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In the fall of 2020, after months of pandemic boredom, David Patterson and his wife packed up their new baby and all of their possessions and drove from Denver to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where they bought a house. By now, the head of corporate marketing for Productboard has settled into life in the college town. He and his wife — who recently founded her own startup — are vaccinated, but they've got no plans to return to Denver.
Instead, Patterson plans to get on a plane back to headquarters way more than he used to. For him, a post-vaccine future of work is a future filled with airline miles.
USPS data has increasingly shown that the much-talked-about "tech exodus" from San Francisco was merely a rumor. Aside from increased property ownership in the counties outside of San Francisco and New York, the broader migration patterns in the U.S. didn't change much because of the pandemic. But the people who did embrace a nomadic lifestyle in the industry were mostly young, and they don't own homes or have children in K-12 schools.
No matter how much workers enjoyed the last year of freedom, they are going to have to accept some limits or changes, or even a full return to the past. That's because no company has really committed to a long-term return-to-work plan, leaving their workers' future in limbo.
Michael Danahy is the vice president of product operations at Disney-owned advertising startup TrueX. His post-vaccine future is a future of property ownership. Danahy and his wife spent most of the last year driving across the country, living for a few weeks in New Orleans, in Salt Lake City, Denver, San Diego. It was only after nearly a year in the car that the couple — Danahy's wife also works in tech, at YouTube — grew travel weary. Rather than return to an apartment on the West Coast, they bought a condo in Denver.
They don't know if they'll be able to stay there, or if their companies are going to make them return to San Francisco, but they plan to keep the condo nonetheless.
The range of plans and requirements from companies so far run the gamut: Of the big tech giants, Google has laid down the strictest, requiring three in-person days per week, and that most people return to the location in which they were hired. Facebook has perhaps laid down the loosest, appearing so far to embrace the idea of permanent remote work for those who want it. Startups are finding freedom to chart their own way, either embracing the idea of a global hiring strategy or throwing the whole remote idea into the trash entirely.
For the tech workers on the verge of marriage, having children or who are facing other familial obligations, the last year taught them they don't have to sacrifice being close to their families. Free childcare, helping with the aging grandparents, owning a house down the street from the cousins: These ideas suddenly seem much more accessible. Patterson and his wife won't be giving that up just because of a vaccine, and their respective companies aren't going to make them.
Getting on a plane from time to time to get face time with his employees and his bosses? A sacrifice that Patterson is willing to make. "Flying is an intentional trade-off," he said. "Even if there is a decrease in business travel, kind of conversely, there's an increase for people traveling back to wherever their hub is, whether that's San Francisco or increasingly that could be somewhere else."
Ben Goldhaber also works for a startup that's fully embraced the remote work philosophy, and he, too, sees far more plane travel in his future. "I'm pretty bullish on the idea of everybody meeting up on a regular basis, as a company spending a month in the same spot, for example. I think that would help with making sure the social ties and the culture are strong," he said.
Danahy would be willing to do the same, but he and his wife don't work for companies that are quite as eager to be remote-oriented. They are still waiting on the whims of their respective companies to basically choose for them where they are going to live — and they seem to be pretty OK with that. If they can't live in the condo in Denver, they'll make it an investment property. They're even considering buying a second property, in St. Petersburg, Florida. Sure, they'd like to live in it, but they could put that up as a rental, too.
"We're trying to buy places we can flexibly move in and out of depending on how our careers and working situation work out," he explained.
Relationships are often the determining factor. It's not just Danahy and his wife waiting on both of their respective companies to make up their minds; Goldhaber and his partner spent most of the pandemic living in San Diego (they gave up their San Francisco apartment), and whether they stay will likely depend on the policies adopted by his partner's workplace. "Now that we've moved once, do we want to start thinking about whether San Diego is definitely the spot. Or maybe be closer to family on the East Coast," he said. "I do have to say, it's going to be hard to leave no matter what."
The really young workers, like those who graduated college in May 2020, have never known anything else. Unlike their somewhat older peers, the sheen on remote work has faded faster. Ilan Bigio, a software engineer at YouTube who graduated from Brown University last May, spent a few months in Los Angeles, some time in New York, traveling across the country, sometimes crashing on friends' couches. While Google's limited flexibility with remote work is proving to be more challenging for people who really want to permanently relocate, the youngest engineers like Bigio are very ready for a social workplace again. "I definitely want to be or I definitely would have wanted to be in the office. And I still think that's true," he said. "It's been very isolating not being in the office. So I'm pretty excited for that change."
"At this point, our preferences are pretty low on the list of realities," Danahy said, referring to whether Google's requirements might end up being a burden for his wife. "We just learned that the world will intervene in a lot of ways, regardless of what our preferences are. That's what the pandemic taught us, I suppose."
Megan Rose Dickey contributed additional reporting.
Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.