Tech Leaders’ Data-Free Assault on Remote Work

Covid-19 forced employers who had long resisted flexible work — and especially remote work — to embrace it to survive. This was especially true of the tech titans of Silicon Valley, which had disparaged telework and remote work. Yet despite the lack of planning, sub-optimal home offices, and technology deployed on the fly, this “new” way of working functioned remarkably well according to both participants and most of their direct managers. 

However, as the pandemic subsides, employers are beginning to consider whether and how to bring their workers back to the office. Anticipating the so-called “new normal,” the tech field’s highly regarded CEOs — led early by Alphabet/Google’s Sundar Pichai — declared the coming of the hybrid office. This mixture of limited work from home with the return of most employees to pricey campuses at least several days a week rocketed around global C-suites and has now become the mantra of the next big thing.

While some tech companies, like Dropbox and Twitter, have committed to expansive remote work, others are mandating multiple days in the office. This has caused employees to react with unexpected vigor. A small number are yearning for the socialization of the old office, but many strongly prefer remote work as the better way to get their jobs done and have a life without burdensome commutes. 

In recent months, this preferential difference has emerged as a significant gulf —  and employees are voting with their feet, leaving rigid employers for more flexible ones.

A Manifesto for the Counter-Revolution 

Navigating this significant change in the face of both skepticism and opposition requires a rationale beyond simple executive preference — or the desire to rebuild what many corporate leaders consider acceptable levels of occupancy in the plush campuses and high rises in which they had invested billions. 

Into this void have come pronouncements from Google and Apple, great empires built on the vaunted primacy of data. These statements are remarkable for their appeal to an unnamed and ill-defined “secret sauce” created by employees being in the same place at the same time. 

Read carefully or casually, these alleged rationales are virtually data-free. According to Apple CEO Tim Cook, in a San Jose Business Journal article entitled “Tim Cook tells Apple employees when and how they’ll return to the office“: 

 “For all that we’ve been able to achieve while many of us have been separated, the truth is that there has been something missing from this past year: each other. Video conference calling has narrowed the distance between us, to be sure, but there are things it simply cannot replicate.”

What is the true content of this vague and mysterious secret sauce? What metrics capture and value it? 

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The common assertion is that spontaneous idea generation (once known as the water cooler effect before everyone got their water from their own bottles) suffers. If so, where are the examples of the great product and service ideas that came out of such spontaneous encounters? Yes, a chat over sushi in Apple’s spaceship office could spark an idea. But such a thing can occur in an offline Teams or Zoom chat. It takes systematic work, however executed, to turn ideas into profitable developments. Fully remote companies have mastered this process. 

The other common argument for co-location is that new hires need it to get the informal development opportunities essential to becoming properly “acculturated.” As a corporate consultant for the past 30 years, I have seen in hundreds of surveys strong employee criticism of the poor onboarding and development practices of most employers. 

The oft-repeated faith in the random nurturing that occurs by employees overhearing a great salesperson close a deal or an exec making time for a little informal coaching is a weak substitute for a more fair and systematic commitment to quality onboarding and development. Both of which require serious time and money. And both of which have been done by successful companies on a remote basis. 

“How You Gonna Keep Them Down on the Farm…?” 

Less than a week after Cook’s memo to staff, 80 Apple employees challenged his assertions and proposed policy in an open letter. In clear and decisive fashion, the letter lays out a series of suggestions for enabling team-based, business-driven decisions regarding work location and flexibility. Among the assertions are:

“[W]e would like to take the opportunity to communicate a growing concern among our colleagues. That Apple’s remote/location-flexible work policy, and the communication around it, have already forced some of our colleagues to quit. Without the inclusivity that flexibility brings, many of us feel we have to choose between either a combination of our families, our well-being, and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple…

The last year has felt like we have truly been able to do the best work of our lives for the first time, unconstrained by the challenges that daily commutes to offices and in-person co-located offices themselves inevitably impose; all while still being able to take better care of ourselves and the people around us…

[During this time] we have developed two major versions of all our operating systems, organized two full WWDCs, introduced numerous new products, transitioned to our own chipsets, and supported our customers with the same level of care as before. We have already piloted location-flexible work the last 15 months under much more extreme conditions and we were very successful in doing so…

For Inclusion and Diversity to work, we have to recognize how different we all are, and with those differences, come different needs and different ways to thrive. We feel that Apple has both the responsibility to recognize these differences, as well as the capability to fully embrace them…

We strongly believe this is the ideal moment to ‘burn the boats’ — to boldly declare ‘yes this can be done, and done successfully, because there is no other choice for the future.’

Across the U.S. and globally, employees are reflecting on their year of separation from less than ideal 20th-century workplaces and habits and their experience of what 21st century work could become. Tech leaders and others should pay more attention to the data embodied in their employees’ voices and less to the urgings of boards and accountants reluctant to write off bad real estate gambles. Yesterday’s office may just end up going the way of the virus.

Paul Rupert has collaborated with colleagues, clients, and business leaders to embed flexibility in the workplace for the past 35 years. His consulting firm, Washington, D.C.-based Rupert Organizational Design, has provided dozens of major U.S. and global employers with innovative strategies, training, and online tools to build the flexibility the market will bear. Paul has played a leading role in developing flexibility systems in companies ranging from Aetna and AOL to Walmart and Xerox, and is currently advocating for broader use of phased retirement initiatives. Contact him at paulrupertdc@cs.com.

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