September 30, 2023

Google has officially changed its mind about remote work

Yet another big tech baron beckons employees back to the office. Now Google is doubling down on enforcing in-person work, according to a new company announcement.

“For those who live remotely and live near a Google office, we hope you’ll consider moving to a hybrid work schedule. Our offices are where you are most connected to Google’s community,” Chief People Officer Fiona Cicconi wrote in an internal memo obtained by news outlets this week. “Going forward, we will only consider new requests for remote work on an exceptional basis.” According to the note, employees who have not yet been designated as remote will now have their badge swipes tracked to ensure they show up at the office three days a week; managers can include their absence in performance reviews.

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It seems that even big tech is one sector with the resources and tools to
making remote work effective – gives in to the inertia of conventional in-person policies. What is striking, however, is that the same companies that are resisting a fully remote workforce are also creating key tools for home workers across all industries. The companies that made remote working possible worldwide seem to have lost their faith.

Google began requiring employees to return to the office in April last year, though it’s unclear to what extent the policy was enforced among its backers. In tackling in-person attendance now, Google joins a string of big tech companies that have recently taken a firm stance on previously soft hybrid policies — and have essentially reversed the course of remote work.

Not so long ago, technology was at the forefront of offering flexible work. After taking advantage of convenient office perks like catering cafeterias and campus shuttles to compete for talent, the same companies were some of the first to close in favor of working from home when the pandemic hit the US. Since then, tech companies have become an aggressive recruiter of remote workers — until about a year ago, when major companies like Apple, Amazon, and Meta began to roll back their remote policies.

The tech companies that are now resisting remote work are the same ones that are driving it

Google’s memo is reminiscent of a similar post from Meta, which last week told employees to return to the office three days a week starting in September. Meanwhile, Salesforce, a particularly early adopter of remote work, is trying to bribe employees into coming back to the office by promising to make a donation to nonprofits for every day they work in person during a two-week period this month.

But those same companies support remote working and distributed teams around the world, offering software that allows teams to join a remote video call, leave comments on a working draft, or send a quick group DM. Between its docs, sheets, and slides, Google pioneered cloud-based tools that allowed teammates to collaborate from anywhere. (And in addition to revolutionizing our office work, the products have also catalyzed all kinds of cloud-centric collaboration, from social note passing to grassroots organizing.)

Those tools enhance our professional lives, whether personal or apart. And they didn’t just support the remote work revolution: they made it possible. As the 2020 pandemic sent waves of workers home, Google Meet became a leading meeting space. Gmail dominates email on the web, with more than 1.5 billion active users worldwide. And in 2019, the company marked a milestone of 5 million companies paying to work on G Suite, Google’s complete suite of work tools for productivity and collaboration.

Meanwhile, Salesforce owns Slack, which is one of the most widely used team messaging tools alongside Microsoft Teams. And Meta renamed itself with the big bet that people would rather congregate – and work – in virtual spaces than IRL spaces.

So why then for the broad inversions of remote working offered by the teams that make it possible? Maybe even big tech doesn’t believe in its own vision, or at least in its own products.

But according to big tech, office collaboration wins out over remote flexibility

If memos are to be believed, tech companies are calling back employees because they believe more time in the office is the key to feeling connected at work. According to recent reporting from the Pew Research Center, more than half of Americans who work from home at least some of the time say it hinders their ability to feel connected with colleagues. At least Google and Meta notes lean on that sentiment.

“We’ve heard from Googlers that those who are in the office at least three days a week feel more connected to other Googlers, and that this effect is amplified when teammates work from the same location,” Cicconi wrote in the Google memo. “Of course not everyone believes in ‘magic hallway conversations’, but there’s no doubt that working together in the same room makes a positive difference.”

Meta’s memo also points to connection as one of the top reasons the company is forcing its staff to come back to the office, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying IRL time is key to cross-team connection.

“[O]Our hypothesis is that it is still easier to build personal trust and that those relationships help us work more effectively,” Zuckerberg wrote in a March blog post. “I encourage all of you to find more opportunities to work personally with your colleagues.”

But do those theories align with what their employees actually want? According to Pew, most hybrid employees would prefer to spend even more time working from home than is currently the case. It therefore raises the question of what the bosses actually believe in.

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