Workplace

Does ‘reopening’ even make sense anymore?

Tech offices are open, yet mostly empty. Many workers are already visiting the office occasionally. What does “reopening” even mean at this point?

An empty office

Flexible work means that the return to the office is a gradual one, particularly at companies that don’t require employees to spend half their time at the office.

Photo: Marc Mueller via Pexels

The long-postponed “return to the office” is starting to feel like a myth.

With flexible work now the industry norm and offices remaining largely empty, it’s hard to imagine the “full reopenings” planned for the coming months. Add in concerns about the new COVID-19 variant, omicron, and you’ve got a murky-looking 2022.

“There used to be a date, and then the date was getting pushed back and pushed back,” said Arnaud Ferreri, a senior director of engineering at Instacart. “The concept of ‘return back to office date’ doesn’t make sense anymore.”

Sitting on a plaza near Instacart’s San Francisco headquarters on Friday, Ferreri told me he’d been going into the office once or twice a week, but estimated that around 85% of desks go unused on any given day.

More than 70% of full-time roles at Instacart will accommodate permanent remote work, and a number of Ferreri’s colleagues in San Francisco have taken advantage by moving farther from the office, either within the Bay Area or to other parts of the country.

“I don’t see a world in which we go back to a hard rule of ‘everyone has butts in seats here,’” Ferreri said. (Instacart told me it doesn’t yet have any “official return-to-office timelines to share.”)

Flexible work means that the return to the office is a gradual one, particularly at companies that don’t require employees to spend half their time at the office.

Google, Microsoft, Uber, DoorDash and Twilio have all postponed their return dates indefinitely, and SAP has pushed its January return date back to next summer. Both Salesforce and Amazon have said they’d allow for remote work until January, but are leaving it up to teams how often they’ll work in the office in the new year.

For now, tech workers are still remote — mostly. Last week, Google touted that almost 40% of its workforce had been to the office at some point in the last few weeks, and encouraged others to “start regaining the muscle memory of being in the office more regularly.” The company didn’t say whether it was postponing its reopening date because of the omicron variant.

Apple and Facebook parent company Meta are still planning to start their hybrid models in January and February. At Meta’s San Francisco office, most employees are still working at home.

Svapnil Ankolkar, a software engineer at Meta, told me he started going into the office “when the free food started” a few weeks ago. But even free lunches haven’t been enough to lure most of his colleagues back: Ankolkar estimated that 15% or fewer were coming in, and he said some of his coworkers seemed nervous about omicron.

He’s noticed that more experienced employees, and those with kids at home, are staying home more.

“The people that already kind of like working at home — I think [the variant] is a good reason to stay at home longer,” said Ankolkar. “I imagine as you get more senior in your role at Facebook, you have more confidence in your ability to effectively work at home.”

As an early-career engineer, Ankolkar has already been coming in two or three days a week to set better boundaries between home and work. He’s a little more productive at the office, he said.

“I’m kind of more worried about the variant because I like being in the office,” Ankolkar said. “It’s nice to feel like you’re back to normal life again.”

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