Episode 16: Paradox as big tech calls for a return to the office

September 29th, 2021 by Yvonne Harris

In this episode of Welcome to the New Normal, we discuss how big tech are calling staff back to their desks.

Some of Silicon Valley’s biggest players want employees back at their desks. But what does this say about the very companies that have made millions giving us the tools to work remotely?

Tune in to the Welcome to the New Normal audio podcast now and follow along with the script below.

News

The San Francisco exodus of tech workers is over, according to the Financial Times.

And it’s paradoxical. Some Silicon Valley companies, it seems, are deeply conservative, and want to see a return to the good old days of bums on seats, workers at desks, full meeting rooms.

Why’s that a paradox? Well, it’s the big tech companies, you know the ones that are doing everything they can to get us working remotely, are the ones that want their people back.

According to the FT, Netflix boss Reed Hastings said he sees no positives in remote working.

And Alphabet and Google chief executive Sundar Pichai says that seeing workers in offices fills him with “optimism”.

Apple’s Tim Cook wrote that there was “something essential missing from this past year: each other”,

This conservatism contrasts with radical changes elsewhere in the sector.

In May, cryptocurrency app Coinbase said it would close its San Francisco headquarters for good.

The company’s head of employee experience Dominique Baillet wrote that “If we had let our office-based inertia carry us into the future of work, we’d still be where we were almost a year ago”

Q&A site Quora and cloud company Snowflake have also both gone remote.

Even Twitter, Pinterest and Dropbox have adopted “remote first” policies, giving their people the option of an office, but not requiring them to be there unless they want to be.

So why are so many of the world’s biggest tech bosses stuck on the idea that in-person work is better?

These leaders who say they want employees in offices because they like them, risk sounding insincere, because they’d be admitting that the vast amount of money – and I mean many many millions of dollars – that they poured into fancy campus buildings might just have been wasted.

Not a good look.

But it’s been a shock to them, quite how successful remote working has been, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Marc Andreessen, of the Adreesen Horrowitz Venture Capital firm told the FT.

Andreesen insists that remote work has not derailed employee productivity or company profits.

But the big boys of Silicon Valley still see remote working as a perk, not a long-term reality.

They are much more prone to promoting Hybrid working, which means employees are still stuck in expensive cities like San Francisco so that they can get to the office two or three days a week.

In June, Apple told workers they would be expected to go back to the office for at least three days a week.

Amazon wants the same in-person commitment.

Microsoft and Uber want employees back half the time.

But if fully remote is indeed so successful, as Andreesen insists, this is an opportunity for smaller companies to shine.

Remote work is cheaper to manage – with the right tech.

It will also poach talent from the big companies.

Insisting people come back, especially in tech, where people really can be successful remote working, insisting that employees show their faces, means these companies might just be shooting themselves in the foot.

And it is indeed a paradox – because the Silicon Valley Giants made their mark in the last 18 months, and millions in profits, by giving us the tools to work from wherever we want, now want people to come back.

As the FT concludes, this rejection of fully remote work is a strange conclusion to an extraordinary 18 months.

Research & Number

This week we’re combining our research section with the number of the week.

The number is 5

And the research is from Accenture.

Five beliefs about the future of work, and why they’re flawed

So, what are these misconceptions? Let’s dive in.

Number one!

It’s a flawed belief that Employees want “hybrid”

The reality is: Employees want the freedom to choose

83% of employees would like to work in some sort of hybrid way of working. But what are they really asking for?

Well, what they really want is freedom and choice.

This breaks down into three categories:

First, they want autonomy. They want a shift from a hierarchical relationship to an equitable one where they are given the freedom to manage their own time.

Secondly, they want support to be the best they can be physically and mentally and to reach their career potential.

Thirdly, they are asking for purpose – work needs to align with what’s important to them and nurture a sense of belonging.

And the next generation of workers prizes the freedom to choose even more highly: 38% of Gen-Z regard work-life balance as a top priority when choosing an employer, more than any previous generation.

According to Accenture, companies need to re-evaluate their relationship with their employees, including how and when they communicate. They need an open-minded approach to change, to negotiation, and to compromise — like any good relationship.

What’s the second flawed belief? Well, it’s those employees actually want to work from home

The reality, according to Accenture, is that Employees should be asked what they want regularly

That’s right, not everyone wants to work at home, and there’s no one-size-fits-all with home working, hybrid, or remote solutions. Employees want a choice.

That’s because we’re all different. We’re of different ages (and as we know, the younger you are, the more you want to mix with others).

Some of us are good at home, some of us crave the office, and some of us want a bit of both.

The pandemic has forced companies to recognize these differences, and technology has made it possible.

And now that there are choices, employees want their companies to ask them what they want, and to do their best to deliver.

What should companies do?

Before they sell off their expensive offices, companies should rethink the way they communicate with their people, uncover their tacit needs, and keep asking questions throughout their employee’s careers with them. Because people change over time too.

The third mistaken belief, according to Accenture, is that the pandemic’s challenges are going to disappear.

The reality is that both Employers and employees will need to unlearn bad habits

In the course of the upheaval of the last 18 months, some bad habits have formed, and it’ll take time and conscious effort to reverse them.

What bad habits?

Well, first off, the way we work has become unsustainable: back-to-back video meetings for five hours without a break have become, sadly, quite normal. Employees are keen to be permanently ON, to be seen to be delivering maximum value, and doing this remotely is hard, very hard.

Second, inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic. For example, women are doing more household chores while working at home than men. This gives men a head start, and it just isn’t fair.

And as we’ve seen in this podcast series, new joiners are finding themselves on the back foot, missing out on building relationships with colleagues.

So, what do organizations need to do?

They need to design for positive behavior change. That means encouraging people to take breaks, having fewer meetings, being more mindful of scheduling, giving them tools, both physical and digital, to make them more comfortable, controlling the workload, and resetting boundaries.

Easier said than done, but absolutely necessary!

The fourth flawed belief is that Success means maximum productivity

When then reality is that maximum productivity comes at a cost

Yes, workers are more productive than ever, but they also seem to be more burnt out.

An Indeed survey showed over half (52%) of respondents are experiencing some burnout symptoms in 2021.

And that means that maximum productivity may not be sustainable, and that to retain healthy employees, there needs to be a shift away from increasing productivity and decreasing office space.

According to Accenture, the intensity of the pandemic has seeped through to the way we work, and it simply isn’t reasonable to expect people to continue at such a level.

So there needs to be a massive reset, putting purpose and wellbeing at the top of their success metrics, rather than mere productivity.

Companies must set boundaries and actively enforce them so that people can find and maintain a healthy line between their professional and private lives.

Get it wrong, and companies will bleed talent.

Get it right, and you keep your talent, while improved employee experience leads to improved customer experience and increased customer retention.

What do organizations need to do?

According to Accenture, companies must Measure sustainable productivity.

That means forgetting presenteeism and going instead for high-quality outcomes that can be maintained long term.

The 5th and final belief is that location is the most important factor

The Reality: The most important thing to figure out is how we enable smart work anywhere

That means looking at five key areas:

First, space: format, ergonomics, furniture, lighting, acoustics — and that needs to be got right across offices, the home, and other spaces, such as co-working sites.

Second, Digital: the most adapted technology and remote working tools are key. You’ve got to investigate, invest, and train. Make sure everyone can use these tools perfectly.

Third: Culture: the personality of your organization needs to be felt across every touchpoint. This means creating rituals, support programs, and incentives that build a sense of belonging wherever your workers are.

And finally, responsibility: inclusion, diversity, sustainability, and wellbeing must be visible priorities at all times.

Thanks very much for tuning in. You can follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube for the latest news on the podcast, and don’t forget to subscribe to us on your favorite podcast streaming program.

Subscribe to our newsletter and receive the latest information about the Digital Workplace every month.