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Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Salesforce Lead the Charge Back to the Workplace

April 26, 2021 Employee Experience
David Roe
By David Roe

Remote work has been a "thing" for a long time. While the numbers of people working remotely soared over the course of the past year, many companies were already putting the pieces of a remote strategy in place long before that. The offer of remote working had also become a strong recruitment tool. At the beginning of 2019, for example, a survey of U.S. knowledge workers by Intermedia showed that one in four workers said they would not take a job that does not offer tools that enable remote working. 

At the time, Costin Tuculescu, VP of collaboration at Intermedia, explained that organizations that have deployed the right communication tools — like video and chat — will have the advantage of attracting (and keeping) the best talent no matter where they are found. Now, though, while the possibility of remote working is an added attraction for those looking for new jobs, it is also clear that expectations of a remote workplace are fading. There will be hybrid workplaces — a mix of remote and physical working — but the idea of entirely remote workplaces is disappearing, a move that is being led by some of the major tech companies including Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Salesforce. 

Amazon's Workplace

In fact, in the case of Amazon, the creation of even a hybrid workplace is in question. In a statement issued by the company at the end of March, Seattle-based Amazon explained:  

“Our plan is to return to an office-centric culture as our baseline. We believe it enables us to invent, collaborate, and learn together most effectively. The timelines for returning to the office will vary by country, depending on the infection and vaccination rates, and we expect our return to the office to be gradual. In many parts of Asia, our employees are already back in the office. In the U.S., as vaccines become broadly available in the next few months, we expect more people will start coming into the office through the summer.” 

The transition away from remote work is expected to wrap up by autumn. Working in offices, the statement said “enables us to invent, collaborate, and learn together most effectively.”  

Google Speeds up Return to the Workplace  

Google, however, also appears to be still unsure as to what its remote working policy will finally be. For the moment it is speeding up its plans to bring people back to the office. Already, it seems that many people are returning to work ahead of the Sept. 1 return deadline that Google had mooted late last year. 

After Sept. 1, workers will be allowed to work remotely for an additional 14 days per year. Anyone looking for additional remote working days will need to apply for permission, with a cap set at 12 months. However, even then, employees could be called back to their assigned office at any time. In general, after Sept. 1, Google will reopen its physical offices and employees will be expected to turn up in person for three days per week. 

The move is interesting in the wider context of the discussion about the remote workplace. It has been assumed since millions of people started working remotely that companies would embrace the new reality and encourage employees to stay home. 

Related Article: It's Time for an Adult Conversation About the Hybrid Workplace

Microsoft's Phased Approach to the Physical Workplace

While Microsoft expects the workplace to be hybrid in the future, it too is opening its workplace in Seattle and Redmond, Wash.. Currently, Microsoft work sites in 21 countries have been able to accommodate additional workers in its facilities — representing around 20% of its global employee population. On March 29, Microsoft started making the shift back to the physical workplace in its Redmond headquarters and nearby campuses. 

The opening is part of a phased approach to opening offices again, a strategy Microsoft outlined in six stages last year. The Hybrid Workplace Dial defines six stages — rather than specific timelines — which allows the company to open work sites depending on health conditions, while also staying data-driven in its decision-making. 

This hybrid workplace, as Microsoft, sees it, is outlined in a blog post by Kurt DelBene, Microsoft’s head of corporate strategy. He wrote: “Looking ahead, we know that hybrid work requires a new operating model and strategy that encompasses flexible work policy, inclusive space design and innovative technology solutions. The modern workplace requires companies to meet new employee expectations, connect a more distributed workforce, and provide tools to create, innovate and work together to solve business problems." 

The move is interesting considering recent comments by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in the New York Times. Speaking about remote working, he pointed out that even though the raw productivity stats for many of Microsoft’s workers have gone up, this is not something to over-celebrate. More meetings start and end on time, but “what I miss is when you walk into a physical meeting, you are talking to the person that is next to you, you’re able to connect with them for the two minutes before and after.” That is tough to replicate virtually, as are other soft skills crucial to managing and mentoring. 

Switching from offices before the pandemic to an all-remote setup would be “replacing one dogma with another dogma,” he said. “What does burnout look like? What does mental health look like? What does that connectivity and the community building look like? One of the things I feel is, hey, we are burning some of the social capital we built up in this phase where we are all working remote. What’s the measure for that?”

Salesforce Flies the Hybrid Flag 

Salesforce is also pursuing a hybrid strategy. Last week, it announced that it is re-opening its San Francisco headquarters in May, but it will let all employees work remotely through the end of 2021. Even still, the company will not be returning to business as usual. In a statement it informed employees, “we’re not going back to the way it was. We’re in a new world and Salesforce is uniquely positioned to be a leader in this world by using our own technology like Work.com and our expertise.” It added "our first U.S. office reopening will be Salesforce Tower San Francisco, our headquarters and largest presence, in May." 

It also points out that while offices will remain an important part of the company’s strategy as it reopens, the office is no longer at the center of the Salesforce workday. “Just as we flexed when we moved our offices to our homes, we’re encouraging all employees to Flex Forward to a new, better way of working — we’ll put Who, What, and Why before Where work happens, whether that be in an office, at a customer site, or in a café,” the company added. 

This is a move that will be carefully watched by everyone in the tech industry given that San Francisco, a hub of the global technology industry, and Salesforce is the biggest employer in the city. The Salesforce Tower has 61 floors and 1.4 million square feet (about half the area of a large shopping mall) of office space. 

Returning to Work 

This has been supported by research from Spiceworks Ziff Davis based on a survey of over 1,000 IT professionals in the U.S. and UK which found that while 61% of employees worked from home during the pandemic, this is likely to drop to 30% post-pandemic. According to Peter Tsai, head of technology insights at Spiceworks Ziff Davis: “While our research indicates a drop to 30% of the workforce working fully remote once it’s safe to return to offices, the majority of companies (57%) will keep flexible work policies in place, pointing in many cases to a hybrid model blending in-person and at-home work going forward.”  

There is no doubt that working from home will remain part of our lives, even as things start going to normal. Businesses have adapted to new ways of working, which has altered discussions on the future of those in their employ. Despite the extreme difficulties that the pandemic has created, the companies that are thriving are the ones that are offering some level of flexibility, James Lloyd-Townshend, CEO at Mason Frank International, which specializes in Salesforce recruitment, told us. 

“A lot has been said and written about the future of work over these past months, but one of the more prevalent messages is how much can be gained from offering remote working options. Companies that are waiting for things to revert to the way they were are in for a shock. The world has moved on and this has shifted the perception of normality,” he said. 

“Many employees don't want to give up this newfound work-life balance. However, others miss going back into the office and collaborating face-to-face with colleagues — so one solution won't suit everyone.” 

Even before COVID-19, younger generations entering the workforce were less inclined to accept the rigidity of the 9-5 office workday. Many employers have been slow to adapt to this backlash, and now that people have experienced what's possible, businesses that roll back these options risk losing out on great talent. “This pandemic is shining a light on what we accept as the status quo, and it's vital that we take this opportunity to examine what we consider normal and re-evaluate it,” he added. 

Office Real Estate

Teresha Aird is the managing director at Offices.net, an online brokerage that connects businesses with flexible office space across the U.S.. She said that as a veteran of the commercial real estate industry with over 15 years of experience in closing deals and talking to businesses about workspace trends, it is clear that the shift in sentiment towards remote and hybrid work practices has been one of the largest changes in many years.

Whilst large companies — such as Salesforce, Google and Microsoft — are looking at returning to the office over the course of 2021 and the start of 2022, a lot of the businesses are still eager to downsize to accommodate for permanent hybrid work schedules and lower numbers in the office. Inquiries for flexible workspaces with optional extras — such as bookable meeting rooms and event  spaces — have seen a marked increase since the start of the pandemic. In addition, demand for more 'traditional' office spaces with space for more than 30 employees remains soft, despite the continued vaccine rollout. 
   
“Based on the types of inquiries we have been receiving, as well as conversations had with businesses from multiple different industries, the remote working dream is far from over. The pandemic has illustrated the viability of remote work (in some sectors more than others) and we fully expect to see the trend towards remote and hybrid workplace solutions continue over the coming years," she said. 

It is still early days to say whether remote working will be a permanent feature of the digital workplace or not in the coming months and years. There are many different possibilities ranging from Reed Hastings, Netflix's chief executive, assessment of remote working as "pure negative," to Brent Hyder, Salesforce's president and chief people officer, who said it will be building a strategy around the principle putting 'Who, what, and why before where work happens, whether that be in an office, at a customer site, or in a cafe." One way or the other, it is unlikely that any single work model will win out.

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