Workplace

Ask a tech worker: Does the office matter?

Offices are more “open” than they’ve been in the last two years. Do workers care?

Two chat bubbles in front of a building: Ask a tech worker image

Major companies are calling workers back to the office.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Welcome back to Ask a Tech Worker! It’s been a few weeks since I hit the streets of San Francisco to talk with tech workers about issues they’re facing in the workplace. As always, send over any questions you’d like to see covered in a future edition.

It’s finally happening: COVID-19 cases have declined enough that major companies are calling workers back to the office. Apple, Meta and Google all now expect most of their employees to return to the office for part of the week, even as many other tech employers offer far more flexibility.

In December, I asked tech workers in downtown San Francisco about how often they were using their offices. Four months later, and with the omicron surge behind us, I headed back out to see what had changed. I found that the sheer range of approaches to return-to-office makes this a complicated premise.

“You’ve got very different profiles depending on the person,” said Elias Bizannes, the only U.S.-based member of the Australian startup Darwinium.

Bizannes was sitting at Salesforce Park on Wednesday waiting to meet up with someone when I ran into him. He said there are regional differences within his own company when it comes to how often people get together in person. While Bizannes’ U.K. colleagues have been choosing to meet up once or twice a week, Darwinium’s Sydney team has been more reticent to brave the commute again, he said.

Family makeup makes a difference, too. Parents of young kids don’t have time to commute, while those with older kids might crave the separation of home and office, Bizannes said. Single people seem to be “50-50” when it comes to preferring remote work and preferring the office, Bizannes said, and many like to travel and work remotely.

If Bizannes lived near an office, he said he’d like to go in every day.

“It helps me get my mind into a more productive state,” Bizannes said. “It’s difficult to work from home when I’ve got young kids. I actually enjoy the commute time itself because it’s the only time I get for myself.”

Even as some large companies begin to require in-person attendance, many startups still offer a flexible approach.

Ben Pasternak, the co-founder and CEO of Simulate, was having lunch at the park when I met him on Wednesday. His startup, which makes plant-based chicken nuggets, runs a lab in San Francisco and a business office in New York.

Simulate’s San Francisco-based scientists have continued working in the lab. Things are more flexible for the company’s New York employees; Simulate tried out different return-to-office approaches for them before settling on what Pasternak called a flex model. But the office still matters to Simulate: There are two days a week when employees are “heavily encouraged” to come in.

“It’s good to have people together IRL for some period of time. It’s an important alignment check to see how everyone’s working together,” Pasternak said. “When you’re communicating over Slack or one of those technologies, things can get lost in the weeds.”

Pasternak hasn’t noticed any drop-off in productivity tied to remote work.

“If you don’t trust someone to work from home, you shouldn’t have hired them, or they shouldn’t be on the team in the first place,” Pasternak said.

Marco Bano, an independent software developer, misses office life.

“If I look back, it was pretty nice living the office life, managing relationships that way,” Bano said. “I felt more focused on my job without tons of distractions.”

But ultimately, Bano said, companies can’t worry too much about what their peers are doing.

“It’s an analysis that each company must go through alone, forgetting what the other companies are doing or planning to do,” Bano said.

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