Silicon Valley Rethinks the (Home) Office

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.

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

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 Zoom, 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.”

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