At Tech Companies, the Rebellion Against the Return to the Office Is Getting Serious
Companies requiring in-person work are facing pushback. Those with looser policies find that flexibility makes recruitment easier. ‘I will find somewhere else to work.’
By Katherine BindleyFollow
May 14, 2022 12:00 am ET
Some of the economy’s most in-demand employees are about to find out how much power they have over where and how they work.
After months of return-to-work starts and stops, many tech companies, including Alphabet Inc.’s GOOG 2.96%▲ Google, Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp., MSFT 2.26%▲ are telling remote workers it’s finally time to come back for good, or at least show up part of the week. Employees who fled the Bay Area and other high-cost tech hubs earlier in the Covid-19 pandemic—or who just prefer to work from home—now face hard choices: move back, try the super commute, or hold out for a concession or new job elsewhere.
How the emerging power struggles play out will be a telling indicator of how much leverage remote-work converts in other sectors have as more employers call staff back to offices. A competitive job market, plus the relative ease with which businesses adjusted to work-from-home over the past two years, has emboldened many professionals to try to say goodbye to offices permanently.
Two-thirds of the workforce said they would find a new job if required to return to the office full-time, according to a survey of more than 32,000 workers by ADP Research Institute. Of those who quit their jobs in 2021, 35% cited wanting to move to a different area, according to the Pew Research Center.
Some employees at Apple, whose headquarters is shown above, have complained about the company’s return-to-work policy: ‘Stop treating us like school kids,’ they wrote to executives.
Some tech professionals have already thrown down the gauntlet. Ian Goodfellow, a director of machine learning at Apple, announced to staff this month that he was resigning, in part because of the company’s return-to-office policy. “I believe strongly that more flexibility would have been the best policy for my team,” Mr. Goodfellow wrote in a goodbye note, according to a tweet from a reporter from the Verge. Mr. Goodfellow declined to comment. Apple didn’t comment.
A group called Apple Together says more than 1,400 current and former employees signed an open letter to company executives asking for them to reconsider the office-return policy, which requires employees to work in-person on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays as of last month. Apple employs more than 165,000 people.
“Stop treating us like school kids who need to be told when to be where and what homework to do,” the letter reads.
Office mandates are proving to be recruiting opportunities for some competitors: Airbnb Inc. last month announced employees could work from anywhere without taking a pay cut. In the three days following the announcement, the company’s careers page received around 800,000 visitors, according to a spokeswoman. Twitter Inc. and Zillow Group Inc. have said most employees can work from wherever they want and executives of Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. are living all over.
Sean Regan, head of product marketing with software maker Atlassian Corp., moved to Lake Tahoe from the Bay Area this past November and is now using the company’s flexible work policies to lure new hires.
“My access to top talent has gone through the roof,” he says. “It takes me half the time to recruit great people when I tell them they can work anywhere.”
Mr. Regan says he’s currently trying to sign on someone he ran into while skiing who had also moved to Lake Tahoe from the San Francisco area. “She wants to stay in Tahoe. Her employer wants her to go back to the office,” he says. “I’m recruiting her to stay put and work for us.”
Workers in tech have long had the advantage: Their skills are highly sought-after in nearly every industry. As the pandemic has dragged on, flexibility started to become not a perk but something companies needed to offer in order to hang on to talent. Eager to stay competitive, companies have increasingly accommodated their workers and in some cases, walked back in-office requirements.
But there are signs the balance of power may shift. Netflix Inc., Lyft Inc. and other big names in tech have posted disappointing quarterly results—a signal that leaner times may be ahead, and skilled workers won’t be in such demand. Companies including Meta say they are slowing down hiring. Peloton Interactive Inc., Carvana Co. and others have announced layoffs.
Some of those called back have found jobs elsewhere. Christina Patterson, 30, was managing client partnerships for a clothing-rental startup. She says that by the time she got called back to her New York office in March, she had grown allergic to in-person work. Since the fall of 2020, she had been working for months at a time from Tulum, Mexico, and wasn’t ready to give it up.
Desperate to find a new role ahead of the March deadline to return to work, Ms. Patterson texted an executive she’s friendly with at a Chicago-based startup, offering to be her remote assistant. “She was like, ‘I’ll do you one better: We need someone in business development,’ ” Ms. Patterson says.
She took the role at the startup, SwayPay, which makes an app for consumers to earn cash for posting TikTok videos featuring recent purchases. The new job didn’t require a move or any commitment to come into the office. Her last day at the old job was the Friday before she was supposed to go back to her old office.
“I was like, ‘Phew, I missed that very narrowly,’ ” she says.
Adam Ozimek, an economist with the think tank Economic Innovation Group, estimates that, across the U.S. workforce, there have already been 4.9 million relocations as a result of remote work, according to data extrapolated from a survey of 23,000 workers. Mr. Omizek conducted the survey this past November, while working at another company. More than a quarter said they planned to move more than 4 hours from their current job in 2022—because of remote-work options, while 13% said they were looking at moving 2 to 4 hours away. Mr. Ozimek himself says he recently started commuting 2½ hours once a month from central Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C., where his job with EIG, which he joined in March, is located.
Some tech workers who have relocated and don’t have permission to stay remote say they’re in a standoff with HR: They’ve been called back to the office but haven’t moved yet. They’re looking for remote-friendly roles both internally or elsewhere.
“If the time comes where they say: ‘Here’s an ultimatum, you show up in an office or you find somewhere else to work,’ I will find somewhere else to work because there are a lot of remote opportunities,” says one engineer who works for a North Carolina bank and bought a house earlier this year in New York’s Catskill Mountains, where he plans to stay.
Despite some signs of a downturn for the industry, tech workers who want to stay remote will have options if their employers won’t accommodate them, says Tim Herbert, chief research officer for CompTIA, a tech trade association. The number of U.S. employers posting tech jobs hit a record level last month, despite initial rumblings of a downturn.
“Especially in tech, you have companies that are simultaneously either slowing or transitioning workers or sometimes laying off workers in one area of the company and then they’re hiring in another area,” he says.
Companies with disappointing earnings can always scale back signing bonuses but continue to offer remote work as a perk for new hires, he added.
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Google recently called its workers back on a hybrid schedule that requires most to be in the office three days a week. Some employees have complained that because the policy is implemented based largely on local managers’ discretion, it can feel arbitrary. “If you have a friendly manager and a friendly VP who support you, then your odds are pretty good,” says Andrew Gainer-Dewar, a senior engineer and member of the Alphabet Workers Union. “If you don’t, then things get tough.”
More than 14,000 of Google’s approximately 166,000 employees have requested to go fully remote or to transfer to a new location, and the company has approved 85% of those requests, according to a spokeswoman. “We know our employees have many choices about where they work,” she said. “So we continue to provide top of market compensation.”
Until August, Laura de Vesine was a senior engineer for Google living in San Jose, Calif., near the company’s offices. She jumped ship before officially being called back after growing tired of uncertainty surrounding when she’d have to return to work. She knew she wanted to move to a lower-cost city where she wouldn’t depend so much on a car, such as Philadelphia.
Such a move would have involved a 15% pay cut from Google, she says. “Is my work actually worth less?” she says she asked herself. If she wanted to keep her Bay Area salary, she worried she’d be required to report at least a few times a week to Google’s New York City office.
Instead, she made the move to Philadelphia and took a remote role with a New York-based cloud-computing company. She says she is now making around 20% more than her former salary and has the assurance she won’t have to give up her remote status.
“I could have confidence it wasn’t a temporarily remote offer,” she says.