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Silicon Valley rethinks the (home) office

By Arielle Pardes

Some tech companies are adjusting to the pandemic with new WFH perks and even letting employees ditch their commutes forever.

FOR YEARS, TECH companies have lured talent with sweet in-office perks: lavish lunch buffets, beer and wine on tap, on-site massage therapy and chiropractic treatment. To work for Apple or Google or Facebook or Salesforce is not just to do a job, but to gain access to some of the most elite members-only spaces in Silicon Valley: Apple Park or the Googleplex or 1 Hacker Way. There are not merely offices—they are campuses as big as theme parks, built to encompass and entertain their workforces en masse.

Now, as the pandemic has shuffled employees out of the office and into their own homes, some tech companies are offering a new kind of perk: the option to never return to those offices again.

On Tuesday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told employees in an email that they can remain working from home forever, if they so choose. Twitter closed its offices in early March, just before the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place orders came down. Since then, the company has offered to reimburse all employees—including hourly workers—for home office expenses, including “desks, desk chairs, and ergonomic chair cushions,” and agreed to front internet costs while employees telecommute.

“If our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen,” wrote Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s VP of people, in a blog post about the decision.

The pandemic has set in motion an unprecedented experiment in remote work. The tech industry was full of early adopters, but a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management in March found that two-thirds of US companies were “taking steps to allow employees to work from home who don’t normally do so.” The mass exodus from the office is likely to change the way teams operate in the long-term. It’s also raised the question of how much of the future of work will happen in the office at all.

Arguably nowhere is more poised to embrace this future than Silicon Valley. Technology companies invented the tools for remote work—file sharing over the cloud, videoconference platforms, and digital tools for sharing calendars, notes, and chats with coworkers. Historically, though, some of the industry’s biggest players have resisted remote work for their own employees. In 2013, under the leadership of Marissa Mayer, Yahoo banned telecommuting, rationalizing in an internal memo that “speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.” IBM, once a remote-work evangelist, has made its teams work in the office, “shoulder to shoulder,” since 2017. Apple has seldom allowed people to work from home, owing to the company’s culture of secrecy and emphasis on in-person meetings. Even Slack has had only a few full-time remote workers—perhaps not as many as you’d expect for a company that makes a digital workplace communication tool.

Now that a large company like Twitter has announced the option to not return to the office, it will likely “drive momentum across the industry,” says Aaron Levie, the CEO and cofounder of Box. “Other companies look to those events as a signal for what they should do in their organization.”

As a cloud computing company, Box was well situated to move work out of its San Francisco headquarters when the pandemic arrived. “We use Box, we use video conferencing, we use Slack,” says Levie. “It was easy for us to transition in terms of the ways that we work.” Rather than the productivity drop feared by Yahoo seven years ago, Levie says engineers are pushing releases more quickly. Reaching customers has been easier too. Before, in-person meetings were the expected practice, which often meant wasting a day on an airplane or adjusting to a new time zone. Now they just set up a video call. People being stuck at home has given companies like Box license to try something different, since “everybody all at once has to operate this way,” says Levie. “You’ve solved the normal network effect challenge that might’ve taken years to solve and compressed it into a matter of weeks.”

No one knows when Silicon Valley’s tech campuses will open back up (and even when they do, it will surely be with new safety measures in place). On Tuesday, Twitter said its offices won’t open before September, with very few exceptions. Slack announced a similar timeline last month. Microsoft has told employees that they can work from home through at least October. Facebook and Google have told employees they can continue working remotely through the end of 2020.

In the meantime, some companies are adjusting their storied perks to better suit the new work-from-home routine. On Tuesday, Slack notified employees that they would each get to spend another $1,000 on their ideal home office setup, in addition to a $500 stipend the company allocated in March. It is also increasing their mobile phone and internet allowance, to accommodate at-home bandwidth costs, and giving employees one Friday off each month (described as “Friyay” in an internal memo, reviewed by WIRED).

Reddit already offered a suite of benefits to remote workers, including a monthly internet stipend and a yearly allowance to build an at-home setup, which is now available to all employees. The company is also reallocating a monthly transit stipend for employees to use “to improve their at-home environment,” says Nellie Peshkov, the VP of people and culture. Neither Slack nor Reddit has said if it will allow remote work indefinitely à la Twitter. Now that so many people have been working remotely for so long, tech companies may have a hard time convincing employees that they missed their commutes. Other companies are considering a shift too. A Gartner survey found that three-fourths of companies expected that some of their employees would permanently work remotely in the future.

Not all companies are so eager to extend the work-from-home life. Employees at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino have been told they will start returning to Apple Park in phases, starting in late May. Apple’s security policies, meant to protect the company’s internal work, have reportedly made it difficult for employees to do their jobs while at home, especially if their jobs are related to building hardware.

Companies like Twitter, which are focused on software, may have an easier time adapting to remote work. Not to mention, Twitter’s CEO has long dreamed of a decentralized workforce. In an earnings call from February, Dorsey said that Twitter’s “concentration in San Francisco is not serving us any longer, and we will strive to be a far more distributed workforce.” (Maybe he had his own distribution in mind. Dorsey has also expressed his intention to live in Africa—a plan he has since said he’s reconsidering in light of the pandemic.)

Of course, Twitter is not abandoning the office altogether. In the wake of the pandemic, Box CEO Levie thinks bigger tech companies are more likely to take what he calls a “hybrid approach,” blending remote teams with in-office ones. “We’re still far from saying, ‘We’ll shut down entire offices,’” Levie says, adding that the realities of childcare would make it difficult for all employees to enjoy working from home permanently. “There’s a lot of power in people coming together, certain types of functions being able to collaborate in person, but there’s equally power in the flexibility and convenience of no commute and being able to work in a more efficient way.”

But other companies may reconsider the expense of office space, or at least downsize it, if enough employees choose to work remotely going forward. In 2017, Automattic—the company that owns WordPress—decided to give up its sprawling 15,000-square-foot office in San Francisco, because its employees never came in. For some smaller startups, this massive work-from-home experiment has made it obvious that they don’t need offices at all.

Culdesac, a real estate startup building car-free communities, announced last week that it would give up its office space in San Francisco. Ryan Johnson, the cofounder and CEO, says that switching to all-remote work in March “worked better than we’d ever thought.” The team immediately became happier and more productive. “People don’t have to commute, and commuting is one of the worst experiences of humanity,” says Johnson. Plus, Culdesac was paying $25,000 a month for office space for its eight-person team in San Francisco. It figured it could use that money somewhere else.

Silicon Valley’s residential real estate market, too, has for years been propped up on the salaries of engineers and executives working at technology companies. San Francisco’s housing squeeze has made renting among the most expensive in the country, and home ownership still remains out of reach even for most tech workers. If more of those employees are free to work from wherever they want, it’s unlikely that all of them will stay. That could lead not just to a decentralized workforce, but a decentralized tech industry.

Some tech workers are already considering making the jump. One Facebook engineer told Bloomberg that “it makes no sense paying Bay Area rent if we can earn our salary living elsewhere,” especially now that Facebook has told its workforce to stay home until the end of the year. If more workers relocate, tech companies will have to reckon with increasingly distributed workforces, rebuilding teams to work in a virtual capacity, and deciding whether or not to continue paying the enormous salaries of tech workers, intended to meet the cost of living in expensive San Francisco. That could change more than just the physical presence of offices—it would change the nature of working in tech altogether.

About The Author

Arielle Pardes
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