Protocol | Workplace

Tech companies are feeling the pressure to offer more flexibility

Amazon will leave it up to directors to decide whether teams have to come to the office. Will other tech giants follow?

Person at a laptop looking out a window

On Monday Amazon had told its workforce that it didn't necessarily have to return to the office at all, leaving that decision up to team directors.

Photo: Yasmina H/Unsplash

Earlier this year, Amazon was planning to abandon remote work and require its corporate employees to return to the office five days a week.

That's all changed in just a few months. By Monday, the company had reversed course in a big way, telling its workforce that it didn't necessarily have to return to the office at all, leaving that decision up to team directors.

"We're intentionally not prescribing how many days or which days," CEO Andy Jassy wrote in a message to Amazon employees. "We expect that there will be teams that continue working mostly remotely, others that will work some combination of remotely and in the office, and still others that will decide customers are best served having the team work mostly in the office."

Jassy's announcement marks a sea change for Amazon, coming just four months after the company's initial shift toward hybrid.

In June — weeks before Jassy took over as CEO — Amazon told employees they could work remotely twice a week once offices reopened, discarding its initial five-day-a-week in-office plan.

So, not only has Amazon now caught up with the flexibility on offer at other tech giants: By lifting its across-the-board rule that employees have to spend most of their time in the office, Amazon may have just surpassed some of its peers when it comes to accommodating flexible work.

The downside is that Amazon's corporate employees can't rely on a single hard-and-fast rule to know how much they'll have to come into the office: Their work schedules — and lifestyles — are up to the directors who run their teams.

Tech giants still have one-size-fits-all rules

Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft still plan to require most employees to come to the office 50% or 60% of the time, a model that has inspired well-publicized pushback at Apple.

Companies generally say they're open to making exceptions.

Any Facebook employee whose job can be performed remotely is allowed to request remote work, the company said in June.

Google leaders told employees in August that the company had approved 85% of around 10,000 employee requests to continue working remotely long-term. Around 20% will work remotely, the company said in May.

And Microsoft states in its Hybrid Workplace Flexibility Guide, which the company shared in a May blog post, that employees can request manager approval to work remotely more than half the time. So far, none of these companies has indicated it would back-track on imposing a default 50% or 60% in-office work schedule.

Microsoft subsidiary LinkedIn, however, has walked back its initial office work mandate. In July, LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky said that the company would move away from its own plan to require employees to work in the office at least half the time, declaring that "we trust each other to do our best work where it works best for us and our teams."

Will other tech giants get more flexible?

For companies as large as Amazon — or Google, Facebook or Apple — leaving remote work planning up to teams may make sense.

"It's more understandable why they would do it team by team, because their teams can be the size of small companies," said Lana Peters, vice president for the Americas at Hibob, an HR software provider.

Plus, companies are under acute pressure from employees who want more flexibility — and can leave for more remote-friendly employers.

Yet executives — the leaders plotting out how their companies will approach hybrid work — are far more interested in returning to the office than employees are, and most admit they aren't including much, or any, direct employee input in their return to office plans, according to a new survey from Slack's Future Forum research initiative.

Only one in three employees wants to come to the office three or more days per week, according to the survey of almost 11,000 knowledge workers in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Germany, France and Japan.

Executives are much more office-happy: 75% want to work from the office three or more days per week, and 44% want to come in every day. Brian Elliott, Future Forum's executive leader, attributed that disparity to old assumptions about in-person collaboration being vital to innovation.

"It requires a mindset shift to say 'I'm going to focus on outcomes as opposed to attendance and presenteeism,'" Elliott told Protocol last month. "There clearly, though, are executives that are still falling back on old tropes, that are still falling back on 'I want to see that my people are showing up.'"

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Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporting fellow at Protocol, based out of Los Angeles. Previously, she worked for Ernst & Young, where she researched and wrote about the future of work, emerging technologies and startups. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California, where she studied business and philosophy. She can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.

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