Tech companies are looking at more flexible work models when offices reopen

Last week, Apple announced it wanted employees to return to the Cupertino campus starting in September for three days a week. Some employees who had grown used to the flexibility of working at home pushed back.

Prior to the pandemic with few exceptions, most employees went into an office most days, but when COVID hit in March 2020 and workers were forced home, employers quickly learned that their staff could be productive even when they weren’t sitting in the same building. Now it seems it will be difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.

Finding that right balance between fully remote and however a given company defines hybrid — like Apple some days in the office and some days at home — is never going to be easy and there will never be a one size fits all answer. In fact, it’s probably going to be fluid moving forward.

Just to show how different companies are approaching this, we asked five other large technology companies besides Apple to see how they were treating the return to the office, and each was looking at some form of hybrid work:

  • Google is taking at a similar approach to Apple with three days in the office and two days at home. “We’ll move to a hybrid work week where most Googlers spend approximately three days in the office and two days wherever they work best. Since in-office time will be focused on collaboration, your product areas and functions will help decide which days teams will come together in the office. There will also be roles that may need to be on site more than three days a week due to the nature of the work,” Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet wrote in a recent blog post.
  • Salesforce is giving employees a broad set of choices depending on their role. Most employees can work at home most of the time, and can come into the office 1-3 days a week to collaborate with colleagues, meet with customers or for presentations. Others who don’t live near an office can be fully remote and those who choose, or whose job to require will be office-based, coming in 4-5 days a week.
  • Facebook is expanding remote work telling employees, “As of June 15, Facebook will open up remote work to all levels across the company, and anyone whose role can be done remotely can request remote work,” the company wrote to employees.
  • Microsoft is leaving it up to managers, but most roles are going to be remote at least part of the time. As they told employees in an announcement recently, “We recognize that some employees are required to be onsite and some roles and businesses are better suited for working away from the worksite than others. However, for most roles, we view working from home part of the time (less than 50%) as now standard – assuming manager and team alignment.”
  • Amazon originally was looking at a policy of mostly in-office, but it announced this week that it had decided to offer employees a more flexible work schedule. “Our new baseline will be three days a week in the office (with the specific days being determined by your leadership team), leaving you flexibility to work remotely up to two days a week,” the company wrote in a message to employees.

The larger tech companies are offering most employees some level of flexibility to decide when to come into the office, but how do startups look at work as we move toward post-pandemic? Most startups I speak to don’t foresee an office-centric approach with many taking a remote-first approach. Andreessen Horowitz recently surveyed 226 startups in its portfolio and found that two-thirds of portfolio companies are looking at a similar hybrid approach as their larger counterparts. In fact, 87 were thinking about 1-2 days a week with 64 looking at no office at all, only gathering for company offsites. By contrast just 18 said that they wouldn’t allow any work from home.

Dion Hinchcliffe, an analyst at Constellation Research, who has been studying distributed work for many years says that tech companies will be more likely to embrace flexible work models now that they have seen how it works during the pandemic.

“Most tech companies will maintain some degree of flexibility when returning to the office, especially since it is popular with many of their workers. Plus the worries about productivity loss have turned out to be largely unfounded,” he said. But he emphasized that this would not be true for every company.

“Certain companies, especially ones that believe they have a lot of IP to protect or operate in other sensitive types of work will be more reluctant to allow work to continue from home,” he said. This in spite of the fact that many of these companies have been doing just that for the last 15 months. Going hybrid as Apple has only muddles that argument further.

“It definitely includes Apple, which has long been well known for discouraging work from home. Their new policy of three days a week in-office probably makes them feel a bit more secure, but does not really accomplish it,” Hinchcliffe said.

Of course companies can set policies, but it doesn’t mean they won’t run into employee objections. Apple certainly learned that. Workers appear to want to be the ones choosing where to work, not their employers, and it could very well be a competitive advantage to offer work from home options, especially in a tight labor market where the power appears to be shifting to employees.

It should be interesting to see where this all goes, and how much power employees have to push their companies to their more flexible working ideal. For now, most companies will have a far larger degree of flexibility than existed pre-pandemic, but certainly not everyone wants people working from home all the time forever, and companies will need to decide what works best for them and their employees.