When Google employees returned to their largely empty offices this month, they were told to relax. Office time should be “not only productive, but also fun”. Explore the place a bit. Do not book back-to-back meetings.
Don’t forget to attend the private show of Lizzo, one of the most popular pop stars in the country. As if that weren’t enough, the company is also planning “pop-up events” featuring “every Googler’s favorite duo: food and swag.”
But Google employees in Boulder, Colorado, were still reminded of what they gave up when the company gave them mousepads with the image of a cat with sad eyes. Under the pet was a plea: “You’re not going to RTO, are you?”
RTO, for Return to Office, is an abbreviation that stems from the pandemic. It’s an acknowledgment of how Covid-19 forced many businesses to leave office buildings and empty cubicles. The pandemic proved that the office doesn’t necessarily equate to increased productivity, and some businesses continued to thrive without meeting in person.
Now, after two years of video meetings and Slack chats, many companies are eager to get employees back to their desks. However, the workers may not be thrilled about a return to commuting, communal bathrooms, and daytime outfits that aren’t sportswear.
So tech companies with money to burn and offices to fill are rolling out the fun wagon, even as they make it clear that in many cases returning to the office — at least a few days a week — is mandatory.
Lizzo will perform this month for Google employees in an amphitheater near the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. When Microsoft reopened its offices in Redmond, Washington in late February, employees were treated to music from local bands, beer and wine tastings, and even terrarium-making classes.
To celebrate its first official week in the office, the chipmaker Qualcomm a happy hour with its chief executive, Cristiano Amon, at its offices in San Diego for several thousand employees with free food, drinks and T-shirts. The company also began offering weekly events such as pop-up snack stands on “Take a Break Tuesday” and group fitness classes for “Wellness Wednesday.”
“These celebrations and perks are an acknowledgment by companies that they know employees don’t want to come to the office anymore, certainly not as often as they used to,” said Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia University’s business school. For now, he added, companies are at least going for the carrot above the stick: rewarding employees for coming to the office rather than punishing them for staying at home.
Before Covid hit, the biggest tech companies were putting billions of dollars into creating offices that are marvels of architecture and trophies of financial success. Packed with amenities and extras, those gleaming offices are a testament to the long-held belief that personal collaboration is still better for fostering creativity, inspiring innovation and instilling a common purpose.
But for many employees who have enjoyed the freedom to work remotely, the return to the office—as beautiful as it may be—brings a touch of end-of-summer, back-to-school anxiety. Few seem eager to go back five days a week.
On Memegen, an internal company site where Google employees share memes, one of the most popular posts was a photo of a corporate cafeteria with the caption: “RTO just bumps into each other and says ‘we need to have lunch soon’ until one of you leaves Google .”
Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University who surveys 5,000 employees each month, said most wanted to return to the office two or three times a week. A third never want to go back to the office and prefer to keep their distance.
Just eliminating the commute, Mr Bloom said, will save the average worker one hour a day, so “you understand why workers don’t come to work for free bagels or to play ping pong.” According to the surveys, the main draw to going to the office is that employees want to see colleagues in person.
After several delays, Google began its hybrid work schedule on April 4, requiring most employees to show up at US offices a few days a week. Apple began bringing staff back to the office on Monday, with employees initially expected to check in to the office once a week.
On March 31, David Radcliffe, Google’s vice president of real estate and workplace services, sent an email to San Francisco Bay Area employees saying the company wanted to make the return to the office “really special.”
For years, Google has been providing employees with Wi-Fi-enabled luxury buses to make commuting more productive and comfortable, but it goes one step further. It is launching a program to repay $49 monthly electric scooter leases as part of its staff transportation options. Google also plans to experiment with different office designs to adapt to changing work styles.
Apr 12, 2022, 11:18 a.m. ET
When Microsoft employees returned to their offices in February as part of a hybrid work schedule, they were greeted with “appreciation events” and lawn games like cornhole and life-size chess. There were lessons for making spring baskets and painting canvas. The campus pub has been transformed into a beer, wine and mocktail garden.
And of course there was free food and drinks: pizzas, sandwiches and coffee specialties. Microsoft paid for food trucks with offerings such as fried chicken, tacos, gyros, Korean food, and barbecue.
Unlike other tech companies, Microsoft expects office workers to pay for their own food. An employee marveled at the great appeal of the free food.
The challenge for businesses, Mr Bloom said, is how to balance flexibility by letting employees set their own schedule with a more heavy-handed approach to forcing them to come in on specific days to maximize the utility of office time.
He said companies should focus on developing the right approach to hybrid work rather than wasting time and effort overloading employees with incentives like private concerts.
“Employees don’t regularly come in for the frills,” said Mr. Bloom. “What are you going to do next? Take Justin Bieber and then Katy Perry?”
Fittingly with Apple’s more understated workplace, the employees said they weren’t expecting — nor had they heard of — celebrations of a return to the office. Initially, Apple asks employees to come once a week. By the end of May, Apple will require them to arrive on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
When Apple announced its return-to-office plan last year before another wave of Covid caused a delay, more than 1,000 employees signed a letter urging management to be more open to flexible work arrangements. It was a rare display of disapproval from the company’s grassroots, who have historically been less willing to openly challenge executives about workplace issues.
But as tech companies struggle to offer more flexibility to employees, the companies are also scaling back some office benefits.
Meta, formerly known as Facebook, told employees last month that it was eliminating frugal or free services such as laundry and dry cleaning services. Google, like some other companies, has said it has approved requests from thousands of employees to work remotely or switch offices. But when employees move to a cheaper location, Google cuts wages, arguing that it has always taken into account where a person was hired when determining compensation.
Clio, a legal software company in Burnaby, British Columbia, will not force its employees back into the office. But last week it threw a party at her office.
There was happy music. There was an asymmetric balloon sculpture in Clio’s signature bright blue, dark blue, coral and white – perfect for selfies. One of Clio’s most famous employees donned a safari costume to give tours of the facility. At 2 p.m., the company held a cupcake social.
To make the workspaces feel more like home, the company relocated desks to the perimeter so that Clions — what the company calls its employees — can stare at the cherry blossoms of the office complex while sending out emails. A foosball table was upgraded to a workstation with seats on either side, “so you could have a meeting while playing foosball with your laptop on it,” says Natalie Archibald, Clio’s Vice President of People.
Clio’s Burnaby office, which employs 350 people, is only open at half capacity. Scattered desks must be reserved and employees were given red, yellow and green lanyards to convey their comfort level with handshakes.
Only about 60 people came in that Monday. “To have an IRL laugh instead of an emoji response,” Ms Archibald said. “People are just excited about that.”
Karen Weise contributed reporting.