In tech industry mythology, the San Francisco Bay Area is the unmatched crucible of ideas and execution. Companies like Facebook offer generous salaries and stock awards to lure staff in Silicon Valley’s overheated job market. They pay for some of the nation’s most expensive office space and perks that ensure workers spend a lot of time inside it, such as free commuter shuttles, food, haircuts, and laundry.
Two months of pandemic-mandated working from home now has some tech titans questioning that orthodoxy. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a company videostream last week that remote work will be an option for most new and existing positions; he told the Verge he expects half the company to toil outside a company office in as soon as five years. His announcement came after Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said that company’s workers don’t have to ever return to the office if they prefer to work elsewhere.
Switching from bums-on-seats to work-from-where-you-like is a challenge for any organization but may be extra tricky for companies incubated in Silicon Valley culture. People who have studied or practiced remote work say leaders like Zuckerberg and their executives will have to tear themselves from their Bay Area roots—in some cases physically—if they are to avoid making their new legions of remote workers second-class employees.
It’s not hard to see why tech companies might want to have a smaller fraction of their workers inside their lavish offices. Raj Choudhury, a Harvard Business School professor who studies the geography of work, says chief financial officers generally love the idea of slashing real estate costs. Tech workers hired outside the Bay Area are generally paid less; Zuckerberg said Facebook will reduce salaries for people who move to cheaper places.
Some may find the trade-off worthwhile if they stand to gain more living space and shorten commutes. Zuckerberg said surveying Facebook workers showed 20 percent were very or extremely interested in working remotely, with another 20 percent somewhat interested.
But adopting remote work has costs less easily tracked on a spreadsheet. One of the biggest is coordinating and managing workers spread across locations and time zones, and able to meet only virtually.
That will be challenging if Facebook and other remote-curious tech companies keep most managers and top executives onsite amid the conference rooms, snack stations, and foosball tables. Choudhury says a hybrid of remote and office work is hard to pull off without disadvantaging people offsite who receive less attention from leadership, while onsite workers can more easily cater to executives and win promotions. “That’s a recipe for disaster,” he says. “To do it well you have to have all or the majority remote, and you have to have managers who are remote.”
Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab, a software startup with more than 1,200 workers in more than 65 countries but not a single office, agrees. He likens combining traditional offices with a large remote workforce to mixing oil and water. “You’re going to have to work really hard to make sure remote workers don’t feel like a second class,” he says.
Facebook didn’t respond to a request for comment. Zuckerberg said last week that he expects to work outside the office himself more often, but the company seems unlikely to put its Frank Gehry-designed headquarters up for sale or to ask many executives to move out of Silicon Valley’s exclusive neighborhoods.
“I have a hard time believing companies are going to hire senior-level executives remotely unless it’s deeply baked into their culture,” says Adam Bennett, a director with recruiter Robert Half Technology in San Jose. When WIRED asked Google CEO Sundar Pichai if he would adopt a remote work strategy like Facebook’s, he demurred.
Even if companies like Facebook do end up with employees of all levels offsite, more remote workers will place new burdens on managers. “It makes management so much harder,” says Sigal Barsade, a management professor at the Wharton School.
Studies have shown that trust is harder to establish in virtual teams and conflict can be more common. It’s easier for misunderstandings to occur, and linger, when people aren’t able to share space and body language, Barsade says. It’s trickier for a manager to notice the cocked eyebrow or sharp inhalation that signals unease with a new decision when the meeting takes place via group video chat, rather than around a conference room table.
Some companies with sizable or entirely remote teams try to minimize such problems by asking workers to get comfortable logging every discussion, decision, and disagreement with shared documents or other tools for coworkers.
That can feel awkward to new recruits, but it’s necessary, says Michael Liberty, cofounder of ecommerce fraud-prevention company Signifyd, where he and roughly half the US engineering group work remotely. “You want people to be comfortable doing it publicly,” he says. “You need to replace overhearing the watercooler conversation, and that doesn’t happen if people are sending just one-on-one messages.”
GitLab configures Slack to delete messages after 60 days for similar reasons. It also meticulously documents all its processes in an online handbook, including entries that define the company culture and explain how to “formalize informal communication.”
That might strike some as cringeworthy corporatese, but Murph says being explicit about such matters is more effective and sensible than how tech companies usually define themselves. “Office decor or fancy lighting or ping-pong tables were always a terrible way to define culture,” he says. “The culture should be how you treat each other or clients.”
One unknown about tech’s pivot to remote work is how many people ultimately decide they prefer the physical culture of the office. “Learning culture from documents doesn’t sound very fun,” says Valerie Frederickson, founder of HR consulting and recruitment firm Frederickson Partners, in Menlo Park. “For a lot of these tech companies, people get a tremendous amount of joy and socializing from being able to walk around and get that cupcake or piece of fruit and talk with people.”
Some people just don’t have a personality suited to remote work, something they may not discover until after they try it, she says. Frederickson guesses that companies will also find that junior employees, particularly the new college grads vital to Silicon Valley engineering teams, need to be placed in an office for some time in order to learn from others and become effective workers in the long term.
Research suggests many people, not just at Facebook, want to work remotely, perhaps to accommodate a spouse’s career or move closer to good skiing or elderly parents, and it’s becoming more common. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says 25 percent of workers worked from home at least occasionally in 2018, up from 19 percent in 2003.
Facebook and other companies voicing an interest in remote work are also likely to find significant support from communities outside the Bay Area hoping to attract new, high-paid residents.
Some areas are already trying. A nonprofit program called Tulsa Remote offers $10,000 and other benefits to people who relocate to the Oklahoma city to work full-time for a company elsewhere. Vermont’s state government has a similar program.
Choudhury says that if companies like Facebook follow through on their recent sentiments, many parts of the US could see a partial reversal of decades of young, educated people migrating to the Bay Area and other coastal cities. That would test whether you really do need to work out of an expensive Silicon Valley office to invent the next big thing.
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