Massive tech corporations are at struggle with workers over distant work
Enlarge / Apple offices in Northern California.
Across the United States, the executives of major tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook are doing a delicate dance with thousands of employees recently convinced that the daily commute to an office is an empty and unacceptable demand from their employers.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced these companies to work mostly with remote workers for months. And since many of them are located in areas with relatively high vaccination rates, the calls to return to the physical office rang out in the summer.
But thousands of highly 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 want to do it a few days a week. The workers even point out how effective they were when they were completely remote and wonder why they have to continue living 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 part-time or even full-time remote work the norm. Others (like Apple’s Tim Cook) are working hard to find a way, despite organized resistance, to get everyone back to their assigned seats as quickly as possible.
In any case, the work cultures in technology companies, which do everything from iPhone to Google search, are facing a major wave of transformation.
It didn’t start in 2020
The gospel of a future of remote work has long been preached by a dedicated cadre in Silicon Valley and other tech startup hubs. Influencers, writers and management consulting gurus have been saying for years that working in the office will be a thing of the past thanks to today’s technology.
There is no obvious justification for resisting remote working, aside from some kind of management uncertainty emanating from control freaks, proponents argue. And to back up their argument, they point to studies that suggest that some employees are happier and more productive in certain jobs when remote work is an option. Studies also disprove the assumption that productivity is always lower when remote working is the norm.
The movement reached a kind of fever in the late 2000s when optimism of the tech unicorns swept the business world and some prominent executives of the new startup wave seemed familiar with the idea. Working remotely, however, has suffered dramatic setbacks. In particular, Yahoo! – known at the time as one of the most remote-friendly big tech companies – changed course in the early 2010s under the leadership of then-CEO Marissa Mayer, who ordered a huge fleet of remote workers to move and appear at their assigned desks.
Since this and other similar incidents around this time, the remote work movement has calmed down.
Remote working advocates and the business community seemed to have reached a compromise. Companies like Google or Twitter would have their employees work from home on a regular basis when needed (e.g., but in most cases culture dictated that workers don’t play that card too often. Remote work was a privilege, not a right, and the Employees have typically not been able to move from the cities where these companies are located to daily commute.
As house prices skyrocketed and traffic deteriorated in cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Austin – and as economic inequalities worsened in those places – prominent commentators still occasionally penned comments that essentially said, ” Geez, 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 executives have long claimed that remote working would never work were left with no other options. In traditional companies, digital transformation has accelerated dramatically to meet demand. And with some tech startups, the transition was so seamless that many employees (and even managers) wondered why they hadn’t tried all of this before.
There are of course exceptions for some tech companies. For example, large game development studios struggled to maintain previous levels of productivity in the new remote way of working, causing delays or degradation in the quality of some releases. But mostly, the changes made in response to the pandemic led people to believe that this remote thing could actually work.
Between the threat of future pandemics in crowded cities and insane property prices in tech centers, many workers recently began making plans to evacuate from places like the Bay Area to cheaper, greener pastures – but in hopes they could keep their high – paid jobs.
According to Glassdoor data, the average software developer salary in the expensive tech hotspot of San Jose, California is $ 137,907. Shockingly, that’s not enough to fund the whole American dream in the Bay Area. But if that hypothetical engineer moves to St. Louis or Tucson on that salary, they can live like royalty.
A split apple
Few tech companies have seen as much high-profile drama on the subject as Apple. Although many employees at Cupertino headquarters and elsewhere worked mostly from home for most of 2020, CEO Tim Cook emailed employees in early June 2021 that a policy change was imminent.
From September, employees must return to the office at least three days a week. They could also work completely remotely for up to two weeks per year, provided they get management approval.
Staff then distributed a survey among themselves to show that Cook’s mandate was inconsistent with what they wanted or expected, according to a report by The Verge’s Zoe Schiffer. Ninety percent of the 1,749 respondents in the survey said that they “totally agree” that “location-flexible work opportunities are a very important topic for me”. Workers wrote a letter to Cook asking him to reconsider the new policy. 68 percent agreed “that the lack of location flexibility would likely lead them to leave Apple.”
The threats may be legitimate because some other tech companies (like Twitter) have taken a much more revealing approach. These companies may give dissatisfied Apple employees elsewhere.
Apple executives did not deviate from their plan. Over the summer, the upcoming change sparked unrest at the industry giant as long-term employees pledged to quit because of a required return to the office. Some employees reached out to the press claiming that Apple management had started declining remote work requests more than normal in response.
Some Apple employees wrote another letter pleading for a compromise: more lenient remote working policies in exchange for a system where workers in cities with lower cost of living would accept proportionally lower salaries. However, that proposal still angered other employees, who argue that Apple can afford to pay them a competitive salary regardless of where they move to during or after the pandemic.
Postponed due to delta
But now it looks like the battle for remote work culture is expanding in companies like Apple. This summer’s initial optimism about an imminent return to normal in affluent parts of the world has faded across the industry. We owe the rapid spread of the Delta COVID-19 variant and the rising cases among the unvaccinated in the United States.
The state of California has also reintroduced a mask requirement for indoor spaces for vaccinated people, as studies have shown that even vaccinated people who appear relatively healthy can transmit the deadly Delta variant to at-risk unvaccinated people. The California mandate directly affects many of these companies, with more states likely to follow soon.
Apple has postponed its plan to return to the office amid internal turmoil and growing health concerns. The timeframe has reportedly shifted from September to October and there is a good chance it will be postponed even further.
Twitter announced this week that it would close the recently partially reopened US offices. Google extended its current home office policy to mid-October, and Lyft postponed a plan to move back into its office next September until back into February next year.
Several large tech companies are requiring some or all of their employees to be vaccinated in order to return to the office, including Lyft, Google, and Facebook. And even in companies that have not yet announced mandatory vaccination, such as Apple, employees are asked to fill out surveys in which they reveal their vaccination status.
Others like Microsoft are still pushing to get employees back to their desks despite the new developments, though they may change course again in the near future. Despite its plans to push office reopenings, Microsoft has generally been more proactive than Apple in laying the groundwork for long-term support for hybrid work.
Don’t expect these discussions to resolve anytime soon. Some executives are still trying to get employees back to their desks, some employees are still saying “not that fast” or “not at all,” and COVID-19 is still sweeping the planet.
Every workplace does things differently, and whether or not the dream of being remotely becomes a reality in some of these companies, long-standing prophecies of remote work are right about one thing: the old ways will no longer be enough, and technology will never be the same again being.