May 15, 2020 - Technology

Many tech workers won't be going back to the office

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

Google to open offices July 6 for 10% of workers

Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

Google aims to partially reopen its offices July 6 for up to 10% of its workers, with plans to boost that to about 30% of capacity by September, according to a memo CEO Sundar Pichai sent to employees Tuesday.

Why it matters: As we've reported, most large tech companies are in no rush to return their workers to the office on a large scale. However, many are preparing for a slow reopening for those workers who do want to be in the office, as well as for jobs like hardware design and engineering that are challenging to do remotely.

The downsides of remote work

Data: Reproduced from Prudential/Morning Consult "Pulse of the American Worker Survey"; Chart: Axios Visuals

The coronavirus pandemic has forced a large-scale experiment in working from home. It has gone well enough that many companies are expanding their remote work expectations for the foreseeable future, and remote employees want to continue to work that way.

Yes, but: The downsides of remote work — less casual interaction with colleagues, an over-reliance on Zoom, lack of in-person collaboration and longer hours — could over time diminish the short-term gains.

Mark Zuckerberg: Social networks should not be "the arbiter of truth"

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg argued on CNBC's "Squawk Box" Thursday that social media platforms should not police political speech, and that "people should be able to see what politicians say.”

Why it matters: Zuckerberg was responding to Twitter's decision this week to fact-check a pair of President Trump's tweets that claimed that mail-in ballots are "substantially fraudulent." Twitter's label, which directs users to "get the facts" about mail-in voting, does not censor Trump's tweets.