Will the Tech Workplace Ever Be the Same Again?

In this 2018 photo, Facebook employees work on laptop computers in an outdoor space at their MPK 21 office building in Menlo Park, California.
In this 2018 photo, Facebook employees work on laptop computers in an outdoor space at their MPK 21 office building in Menlo Park, California.
Photo: Michael Short/Bloomberg/Getty Images

By: Tekla S. Perry

As the COVID-19 pandemic began its explosive spread through the United States, tech workers were among the first to switch to working at home in mass numbers. By early March, before regional stay-at-home orders came into play, most tech professionals at Microsoft and Amazon had switched to working at home, others would soon follow. Since then, Twitter announced that it would offer work-at-home as a permanent option to many of its employees, and Facebook also began planning for a large work-from-anywhere staff, but indicated that salaries would be adjusted to account for regional costs of living. On the other end of the spectrum, Apple developed a plan to bring employees back to the office in phases, starting this month.

Of course, with the world still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, nobody really knows exactly what the workplace will look like if, as expected, a vaccine proves protective and life in general returns to normal.

Blind, a company that operates private social networks for tech employees, reached out to its members several times during the past few months to find out just how remote work is going for them—and whether permanent remote work would open up the possibility of moving to a less tech-centric part of the country or world. I had a few additional questions, and Blind distributed those for me as a short survey in late June.

In that survey, we included an open-ended question about what tech professionals miss about office life. Some of the answers were a little surprising, and give a clue as to what may be lacking in the typical home office—like standing desks and giant whiteboards. The Spectrum/Blind survey received 2951 responses from 37 companies in the U.S., which Blind sorted by selected regions and companies.

Putting all this data together paints a picture of a tech workforce that is generally OK with staying at home. Facebook employees are the rare exception: Fewer may be looking for a permanent work-at-home option than CEO Mark Zuckerberg anticipates. By contrast, Apple employees, unlikely to be offered work-at-home options, would actually love the opportunity.

Should working at home turn permanent, some tech employees would consider relocating, particularly those who live in expensive areas. In a small survey with just over 1800 respondents, 70 percent of Bay Area residents would consider relocating—but half of those would only do so without a pay cut. In a separate poll of 2768 tech workers, Blind found that 66 percent of Bay Area tech workers would consider relocating, compared with 69 percent of tech professionals in New York and 63 percent in Seattle; the salary question wasn’t asked.

Separately, a recent survey of 2300 tech workers in the U.S., Canada, France, and the United Kingdom by Hired found that 53 percent of these tech workers would be inclined to move to an area with a lower cost of living if work from home became permanent. Some 40 percent generally supported cost of living adjustments in salaries, however, but only 32 percent would be willing to take that kind of pay cut according to the Hired survey. And, despite expressing an interest in cheaper areas, when asked to name the city to which they’d be most likely to relocate, their choices put New York, Seattle, and the San Francisco Bay Area on top.

Post-coronavirus, however, most do expect—indeed want—to go back to the office at least some of the time. According to Blind’s survey, the sweet spot is one to two days a week, followed by three to four days a week; those who would choose to give up either exclusively working at home or only working in the office were a far smaller group. Hired’s survey came up with similar numbers; half of the tech professionals responding want to return to their office at least once a week, but only seven percent want to go in every day.

Working at home does have its challenges, according to Blind’s survey. Most tech professional found working at home presented challenges, with distractions impacting their focus generally being the biggest problem. However, there were distinct differences among professionals at different companies, with Apple and Amazon employees, for example, struggling more with work/life balance, and Cisco employees feeling the negative effects of isolation.

What do tech professionals miss most about the office? Here’s where I asked an open-ended question, and got some interesting answers, with some regional differences.

It was no surprise that many respondents commented that they miss interaction with their colleagues, socializing, friendship, bonding, hallway conversations, and general chitchat. Many also missed the separation between home and work and more contained work hours. The physical environment at the office came into play as well—the space to spread out, the standing desks—and oh, those whiteboards! The free food, coffee, and other perks popped up more often in comments from Bay Area tech workers, though professionals in all regions missed lunches with their colleagues.

About that food, coffee, massages, and other perks: we asked our survey respondents if they think those will be coming back as offices restructure themselves post pandemic. Most think perks will make a comeback, though Bay Area tech workers are more confident about that than those in other regions. Interestingly, according to Hired’s survey, while people might be willing to give up those perks, 43 percent they would expect to be compensated for that loss in additional salary or other benefits.

It will be a while before we truly know whether the changes made to tech work during the pandemic are permanent, or when exactly we will return to normal, or a new normal. But companies are making plans to start bringing employees back.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 2 July 2020.