Tech companies are gaming out how to bring employees back to the office, but many are expecting a new normal in which a significant portion of their workers stay home for good.

Why it matters: Some tech firms may find they are just as productive with a remote workforce. But a shift away from in-office work will have profound impacts on everything from the commercial real estate market to the vast number of support jobs that were built around serving Silicon Valley's sprawling campuses.

Driving the news:

  • Twitter told workers that they can work from home permanently if they want.
  • Others haven't gone that far, but many tech companies have acknowledged publicly or privately that they don't expect most workers to return to the office this year.
  • On a Zoom call with reporters on Wednesday evening, the CEOs of Box, Okta, PagerDuty and Twilio all expressed a sense that they will end up with more remote workers permanently, even after the pandemic ends.

Some companies were headed toward more remote staff even before the coronavirus crisis.

  • "We were already trying to reduce our dependency on the Bay Area because of competition for talent and cost of doing business here," said PagerDuty CEO Jennifer Tejada.
  • Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey had announced in January, when COVID-19's impact remained a distant threat, that Twitter was moving toward a remote-first workplace.

Others found themselves having to quickly switch gears.

  • Box CEO Aaron Levie said that he used to like to manage by walking around the office, but has found other benefits from a remote workforce.
  • Remote meetings have been a decent substitute for talking in person, connecting Levie to workers in Australia, Japan and England all on the same day, with no need to travel.

Between the lines: Embracing remote work has a number of benefits for companies beyond just the costs of hiring and retaining workers.

  • Many tech companies have built up a massive army of contractors and vendors to support their workers, including food service, shuttle bus drivers and janitorial staff. Even a partial shift away from the office would likely add up to significant savings over time for the firms — although fewer jobs for those support workers.
  • For workers, meanwhile, the ability to work remotely means more than just cutting down a commute. It also means the ability to live wherever they want, rather than being tied to the Bay Area or another tech hub, like Austin, New York or Boston. Considering the high cost of real estate and other expenses in the Bay Area, that could lead to a significant exodus, though people have long predicted "peak Silicon Valley" — and long been wrong.

Yes, but: Some companies have invested significantly in their campuses and have a vested interest in maintaining an office culture.

  • Apple is the poster child for this. It spent a fortune on its Apple Park HQ and likes its products designed behind closed (and locked) doors.
  • Bloomberg recently reported Apple is making plans for some office workers to return this summer.

The big picture: Companies' stances will range from Twitter's "stay home forever if you want" to Apple's "can't wait for you to come back in." Software companies are likely to have an easier time than hardware producers relying on a largely distributed workforce.

What's next: Not all the changes we are seeing as a response to the coronavirus will be permanent. Some jobs that are being done remotely at the moment, including many roles in sales and support, will require more travel once shelter-in-place rules ease.

  • "We are going to have to feel our way around this," said Tien Tzuo, CEO of Zuora, a subscription management company. "I don't think we know the end game."

Go deeper

Apple's antitrust fight turns Epic

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Millions of angry gamers may soon join the chorus of voices calling for an antitrust crackdown on Apple, as the iPhone giant faces a new lawsuit and PR blitz from Epic Games, maker of mega-hit Fortnite.

Why it matters: Apple is one of several Big Tech firms accused of violating the spirit, if not the letter, of antitrust law. A high-profile lawsuit could become a roadmap for either building a case against tech titans under existing antitrust laws or writing new ones better suited to the digital economy.

The pandemic real estate market

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

It's not just emotional buying, real estate agents say: There are smart and strategic reasons that Americans of all ages, races and incomes are moving away from urban centers.

Why it matters: Bidding wars, frantic plays for a big suburban house with a pool, buying a property sight unseen — they're all part of Americans' calculus that our lives and lifestyles have been permanently changed by coronavirus and that we'll need more space (indoors and out) for the long term.

Updated Aug 12, 2020 - Axios Events

Watch: Industry's digital update

On Wednesday August 12, @Work author Erica Pandey hosted a conversation on how the coronavirus has accelerated a nationwide shift to e-commerce, featuring Ellevest CEO Sallie Krawcheck and Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen.

Rodney McMullen discussed how grocery stores have adjusted to changing times and leaned more on contactless options — like online ordering with curbside delivery — to meet customers' needs.

  • On a hybrid shopping experience for customers: "One of the things that we've found is customers that use us online also like to come into our stores. That's one of the reasons why it's important to have a totally seamless experience where customers can do whatever's easiest for them at that particular point in time. From our view, part of this [shift to online shopping] will be permanent.
  • How coronavirus has changed trends in grocery shopping: "When people shop, the basket sizes are significantly bigger when you look at today versus before the pandemic. The other thing that's causing some of [the larger basket sizes] is families have moved back in together. I know a lot of kids have moved back with their parents."

Sallie Krawcheck discussed the financial industry, focusing on how women are being impacted by COVID-19 in their places of work and in their approach to finances.

  • How gender inequities can be amplified by remote work: "Women are a greater share of essential workers and are losing their jobs at a greater rate. And it's a problem at the most subtle level — women are finding all of the micro-inequities of the workplace. It's hard to get a word in edgewise in a meeting. Questions like 'how do I get my point of view heard?' are being really amplified in a Zoom era."
  • On the future role of in-person financial advising and transactions: "[Finance] is going digital first...The argument that you're not going to have the same relationship [with your financial advisor] if you don't meet in person isn't right."

Axios co-founder and CEO Jim VandeHei hosted a View from the Top segment with
Okta CEO Todd McKinnon who discussed how brick-and-mortar businesses have shifted to e-commerce as a result of the pandemic.

  • "Companies [are] realizing that we're in this pandemic world for a long time. So they really have to have their digital strategies put together...When you can't go to the hardware store, the hardware store has to get online. And that's happening now."

Thank you Okta for sponsoring this event.