All across the United States, the leaders at large tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook are engaged in a delicate dance with thousands of employees who have recently become convinced that physically commuting to an office every day is an empty and unacceptable demand from their employers.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced these companies to operate with mostly remote workforces for months straight. And since many of them are based in areas with relatively high vaccination rates, the calls to return to the physical office began to sound over the summer.
But thousands of high-paid workers at these companies aren’t having it. Many of them don’t want to go back to the office full-time, even if they’re willing to do so a few days a week. Workers are even pointing to how effective they were when fully remote and using that to question why they have to keep living in the expensive cities where these offices are located.
Some tech leaders (like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey) agreed, or at least they saw the writing on the wall. They enacted permanent or semipermanent changes to their companies’ policies to make partial or even full-time remote work the norm. Others (like Apple’s Tim Cook) are working hard to find a way to get everyone back in their assigned seats as soon as is practical, despite organized resistance.
In either case, the work cultures at tech companies that make everything from the iPhone to Google search are facing a major wave of transformation.
It didn’t start in 2020
The gospel of a remote-work future has long been preached by a dedicated cadre in Silicon Valley and other tech startup hubs. Influencers, writers, and business consulting gurus have for years been saying that, thanks to today’s technology, working in an office is destined to be a thing of the past.
There is no apparent justification for resisting remote work besides a sort of management control-freak insecurity, proponents argue. And to support their case, they point to studies that suggest that some employees in certain kinds of jobs are happier and more productive when remote work is an option. Studies also debunk the assumption that productivity is always lower when remote work is the norm.
The movement reached something of a fever pitch in the late 2000s, when tech-unicorn optimism was sweeping the business world and some prominent executives in the new wave of startups seemed cozy with the idea. But remote work went on to face dramatic setbacks. Notably, Yahoo!—then known as one of the most remote-friendly large tech companies—changed course in the early 2010s under the leadership of then-CEO Marissa Mayer, who mandated that a vast fleet of remote workers had to relocate and show up at their assigned desks.
Since that and other similar incidents around that time, the remote-work movement has been quieter.
Remote-work advocates and the business establishment seemed to settle into a compromise. Companies like Google or Twitter would let employees work from home periodically as the need arose (for example, to take care of a sick child or even for the occasional mental health day). But in most cases, the culture dictated that workers not play this card too often. Remote work was a privilege, not a right, and employees usually could not relocate out of daily commuting range from the cities where these companies were based.
As housing prices skyrocketed and traffic worsened in cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Austin—and as economic inequalities worsened in those places as a result—prominent commentators still occasionally penned op-eds that essentially said, “Gee, maybe some of these problems would be lessened if business leaders were more open to remote work.” But the most radical vision of the remote-work movement nonetheless seemed dead in the water.
And then the pandemic happened.
The involuntary revolution
Companies whose leaders long claimed remote work would never function were left with no other options. In traditional businesses, the digital-transformation movement accelerated dramatically to meet the need. And in some tech startups, the transition was so seamless that many employees (and even managers) found themselves wondering why all this hadn’t been tried before.
There are exceptions in some kinds of tech companies, of course. For example, large game development studios struggled to maintain prior levels of productivity in the new remote way of working, leading to delays or a reduction in quality for some releases. But more often than not, the changes made in response to the pandemic led people to believe that this remote thing might actually work out after all.
Between the threat of future pandemics in crowded cities and insane housing prices in tech hubs, a…