VMware's parking lot was mostly empty on June 15, the day the software giant reopened its 16-building headquarters at Stanford Research Park. The company employs more than 5,000 people in Palo Alto, but only a couple hundred have been coming to work each day since five campus buildings opened.
Rich Lang, VMware's senior vice president of human resources, said he and a receptionist were among the 99 employees to swipe an employee badge at the door on that first day.
"Just as we expected, a very cautious toe-in-the-water for people," Lang said.
Tech offices may be reopening this summer, but many still look like deserted campuses — especially at companies that, like VMware, are embracing a flexible work model in the long term and continue to encourage remote work until at least September.
Uber, for example, said its in-office employee turnout had been growing in the U.S. since it began reopening its offices in early March, starting in Washington. Yet the ride-hailing giant's Washington and New York offices are still seeing just 10% to 20% of employees come in each day.
Apple, Facebook, Google, Intel and Microsoft all declined to specify how many employees had been working out of their U.S. offices.
Why aren't tech workers coming back?
A survey conducted in April — before most Americans were vaccinated — found that 78% of tech workers were concerned they'd have to return to the office before it was safe.
Such worries have likely eased since then, as nearly three out of four eligible Silicon Valley residents are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and only a few dozen new cases pop up in the region each day. That's a fraction of the local case count in April.
At first, VMware required employees returning to the office to wear a mask under state guidance. Since the state relaxed that rule last week, however, vaccinated VMware employees — like their peers at Amazon, Facebook and Uber — can now go to California offices without a mask. After the low turnout on opening day, Lang thought relaxing this rule would attract more employees, but little changed after the company lifted this requirement.
Instead, low turnout likely has more to do with the fact that employees have gotten used to working from home, and many want to continue doing so. Around one in three VMware employees told the company in March that they wanted to continue working remotely full-time. Nearly twice as many — 60% or so — said they'd prefer a flexible schedule involving both in-office and remote work.
Lang said this latter group had been growing over time, and noted that these numbers would likely continue shifting. VMware plans to reopen an additional HQ building every week this summer. "I think people have to get into an office to understand what their personal 'next normal' is," Lang said.
Thousands of VMware employees have also taken advantage of the opportunity to move. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 2,300 employees around the world — almost 7% of the company's workforce — have relocated to a new metropolitan area. Half of those moves have been to areas with a lower cost of living and 25% have been to pricier regions, which has implications for their salaries because VMware pays workers differently depending on where they live.
How VMware is approaching flexible work
In the meantime, VMware has been revamping its offices to accommodate more shared desks and collaboration spaces by getting rid of most individual desks. After those changes, VMware's HQ could accommodate as many as 8,000 people, up from its pre-pandemic capacity of 6,500.
Before the pandemic, VMware's offices were around 70% individual work stations and 30% collaboration space. The company is now in the process of flipping those percentages to accommodate 50% to 70% shared space.
"People have realized that when I want to pound out some code or when I want to do some writing, I'm much more effective without commuting and just doing that at home," Lang said.
At the same time, VMware is exploring ways to use virtual and augmented reality to collaborate and hold team meetings — or even do deep work — in interesting environments.
That could even involve AR or VR that uses the sense of smell, said Chief Information Officer Jason Conyard, who's worked with a perfumer in Japan to develop a visor that would let users install a scent add-on. Imagine a virtual touch-base set in the Santa Cruz Mountains or Muir Woods.
"We could have a team meeting where we could actually smell the redwood forest and we could get people in a state of mind where they're more relaxed and more open to ideas," Conyard said.
The changes are all part of VMware's flexible approach to work, which Lang said the company started exploring before the pandemic began. It's more akin to Facebook's stance than to what Google and Apple are planning, which will require most employees to work in the office three days a week.
Facebook, which began reopening its Bay Area offices at 10% capacity in May, will allow employees at all levels of the company to request to work remotely full-time. Those who return to the office can work from home half the time. Adobe likewise said this week it plans to let workers adopt a hybrid schedule or work remotely full-time.
VMware, similarly, intends to allow all of its employees to work where they choose as long as it aligns with the needs of the business, Lang said. The vast majority of VMware jobs can be done remotely, he noted, adding that teams within VMware will also get to decide how often they meet for in-person work.
A boon for diversity
The flexible approach has already changed the makeup of who VMware is hiring.
Lang said the company has been attracting and hiring a "much higher percentage" of women around the world and underrepresented groups in the U.S. by advertising its jobs as remote and remote-friendly.
That could be a boon for a company grappling with a workforce that's still nearly 73% men. VMware pledged in December to hire a woman for every man that it hires, and to ensure that by 2030, half of its managers would be women or from another underrepresented group.
Lang cautioned, though, that the improvement had only taken place over one quarter.
"I'm a little leery of calling it a win yet, but the early returns are definitely there," Lang said.