We are getting closer to the end of the pandemic and companies are focusing on the future work arrangements for their employees. A number of big tech companies, including Salesforce, Facebook, Google and Amazon, have coalesced around a “hybrid” model, in which there will be a combination of both working inside an office and at home. Some places, like Spotify, are still offering the opportunity for people to work from anywhere they’d like or out of the office, if they so desire.
The flexible hybrid model is attractive to both the company and its workers, as the corporations will save a fortune in real estate costs and employees gain more control over their lives. It’s not perfect and there are some serious issues to contend with. Once companies bring back workers, there will be additional expenses incurred, potential legal liabilities concerning risks to the health of their employees and the possible evolution of an emerging dual class system.
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, employs more than 135,000 people, along with a comparable amount of contractors. CNBC reported, “As Google prepares to return workers to offices in 2021, it is warning it may take a productivity and financial hit in the process, according to the company’s annual 10-K report.”
Bringing back a large percentage of these folks will be a large and costly endeavor. Google said in its financial statements, “As we prepare to return our workforce in more locations back to the office in 2021, we may experience increased costs as we prepare our facilities for a safe return to work environment and experiment with hybrid work models, in addition to potential effects on our ability to compete effectively and maintain our corporate culture.”
The company is in the process of developing a large corporate campus to provide a comfortable work environment, including buildings where Googlers could reside. There will be restaurants, bicycle paths, parks and other amenities in the complex. Existing office space will have to be redesigned to ensure social distancing, while also enabling people to collaborate together. Similar to other companies that are planning to bring back staff, they’ll have to be careful about health considerations. There could be the potential for expensive litigation if their workers catch Covid-19 and spread it to others.
Companies also have to plan around navigating the capricious, haphazard way state and local officials handled business and school openings and closings. For working parents who have young children, school closures forced one party to leave their job to render child care or they both needed to juggle demanding careers and serve as de facto teachers. This interrupts the flow of ordinary daily business activities.
There’s another potential problem. Company management may shift their view toward remote workers as time progresses. The necessity of working from home during the pandemic could start being considered a choice—rather than something that has to be done this way. Bosses may then think that it’s an inconvenience to have a segment of their workforce not being in the office and within eyesight. Wired reported that the hybrid model could create “two fundamentally different employee experiences.”
After a year of isolation for many, they’ll be excited to interact with co-workers. The people who return to the office will rekindle old relationships, forge new connections, hold in-person meetings and go out together for lunch and dinner. They’ll be able to drop in to speak with their manager and have a casual conversation with a senior executive that they encounter in the hallways.
It would be reasonable to see an extra close bond form between the people who spend more time in the office. Meanwhile, those at home may feel left out. “If an office is the ‘glue,’ and processes and systems don’t adapt for a remote workforce, remote team members will not feel included and will face constant communication barriers. This will make it harder for them to perform at the same level as their in-office peers,” wrote Wired. Those who choose to go back to the office could be viewed by management as more dedicated compared to the people working remotely at home. It’s out of sight, out of mind.
There may be a “hidden downside for employees,” said Zillow CEO Rich Barton. Barton said on a conference call with investors, “While Zillow has been successful operating as a ‘cloud-headquartered company,’ the company does plan to have some employees return to its offices, and that can present challenges.” He raised concerns about a two-tier system arising amongst workers, stating, “We must ensure a level playing field for all team members, regardless of their physical location.” Barton added, “There cannot be a two-class system—those in the room being first-class and those on the phone being second-class.”
Sid Sijbrandij, CEO of code-collaboration company GitLab, doesn’t believe in the hybrid model. He called it “the worst of both worlds.” Sijbrandij predicts that “remote employees won’t feel included and will have a more challenging time communicating than their peers who report to the office.”
The concern is that “employees will quickly discover that the company didn’t make the shift from the old ways of rewarding attendance (equating ‘being seen’ in an office with being a great worker) to a new way of rewarding output (equating achieved results with being a great worker). Eventually, remote workers will find that they are not getting promoted at an equal rate, because they are less visible, and the productive remote employees will leave for all-remote companies that invest in their remote team members.”
It seems that like almost everything else related to the pandemic, there aren’t easy solutions. In this instance, we’re in better shape. Figuring out how to accommodate and take care of employees is challenging, but it’s much better than dealing with the dreaded Covid-19.
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