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How Big Companies Are Approaching Return to Office


The United States has been rolling out COVID-19 vaccine doses at a breakneck pace, having administered over 200 million doses as of this writing. With vaccines reaching more ordinary people, especially regular people in the labor force, the big companies are setting into motion a formal return to office – not the 2020 type where the number of onsite workers fluctuate owing to intermittently enforced lockdown measures – but the 2021 type where we will have a better idea of what the new normal looks like.

The common approach these companies are taking is a ‘hybrid’ workforce approach, one where not all employees will be reporting to the office full-time. There are companies at the extreme ends of the spectrum – like Twitter in 2020 when it said its employees could be working from home for good, and like Amazon which has been aggressive in its approach in trying to bring people back. That said, let’s examine the various approaches taken by four of the biggest tech companies in returning to the office.


Approach: Hybrid, 3-Day Workweek.

The way IBM will bring back employees back to the office seems to be more sensitive to the world situation rather than the local situation in its New York headquarters. The United States is farther along than most if not all the big countries in terms of getting people vaccinated. However, India is currently on what is said to be their worst wave of the pandemic. While India has a solid local vaccine supply system, it has to vaccinate a good portion of its 1.3 billion people. It’s noteworthy that IBM has a third of its total employee population based in India.

Historical perspective: In 1979 IBM led the industry in workstyle innovation by instituting a remote work scheme for a good portion of its workforce. In 2009, as much as 40 percent of its workforce was made up of remote workers. In 2017 however, amidst their streak of negative revenue growth, the company decided to bring people back to the office. Whether this was an effort to boost productivity from its workers or to seek out innovation which has a way of naturally occurring when people can freely collaborate, no one knows for sure.


Approach: Hybrid Environment.

While during the work-from-home era of 2020 up to now Apple has continued to roll out impressive new products such as the new M1 Ipad Pro, which is said to break a lot of barriers in the tech world, under the new normal Apple will institute the popular ‘hybrid’ setup. To me, that’s a little surprising since Apple employees involved in product development are set up to be digital nomads, meaning they can take their work anywhere. At the same time I’m not surprised because Apple’s main office in Cupertino was built for a specific purpose – serendipity breeding innovation.

Historical perspective: The Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California was designed with the principle of serendipity in mind. People from different teams and different fields of expertise could bump into each other while going to lunch, moving through office spaces and in other onsite activities. As written in his biography, Steve Jobs firmly believed that innovation was a product of these chance encounters. Therefore although Apple has been a mainstay leader in tech and has a lot of jobs that could be accomplished remotely, it still wants to bring people back into the office to promote innovation.


Approach: Opt-in Program.

Instead of formally adopting a formal ‘hybrid’ workforce for the new normal, Google seems to be instituting an Opt-In program where employees can volunteer to work onsite. This measure will still eventually lead to a hybrid workforce – part remote, part onsite.

Historical perspective:

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Google in the 2000’s revolutionized what the modern workplace would look like. As the movie the Internship starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson would show, Google’s offices were filled with not only work desks and conference rooms – but slides and sleeping pods and playing fields as well. Taking that approach in designing their office spaces, it’s no surprise that Google’s approach in bringing people back to the office has been a bit more flexible than others. Then again, Google’s offices seem to be designed in such a way where an employee would want to stay there for most of his waking hours. This means that if safety from the virus is assured, employees who enjoy that kind of work environment would themselves want to go back to that type of place.


Approach: Full return to the office.

Amazon is bringing back its Seattle-based workforce into the office. There might be tiny exceptions here and there, but the general direction based on reports is that it will institute a full-blown return to office. Some employees who’ve been accustomed to the remote work setup are of course dismayed at this turn, but local Seattle businesses are excited of the prospect that tens of thousands of people are going back to their place of work, which means more consumer spending around the area.

Historical perspective: Reading about the origins of Amazon from Brad Stone’s book ‘The Everything Store’ you really get a sense that Amazon mixes its innovative solutions with old-school philosophies or practices. For example, when Jeff Bezos was still glued to the day-to-day operations, his meetings with the company leaders was not one where slides were flashed on a screen with fancy charts and eye-popping animations. Instead, his meetings were run in such a way that the presenter would distribute copies of his report to the rest of the team, including Jeff Bezos, and the team would comment or critique on the presenter’s report laid out on paper. It reminds you of how business meetings in the past were run before the age of slide-running and wide screen conference room TVs.

In like manner Amazon’s philosophy in bringing people back to the office is old-school. The message I get is that they’re cutting out the BS from all this hybrid workstyle hype that’s been generated by Silicon Valley giants. In a way it’s also a way to empathize with all its onsite employees working at its 175 fulfillment centers worldwide. These hundreds of thousands of employees whose jobs require them to be onsite have been reporting to their place of work even during the high points of the pandemic. And it says a lot when their corporate office and their non-site-essential workforce are all required to come back to the workplace soon.

Conclusion and Honorable Mentions

Conclusion and Honorable Mentions

Later this year, as the coronavirus situation could potentially improve once most of the population has been vaccinated, we will have a better idea of what the new normal workplace looks like. Some workplaces will be more aggressive in bringing people back than others. Operating inside offices has some cost considerations, but then the value of innovation from collaboration is something that’s not easy to measure at the outset. We’ve covered four companies and their current approach in returning to the office, but here are a few honorable mentions:

Microsoft: Now on step 4 of their 6-step dial, going for an Opt-In program with a hybrid workforce.

Facebook: Bringing 10 percent of its Menlo Park headquarters employees back by early May.

Twitter: Employees could work from home forever.

Citigroup: The only company here that isn’t really in tech. They’re going for a 3-day workweek.

I hope you found this article informative and that you could be motivated to wonder why your own company, if you’re employed in one, is taking its approach to return to office.

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