Tech Companies Cautiously Bring People Back While Contending With Hesitant Employees

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  • As tech companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple start bring people back, employees are still asking why it's necessary.
  • Tech companies flourished while employees worked remotely during the pandemic.
  • Google staffers questioned the company's plans at a recent-all hands meeting.

Starting Monday, Google is bringing most employees back to assigned physical offices three days a week. The company has said since the beginning of the pandemic that it eventually wants people to return.

A lot of workers don't understand why, and they expressed their concerns at a recent all-hands meeting.

“Google made record profits through the pandemic," CEO Sundar Pichai said, reading from a question submitted by an employee and upvoted by many others on Google's internal board called Dory. "Why is the RTO policy not work from office when you want to or when it makes sense to?"

Google's balancing act is shared by many employers, particularly as surging gas prices make long drives and traffic jams even more unappealing than they were two years ago. Tech companies in particular have outperformed during the pandemic, thanks in part to a wide array of cloud-based collaboration tools. Employees have gotten used to the flexibility and family time.

Companies now face a test to see how employees will react as some optional work situations become mandatory and the labor market continues to tighten. Megan Slabinski of consulting and staffing firm Robert Half said two-thirds of employers say they want workers back in a "near full-time capacity," and half of employees say they'd look for a new job if that was required.

“It’s fascinating the level of disconnect between employers and employees," said Slabinski, who oversees the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, Utah and Northern California as district president for Robert Half.

Walking it back

Some companies have already changed their policies several times leading up to their office return.

In June, Amazon walked back its original return plan, telling corporate workers it would allow them to come back to the office three days a week instead of full time. The company said it was “learning and evolving as we go." In October, Amazon said the decision will be left to individual teams.

Microsoft and Google added 30-day "transition" periods to ease workers back into their new schedule.

Last spring, when Google first tried bringing employees back to the office before Covid-19 cases spiked again, the company said employees could apply to work remotely for up to 12 months but would be approved only in “the most exceptional circumstances.” They could also be get called back to an assigned office at any point.

Leadership has since lightened its tone. Google says it has approved 85% of requests for relocation or permanent remote work.

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“You’re grownups and we trust you to do what’s right for you, your families, and your life, while respecting the new baseline,” Prabhakar Raghavan, who oversees search, ads and commerce, wrote recently in a memo to employees. “We don’t expect 100% fidelity to the 3-2 hybrid work week 24x7.”

At the all-hands meeting, Pichai said “there’s a real desire for people to communicate and collaborate so we’re trying to balance all of that,” according to audio obtained by CNBC. “We’ll keep taking a close look at all of this," he said.

One reason for the partial return, Pichai said, is for people to get to know their colleagues.

“We hired so many people over the last two years who just don’t have a sense of how the company works," he said.

Even Twitter, which announced in 2020 that employees could work remotely "forever," told staffers last month that "distributed working will be much, much harder." CEO Parag Agrawal, who replaced Jack Dorsey late last year, said he had hoped to see people in the office because in-person work will "bring that culture to life in such a powerful way."

Wait and see

Slabinski said some companies are waiting to see what their peers do before making any big decisions. Amazon, for example, hasn't announced a new return date.

“I think there’s an element of someone has to go first to require people back,” Slabinski said. “Amazon backed away when they started seeing attrition and now Google is requiring people to be back on site and it’s like hoping the rest of the industry joins in and it won’t become reason for resignations."

Another challenge for employers involves syncing up schedules. Apple designated Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays as in-office days. Other tech companies have kept their plans vague.

Colin Yasukochi, executive director of real estate firm CBRE, said he expects the San Francisco commercial real estate market to get more competitive in the second and third quarters, when there's a better sense of demand.

“They’re all sort of moving cautiously because they don’t really want to lose key employees,” said Yasukochi, adding that some people end up not seeing the point of going in when they experience the emptiness of it the office.

“There’s nothing worse than 'Oh I made this effort to come in and put on real pants today and I’m the only one in,’” Yasukochi said. He said his San Francisco CBRE office is at 20% to 30% capacity "on a good day."

‘Rolling the dice’

Retention and employee satisfaction are more critical than ever across the tech sector as record numbers of people in the U.S. are quitting their jobs and exploring new opportunities. Forcing people to commute is an added risk.

"They’re rolling the dice and it’s a gamble I'm not sure I'd want to make in this environment,” Slabinski said.

Smaller companies could have an upper hand for talent, she added.

“They could really differentiate their opportunities where maybe they can’t compete for comp but they could offer flexibility and trust," said Slabinski.

Google is falling back on one of its best tricks: perks.

Before the company announced a new return date, David Radcliffe, Google's real estate and workplace services vice president, wrote an email to Bay Area employees, announcing that on-campus amenities such as fitness centers, free meals, lounges, game rooms and massages were back open.

There are some signs that other things are coming back as well. Brandi Susewitz, founder and CEO of corporate furniture reseller Reseat, said her business more than doubled since December. Most of its clients are “cautiously optimistic” in their office planning. Reseat works with companies like Yelp, Uber and Oracle.

Susewitz said she's getting some pretty interesting furniture requests. One thing people want is single-occupancy phone booths.

“Instead of having assigned seating, they’re doing renovations to make it open seating, a hoteling environment," she said. They're "designing spaces to feel more like living rooms.”

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