” In France, Khazan notes, “The scourge of the always-on lifestyle is referred to as ‘info-obesity,’ and it is considered so grave that the country outlawed sending e-mails outside work hours. With U.S. workers frequently at home and constantly online, there may be calls for something similar to happen here.”

 

A SLOW CRAWL-BACK

 

If you run down a list of public statements by the big tech companies, you can get a clear sense of the reluctance to risk premature re-openings. Both Google and Facebook have informed their employees who are able to do their jobs at home to stay there until 2021. Google CEO Sundar Pichai explained in an email to employees: “The ramp back to the office will be slow, deliberate, and incremental.” Most employees will work from home, full-time, potentially until 2021. Facebook’s spokeswoman Pamela Austin told employees the offices wouldn’t open at least until July 6, “and even then, employees who could work from home can choose to do so until the end of the year.”

 

Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, has explained, “What we recognize is that economies are going to need to be opened gradually by turning a dial rather than flipping a switch. And as economies do that, I think we have a responsibility not only to adhere to the public health guidelines, but to be slower than others in bringing people back simply because we can.”

 

Amazon has told its employees who are working from home to expect the reopening of the Seattle headquarters to be delayed at least until October 2. San Francisco’s Salesforce posted in a company blog that employees can opt to work from home through to the end of the year, even if the office has been opened before then. And then there are the Twitter and Shopify schedules.

 

#LOVEWHEREVERYOUWORK

 

In a blog post on May 12, Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s head of HR wrote: “We were uniquely positioned to respond quickly and allow folks to work from home given our emphasis on decentralization and supporting a distributed workforce capable of working from anywhere. The past few months have proven we can make that work. So if our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen. If not, our offices will be their warm and welcoming selves, with some additional precautions, when we feel it’s safe to return. Here’s how we’re thinking about the next few months:

  • Opening offices will be our decision, when and if our employees come back, will be theirs.
  • With very few exceptions, offices won’t open before September.
  • There will be no business travel before September, with very few exceptions, and no in-person company events for the rest of 2020. We will assess 2021 events later this year.”

 

The subject head for the announcement was #LoveWhereverYouWork. In its most recent earnings report, Twitter has 5,100 employees and 35 offices around the world.

 

Shopify, recently declared Canada’s most valuable company, also has more than 5,000 employees, and on May 21 the e-commerce company also announced a radical, permanent redeployment. The employees are currently working from home and will continue through the end of the year. Offices will remain closed this year, and in 2021 the majority of its workers will move to permanent remote employment.

 

The announcement certified that Shopify is now a “digital by default” company. Chief Talent Officer Brittany Forsyth characterized the company’s future: “Everything about our culture from thriving on change, to building for the long term, to our focus on anti-fragility, has set the foundation for this decision. This is a chance for us to lean into new ways of working, tap into new talent wherever they are, and help our merchants around the globe adapt to a new reality.” The company plans to keep its current “recruitment hubs” in Toronto, Ottawa, Waterloo, and Montreal, and will open a new 900,000 square-foot office in Vancouver and hire 1,000 additional employees in that city.

 

The CEO of Amazon Web Services Andy Jassy offered his comments on the shifting landscape at a summit in late May. “I think we’ve historically had this thesis that you want a critical mass of people in a certain location, but I think we’ve learned through this process that you can have smaller groups of people who, if they’re committed to working with their teammates, can very capably participate  no matter where they are in the world.”

 

Before it’s over, the coronavirus might pitch the landscape even more severely, depositing even more workers back into their homes. The question for now remains, how many will be able to, and want to remain where they land post-pandemic?

 



Michael Castelluccio has been the Technology Editor for Strategic Finance for 25 years. His SF Technotes blog is in its 22nd year. You can contact Mike at mcastelluccio@imanet.org.


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