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techsuch May 9, 2021 0 Comments

Remote reckoning: Tech companies face tough trade-offs as WFH becomespermanent realityFacebook’s Arbor Blocks 300 Building in Seattle. (Facebook Photo / Jen Leahy)Fifty percent of Facebook’s workforce could permanently shift to remote workin the next 5-10 years, CEO Mark Zuckerberg told employees on Thursday. It’s astaggering statistic for a company that historically placed a high premium onin-person office culture, and it signals a broader trend in the technologyindustry.“This is probably overdue,” Zuckerberg said. “Over the past few decades,economic growth in the U.S. has been quite concentrated, with major companiesoften hiring in a handful metropolitan areas. That means we’ve been missingout on a lot of talented people just because they happen to live outside amajor hub.”But as Zuckerberg acknowledged, it’s not that simple. And many others in theindustry are coming to the same realization.In the span of a few weeks, the coronavirus pandemic turned a somewhattheoretical debate over the pros and cons of working from home into a global,real-world experiment. Now, as communities across the country begin to re-open, employers are weighing what they’ve learned against the costs ofreturning to office life.The benefits of working from home quickly became evident. Many teams proved tobe just as productive as before the pandemic, particularly in the technologyindustry. Workers are able to handle issues that come up at home in real-time,exercise on their own schedules, and reduce fossil fuel emissions by avoidingcommuting.Those advantages have compelled employers across the technology industry toconsider more flexible work arrangements after the pandemic subsides.However, the trade-offs for those benefits remain an open question, one thatis weighing on leaders across the technology industry, from tech giants tosmall startups. Most agree that pre-pandemic office culture is a thing of thepast. But the next evolution of work will not be as simple as blanket remotework policies. Instead, employers will have to conduct a careful orchestrathat allows employees to work from home equitably without sacrificing theaspects of work that are difficult to replicate digitally.#### ‘The two minutes before and after’Microsoft was one of the first companies to take its tech workforce remote,and unlike many of its peers, the company’s bottom line hasn’t been negativelyimpacted by the pandemic.But Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is still concerned about the changes to workthat the coronavirus crisis is forcing. He told the New York Times, “[W]hat Imiss is when you walk into a physical meeting, you are talking to the personthat is next to you, you’re able to connect with them for the two minutesbefore and after.”Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at the company’s Redmond headquarters. (GeekWireFile Photo / Kevin Lisota)Nadella warned about the consequences of embracing telecommuting permanently:“What does burnout look like? What does mental health look like? What doesthat connectivity and the community building look like? One of the things Ifeel is, hey, maybe we are burning some of the social capital we built up inthis phase where we are all working remote. What’s the measure for that?”Despite the drawbacks, the trend toward working remotely long-term is alreadywell underway.Twitter and Square will allow employees to telecommute indefinitely. Zillowand Google are embracing remote work through 2020, while Amazon is making itan option for employees until Oct. 2.One-third of Seattleites plan to work from home for at least the remainder ofthe year, according to an Elucd poll conducted for the city. The shifts areraising alarm bells for restaurants and other businesses in Seattle’s downtownand South Lake Union neighborhoods, which are sleepy without office workerfoot traffic.#### Farewell, office lifeDan GiulianiSeattle-based Volt Athletics has already surrendered its physical office andmoved its 25-person team to remote work at least through 2020.“I have historically been resistant to working remote and would never havemade this decision had we not been forced to experiment with remote work dueto the pandemic,” said Dan Giuliani, CEO of the high-tech fitness platform.The safety precautions that any return to office life would require — likemasks and social distancing — made the prospect less appealing to VoltAthletics. Giuliani also predicts office rents will come down as companies gounder or shift teams to remote work long-term. If Volt decides an in-personpresence makes more sense down the line, he anticipates more affordableoptions will be available.Some companies have found the shift to be a money saver at a time of financialduress.Jargon CEO Milkana Brace. (Jargon Photo)“The savings from office space, and other cuts, have enabled us to keep theteam intact while substantially lowering our burn,” said Jargon CEO MilkanaBrace, who canceled the startup’s Seattle lease in mid-March. “I can see afuture, health concerns aside, where we meet as a team once [a] week butotherwise continue to work remotely. We’re monitoring team productivity andpersonal wellness closely as the novelty of working remotely wears off andlonger-term impacts become clearer.”But Zuckerberg said Thursday that he doesn’t expect the partial shift totelecommuting to be a big cost-saver for Facebook, despite plans to pay lowersalaries in less competitive talent markets.“The cost of supporting remote workers has generally offset the real estateand other costs of supporting people in the office,” he said on a call withemployees that was live-streamed on Facebook. “There are just different costshere. Remote workers need different benefits in some cases, including thingslike more tooling to make their offices work at home.”#### Covering home-office expensesSeattle-based Uplevel made that tooling a priority as soon as its leaders madethe decision to stay remote at least through 2020. Uplevel is allowingemployees to expense whatever they need to create their home offices. Thestartup sent care packages to employees with plants, puzzles, snacks, andoffice supplies. Uplevel also delivered everyone’s desk belongings to theirhomes.Uplevel VP of Marketing Jori Saeger. (Uplevel Photo)“We are helping our employees reimagine what [it] looks like for them to maketheir home environments as comfortable and productive as possible,” saidUplevel VP of marketing Jori Saeger.Meetings at Uplevel are barred from 12-1:30 p.m. to ensure everyone has timefor a lunch break. A minimum of 10 minutes is required between Zoom meetings.On Fridays, employees can expense lunch delivery and teams play games onlinetogether to stay connected.Uplevel provides a productivity dashboard to help companies understand logjamsand inefficiencies on their engineering teams. The company has adjusted itsproduct to provide customers with data on how work has changed since theoutset of the pandemic.Investors see opportunity for tech companies, like Uplevel, to improve theremote experience for workers and employers. Demand could also surge formeeting and collaboration spaces that are not used every day.While there is certainly room for innovation in the telecommuting space, manyin the tech industry worry there is no substitute for in-person mentorship andnetworking. Facebook polled employees on their work preferences and while 40%said they were very or somewhat interested in working from home permanently,the preference favored more tenured workers over junior ones.Workdays appear to be longer and more meeting-intensive when teams aredistributed. The overall number of meetings scheduled has gone up 7-10% sincethe start of the pandemic, Recode reports. Microsoft crunched the numbers onusage of its Teams video collaboration software and found the average timefrom first usage to last has increased by an hour.The pros and cons of widespread remote work are emerging in real-time — andit’s not a perfect experiment. The pandemic forced knowledge workers aroundthe world into entirely remote, often isolated, work arrangements overnight.And the shift is occurring during a period of high anxiety and uncertainty.“The situation in which we are all working remote is not a normal situation,”said Kieran Snyder, CEO of Textio, a Seattle startup that uses AI to augmentwriting. “Everybody’s carrying so much more stress. If it’s a differencebetween choosing to work at home today, but then you still head to the gym,you head to the grocery store, you go see your friends at night for dinner,[it’s] really different than what’s happening right now where everyone’strapped in their homes.”#### Striking the right balanceAs economies start to re-open, the big question is where do we go from here?A return to 9-5 office life may not be on the horizon anytime soon, butleaders like Nadella and Zuckerberg don’t see entirely remote work as thefuture either. Nadella told The New York Times that would be “replacing onedogma with another dogma.”Tech workers seem to agree. About 60% of Facebook employees surveyed didn’task to work entirely remotely or return to the office full-time. Instead, theywant a mix of both, the flexibility to choose.Textio CEO Kieran SnyderSnyder expects to give employees that choice when the crisis wanes.“We already had a situation where people could work from home once a week ifthey wanted to,” she said. “But I won’t be surprised if we leave it more inthe employees’ hands as to how often they want to be in the office.”Striking the right balance could lead to more equity in tech, allowing workingparents to do school pick-up while supporting new hires with in-personmentorship. It could also open up opportunity in communities across thecountry that have been historically left behind by the digital revolutionclustered in a handful of coastal tech hubs.“I want us to live in a country where people can have access to opportunity,no matter where they choose to live, and I think that enabling more remotework is going to be very positive on that front toward creating more broad-based economic prosperity,” Zuckerberg said. “Hopefully, a more sustainablesocial and political climate, as well, if opportunity can be shared morebroadly.”

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