Why Some Big Tech No Longer Want Their Employees To Work Remotely All The Time

Fiona Cicconi, Google’s head of human resources, wrote a few days ago to the company’s employees to announce that her schedule was moving forward to return to the office.

Starting September 1, she told them, those who wish to work from home for more than 14 days will have to submit a formal application.

Employees are also expected, she added, “to live at a distance that allows them to commute” to the offices. So no cocktails on the beach with a laptop.

The message was clear: There may be more flexibility than before, but most workers will have to go to the office.

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That idea seems to run counter to much of what we heard from Silicon Valley executives last year when they defended the virtues of remote work.

For example, Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, made headlines around the world last May, when he said that employees of the social network could from then on “work from home forever.”

It was speculated that after the COVID-19 pandemic, the “new normal” for Silicon Valley companies would be a heavily remote-oriented workforce, with only minimal staff in the office.

It seems increasingly clear that this is not going to happen.

Woman working from home with her son.
Many thought that the “new normal” for Silicon Valley might be a heavily remote-oriented workforce, but it seems less and less likely.

And, if we look closely at the statements of the heads of technology companies, there are nuances that the press had overlooked.

For example, when Dorsey said that Twitter employees could work at home “forever,” he added: “If our employees play a role that they can play from home and are in a situation that allows them to do so.”

It is a very important conditioner.

And indeed, Twitter clarified that it expects most of its staff to spend some time working from home and some time in the office.

Almost all Silicon Valley tech companies said they are now committed to “flexible” or “hybrid” work.

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The problem is, those terms can mean almost anything.

Friday off? Or a completely different working relationship with a physical office?

A man is wearing a laptop backpack and a mask.
Silicon Valley companies say they are committed to “flexible” or “hybrid” work.

Microsoft anticipates that “working from home part of the time (less than 50%) will be the standard for most jobs” in the future.

There is a lot of room for maneuver in the words “less than 50%”.

Amazon also communicated to its employees: “Our plan is to return to an office-centric culture as the standard. We believe it allows us to invent, collaborate and learn together more effectively.”

It’s not exactly a resounding endorsement of the new era of work from home.

Part of the question is that while many employees want more flexibility, it’s still not entirely clear what kind of model works for companies.

“None of us have been able to figure it out,” said Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s global vice president of sales, discussing current work-from-home arrangements.

“We are inventing as we go.”

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The appeal of remote work
Prithwiraj Choudhury, a Harvard Business School professor and advocate for remote working, says tech companies have long been at the forefront of this model.

“The early adopters and the companies that are following this remote work model and building the organization around it will have a huge advantage in attracting talent,” he says.

That is certainly the hope.

No tech company wants to lose capable employees to rivals who allow them to work more flexibly.

Companies like Spotify are now offering more “flexible” work practices to their staff.

“Our employees will be able to work full time from home, from the office or combine both,” the company said in a recent statement.

“The exact combination of home and office work modes is a decision that each employee and her manager make together.”

But he also added: “There will likely be some adjustments to be made along the way.”

So Spotify’s definition of flexible work is very different from Google’s, which in turn is very different from Amazon.

Workers with their masks working on their laptops.