When Google employees returned to their mostly empty offices this month, they were told to relax. Office time should be “not only productive but also fun”. Explore the place a bit. Don’t book back-to-back meetings.
Also, don’t forget to attend Lizzo’s private show, one of the hottest pop stars in the country. If that’s not enough, the company is also planning “pop-up events” that will feature “all Googlers’ favorite duo: food and loot.”
But Google employees in Boulder, Colo., were still reminded of what they were giving up when the company gave them mouse pads bearing the image of a sad-eyed cat. Beneath the mascot was a plea: “You’re not going to RTO, are you?”
RTO, back to office, is an abbreviation born out of the pandemic. It is an acknowledgment of how Covid-19 forced many companies to abandon office buildings and empty cubicles. The pandemic has shown that being in the office does not necessarily equate to increased productivity, and some companies have continued to thrive without meeting in person.
Now, after two years of video meetings and Slack chats, many companies are itching to get employees back to their desks. However, employees may not be as eager to return to morning commutes, communal bathrooms, and non-athletic daytime attire.
So tech companies with money to burn and offices to fill are jumping on the fun bandwagon, even as they make it clear that, in many cases, returning to the office at least a few days a week is mandatory. .
Lizzo will perform for Google employees this month at an amphitheater near the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. When Microsoft reopened its offices in Redmond, Washington, in late February, employees enjoyed music from local bands, beer and wine tastings, and even terrarium-making classes.
To mark its first official week back in the office, chipmaker Qualcomm held a happy hour with its CEO, Cristiano Amon, at its San Diego offices for several thousand employees with free food, drink and T-shirts. The company also began offering weekly events like pop-up snack stands on “Take a Break Tuesday” and group exercise classes for “Wellness Wednesday.”
“These celebrations and benefits are an acknowledgment by companies that they know employees don’t want to come back to the office, certainly not as often as they used to,” said Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia University business school. . For now at least, he added, companies are choosing the carrot over the stick: rewarding workers for coming to the office rather than punishing them for staying home.
Before Covid hit, the biggest tech firms committed billions of dollars to building offices that are marvels of architecture and trophies of financial success. Those gleaming offices, packed with amenities and perks, are a testament to the long-held belief that in-person collaboration is even better at fostering creativity, inspiring innovation, and instilling a shared sense of purpose.
The return of back-to-the-office plans
After the Omicron variant crushed companies’ hopes of returning to face-to-face work late last year, it now appears that a new RTO chapter is opening.
But for many employees who have enjoyed the freedom of working remotely, returning to the office, no matter how elegant, comes with a hint of dread at the end of the summer and back to school. Few, it seems, are willing to return five days a week.
On Memegen, an internal company site where Google employees share memes, one of the most popular posts was a photo of a company cafeteria with the caption: “RTO bumps into each other and says ‘we need to have lunch soon’ until that one of you leaves Google”.
Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University who surveys 5,000 workers each month, said most wanted to return to the office two or three times a week. A third never want to go back to the office and prefer to stay remote.
Just by eliminating the commute, Bloom said, the average worker will save an hour a day, so “you can see why employees aren’t going to start coming to work for free bagels or playing ping-pong.” . The main draw to going to the office, according to surveys, is that employees want to see their colleagues in person.
After a series of postponements, Google kicked off its hybrid work schedule on April 4, requiring most employees to report to US offices a few days a week. Apple began making it easier for staff to return to the office on Monday, with workers expected to check in at the office once a week at first.
On March 31, David Radcliffe, Google’s vice president of real estate and workplace services, sent an email to employees in the San Francisco Bay Area saying the company wanted a return to the office to be ” really special.”
For years, Google has provided employees with Wi-Fi-equipped luxury buses to make commutes more productive and comfortable, but it’s going one step further. It is starting a program to reimburse monthly rentals of $49 for an electric scooter as part of its transportation options for staff. Google also plans to start experimenting with different office layouts to accommodate changing work styles.
When Microsoft employees returned to their offices in February as part of a hybrid work schedule, they were greeted with “recognition events” and lawn games like cornhole and life-size chess. There were spring basket weaving classes and canvas painting. The campus pub has been transformed into a beer, wine and mocktail garden.
And of course there was free food and drink: pizzas, sandwiches and specialty coffees. Microsoft paid for food trucks with deals that included fried chicken, tacos, gyros, Korean food, and barbecue.
Unlike other technology companies, Microsoft expects employees to pay for their own food at the office. An employee marveled at how big the draw of free food was.
The challenge for companies, Bloom said, is how to balance the flexibility to allow workers to set their own hours with a stricter approach of forcing them to come in on specific days to maximize the utility of office time.
He said companies should focus on developing the right approach to hybrid working instead of wasting time and effort showering employees with incentives like private gigs.
“Employees are not going to come in regularly just for the luxuries,” said Mr. Bloom. “What are you going to do next? Get Justin Bieber and then Katy Perry?
Tailored to Apple’s more restricted workplace, its employees said they didn’t expect, or had heard of, any celebrations for returning to the office. At first, Apple is asking employees to come in once a week. At the end of May, Apple requires them to log in on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
When Apple announced its return-to-the-office plan last year before another Covid surge forced a delay, more than 1,000 employees signed a letter urging management to be more open to flexible work arrangements. It was a rare display of dissent from the company’s rank-and-file, who have historically been less willing to openly challenge executives on labor issues.
But as tech companies scramble to offer employees more work flexibility, companies are also cutting back on some office benefits.
Meta, formerly known as Facebook, told employees last month that it was cutting or eliminating free services like laundry and dry cleaning. Google, like other companies, has said it has approved requests from thousands of employees to work remotely or transfer to a different office. But if employees move to a less expensive location, Google is cutting pay, arguing that it has always taken into account where a person was hired to set compensation.
Clio, a legal software company in Burnaby, British Columbia, will not force its employees to return to the office. But last week he threw a party at his offices.
There was lively music. There was an asymmetric balloon sculpture in Clio’s signature bright blue, dark blue, coral and white, perfect for selfies. One of Clio’s best-known workers donned a safari outfit to give tours of the facility. At 2 pm, the company held a social cupcake.
To make its workspaces feel more like home, the company moved desks to the perimeter, allowing Clions, as the company calls its employees, to gaze at the cherry blossoms in the office complex while typing emails. A foosball table was upgraded to a workstation with chairs at each end, “so he could have a meeting while playing foosball on his laptop,” said Natalie Archibald, Clio’s vice president of people.
Clio’s Burnaby office, which employs 350, is open at just half capacity. Spaced desks must be reserved, and employees were given red, yellow, and green lanyards to convey their comfort level with handshakes.
Only about 60 people came that Monday. “Being able to have a laugh in real life instead of an emoji response,” Archibald said. “People are excited about it.”
karen way contributed report.