The executives of corporate America are stepping up efforts to get workers back into the office, using a combination of threats and incentives to get employees to give up the work-from-home lifestyle they adopted in the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For over a year, Google has asked workers to come in three days a week, luring them with free food and other perks. But now, the company is getting serious. On Wednesday, the company told workers that they must comply with the three-day requirement or their non-attendance could show up on their performance reviews, according to a memo sent to employees by Google Chief People Officer Fiona Cicconi obtained by The Washington Post.
At Farmers Insurance, many workers are being asked to return to offices three days a week starting in September, even after they were told last year that remote work was here to stay. In contrast, tech giant Salesforce said it will donate to local charities for each day workers come into the office later this month, an attempt to appeal to workers’ altruistic impulses.
Despite the pandemic being declared over by President Biden, the tug-of-war over the office is still at a fever pitch. Workers are reluctant to give up the flexibility they gained during the pandemic, arguing it has benefited their mental health and work-life balance. But many executives are adamant the office is still a necessary nexus for innovation and collaboration, and local governments are eager to see workers return to help revitalize struggling downtowns.
Perks—such as fancy coffee, free lunches and commuter benefits—that employers once used to lure workers back have vanished in most workplaces. Big corporations like Disney, Starbucks and AT&T have mandated in recent months that workers return to offices. Despite these efforts, office occupancy remains stubbornly stuck below 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels in major metropolitan areas around the country, according to data tracked by Kastle Systems.
Now, as a huge wave of layoffs continues in Silicon Valley and general economic unease persists across the country, companies are making a renewed push—and many of them aren’t playing nice anymore.
Google has long been famous for its colorful offices and perks, which have included all-you-can-eat food, laundry services and free massages. Its executives boasted about being one of the first big U.S. companies to send workers home in March 2020, as the pandemic began to spread. Google has pitched its video conferencing and cloud services to other companies as ways to enable remote work, recreation and education. But it’s also been one of the biggest companies pushing for a return to the office.
The company began requiring workers to go into their offices three days a week in April 2022, but many have simply ignored the requirements, with attendance being enforced in a spotty way depending on a person’s manager and department. Many of Google’s gleaming offices, including its giant new building in Mountain View, Calif., have been operating well under capacity.
“We’ve heard from Googlers that those who spend at least three days a week in the office feel more connected to other Googlers, and that this effect is magnified when teammates work from the same location,” Cicconi said in the memo. “Of course, not everyone believes in ‘magical hallway conversations,’ but there’s no question that working together in the same room makes a positive difference.”
The new message from management, that not coming in could be noted on a person’s performance review, was seen as the most aggressive attempt yet to get people to come into an office, said one Google employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. It could lead to many more workers quitting or being fired, adding to the thousands Google laid off in January, they said.
“Our hybrid approach is designed to incorporate the best of being together in person with the benefits of working from home for part of the week. Now that we’re more than a year into this way of working, we’re formally integrating this approach into all of our workplace policies,” Google spokesperson Ryan Lamont said.
Meanwhile, Salesforce is trying an unusual tactic to get workers in the door: The company is planning to donate $10 to local charities for every day an employee comes into offices from June 12 to 23, an initiative that was first reported by Fortune. Salesforce will also donate to charity for each remote employee who attends a company event during this window.
“Giving back is deeply embedded in everything we do, and we’re proud to introduce Connect for Good to encourage employees to help raise $1 million for local nonprofits,” Annie Vincent, director of corporate communications at Salesforce, said in a statement to The Post.
With nearly 12,000 employees in San Francisco, Salesforce is the largest tech employer based in the city, where office vacancy has climbed to a record high of 29 percent. Salesforce is part of that retreat: As of March, the management software company has shed 1 million square feet of office space from its 61-story headquarters that towers over San Francisco as its tallest building.
This time last year, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff was voicing staunch criticism of the strict return-to-office mandates some executives were handing down, arguing that they were “never going to work” and touting Salesforce’s “work from anywhere” model as a key recruiting advantage in a tight labor market.
But Benioff’s stance has shifted as economic conditions worsened and mass layoffs wracked Silicon Valley. The company slashed its workforce by 10 percent, or more than 7,000 positions, in January, and the door for more cuts has been left open. In addition to pruning its office footprint, Salesforce ditched the 75-acre Trailblazer Ranch in Scotts Valley, Calif., which it leased last year as a haven for onboarding and team-building. (Employees could take yoga and cooking classes, go on nature walks and meditate.)
Salesforce has more than 2,000 employees in Indianapolis, but has been trimming its real estate usage in the city. In April, the company put three contiguous floors at Salesforce Tower—about 61,700 square feet—on the market for sublease, accounting for 24.7% of the 250,000 square feet it leases in the 48-story office building at 111 Monument Circle, where it is has been a signature tenant since 2017.
It’s not just tech giants reversing course on remote work. At Farmers Insurance, which told employees last year that the majority could work remotely, CEO Raul Vargas announced last month that the company is mandating three days a week in offices for employees who live within 50 miles of an office starting in September. Roughly 60 percent of the company’s 22,000-person workforce will be hybrid, while other roles will be remote or fully in-office, according to Carly Kraft, a spokesperson for Farmers Insurance.
The mandate is meant to “foster greater collaboration, creativity and innovation while also providing better opportunities for learning, training, mentoring, career development and organic interaction,” Kraft told The Post.
Kraft added that while remote work made sense when the pandemic began, a hybrid approach works best for the company now. A mix of working in-office and from home remains the dominant mode for white-collar employees, with 52 percent of remote-capable jobs operating under hybrid schedules as of February, according to Gallup’s hybrid work indicator.
Kraft noted that the decision was carried out with “a great deal of thoughtfulness,” including giving employees three months to prepare. But the move was nonetheless met with angst from employees who had oriented their lives around the ability to work remotely, selling cars and moving to cities far from Farmers’ offices, according to reporting from the Wall Street Journal.
Farmers’ justification echoes arguments that have been made by executives ranging from Disney’s Bob Iger to Amazon’s Andy Jassy in pushing for a strong return to offices. Workers at those companies have signed petitions pushing back on requests to return to offices, arguing that doing so would impinge on their productivity, mental health and work-life balance.
Many experts believe that office mandates aren’t enough to create stronger company cultures. Cali Williams Yost, a longtime flexible work strategist, said that many executives are “trying to avoid” the hard work of figuring out how to make time spent together translate into meaningful connections, as opposed to simply ordering a certain amount of days in office.
“Sure, people will comply because they don’t want to lose their jobs, but is that an engaged, focused, intentional way of working for somebody?” Williams asked.