At Farmers Insurance, many workers are being asked to return to offices three days a week from September, even after they were told last year that telecommuting was here to stay. In contrast, tech giant Salesforce said it will donate to local charities for every day workers come into the office later this month, an attempt to appeal to the workers’ altruistic impulses.
Despite the pandemic being declared over by President Biden, the tug of war for the office is still at a fever pitch. Workers are reluctant to give up the flexibility they gained during the pandemic, claiming it has benefited their mental health and work-life balance. But many leaders are convinced the office remains a necessary nexus for innovation and collaboration, and local governments are eager to see workers return to help revitalize struggling downtowns.
Here’s what workers really care about, according to a Post-Ipsos survey
Perks — like fancy coffee, free lunches and commuter benefits — that employers once used to lure workers back have disappeared in most workplaces. Major companies such as Disney, Starbucks and AT&T have in recent months mandated that workers return to offices. Despite these efforts, office occupancy remains stubbornly below 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels in major metropolitan areas around the country, according to data tracked by Kastle Systems.
Now, as a massive wave of layoffs continues in Silicon Valley and general economic turmoil persists across the country, companies are making a renewed push—and many of them aren’t playing well anymore.
Silicon Valley’s golden age is disappearing
Google has long been known for its colorful offices and perks, which have included all-you-can-eat, laundry services and free massages. Its executives boasted of being one of the first major US 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 has also been one of the biggest companies pushing to get the office back.
The company began requiring workers to come into their offices three days a week in April 2022, but many have simply ignored the requirements, and attendance is inconsistently enforced depending on a person’s manager and department. Many of Google’s gleaming offices, including its gigantic new building in Mountain View, California, have been operating well below 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 amplified when teammates work from the same location,” Cicconi said in the note. “Of course, not everyone believes in ‘magic hallway conversations’, but there’s no doubt 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 effort yet to get people to come into an office, said a Google employee, who stated himself on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. That 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 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 our workplace policies, said Google spokesperson Ryan Lamont.
Meanwhile, Salesforce is trying an unusual tactic to get workers in the door: The company plans to donate $10 to local charities for every day an employee comes into offices from June 12 to 23, an initiative first reported by Fortune. Salesforce will also donate to charity for every remote employee who attends a company event during this window.
“Giving back is deeply rooted in everything we do, and we’re proud to introduce Connect for Good to encourage employees to help raise $1 million for local nonprofits,” said Annie Vincent, Director of Corporate Communications in Salesforce, in a statement to The Post.
With nearly 12,000 employees in San Francisco, Salesforce is the largest technology employer based in the city, where office vacancy has risen to a record 29 percent. Salesforce is part of that retreat: As of March, the management software company 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 strongly criticized the strict return-to-the-office mandates that some executives were issuing, arguing they should “never work” and touting Salesforce’s “work from anywhere” model as a key . recruitment advantage in a tight labor market.
But Benioff’s attitude has changed as economic conditions worsened and mass layoffs devastated Silicon Valley. The company cut 10 percent, or more than 7,000 positions, in January, and the door has been left open for more cuts. In addition to trimming its office footprint, Salesforce ditched the 75-acre Trailblazer Ranch in Scotts Valley, Calif., which it leased last year as a boarding and team-building retreat. (Employees could take yoga and cooking classes, go on nature walks and meditate.)
It is not just technology giants that are turning the tide 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. About 60 percent of the company’s 22,000-person workforce will be hybrid, while other roles will be remote or entirely in-office, according to Carly Kraft, a spokeswoman for Farmers Insurance.
The mandate is meant to “foster greater collaboration, creativity and innovation, while 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 the office and from home remains the dominant mode for white-collar workers, with 52 percent of remote jobs operating under hybrid schedules as of February, according to Gallup’s Hybrid Work Indicator.
Kraft noted that the decision was made with “a lot of thought,” including giving employees three months to prepare. But the move was still met with trepidation from employees who had oriented their lives around the possibility of working remotely, selling cars and moving to cities far from Farmers’ offices, according to reporting from the Wall Street Journal.
Bønder’s rationale echoes arguments that have been made by executives from Disney’s Bob Iger to Amazon’s Andy Jassy to push for a strong return to offices. Workers at these companies have signed petitions pushing back on requests to return to offices, claiming that doing so would affect productivity, mental health and work-life balance.
Many experts believe that office mandates are not enough to create stronger corporate cultures. Cali Williams Yost, a longtime flexible work strategist, said many managers “try to avoid” the hard work of figuring out how to get time spent together to translate into meaningful connections, as opposed to just booking a certain number of days on the office.
“Sure, people will follow because they don’t want to lose their jobs, but is that an engaged, focused, intentional way to work for anyone?” Williams asked.