Remote work 1 year later: The pandemic sent tech workers home — when and how will they return?

Downtown Seattle during the COVID-19 pandemic. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

It’s been exactly one year since Microsoft recommended that its nearly 54,000 Seattle-area employees work from home as a mysterious flu-like disease called COVID-19 began spreading in the U.S.

It was the beginning of a radically altered landscape of how and where people do their jobs. As some have embraced this change and others can’t wait to return to an office setting with physically present co-workers, employers are grappling with what the coming months and year will look like.

So what’s next? Some tech companies have (flexible) plans in place for bringing back some workers some of the time. Others will be taking most of the year to see how COVID case numbers and vaccine rollouts progress. And along the way Microsoft and others have been conducting research and surveys to better understand how work as we know it has been forever altered by a year of working remotely.

Facebook’s offices in the South Lake Union area of Seattle last March. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Tech companies’ varying approaches: Microsoft hasn’t issued any new guidance since October when it unveiled a “hybrid workplace” plan laying out how employees can have a more flexible remote work schedule and even relocate elsewhere in the country. Other plans include:

  • Facebook reopening offices at limited capacity: The social media giant, which employs more than 5,000 people in the Seattle area, said this week that it will open offices in the region at 10% capacity to provide an alternative to workers struggling with remote work. Voluntary work from home is scheduled to continue globally until July 2. “Facebook was the first tech company to shut its U.S. offices nationwide, and we’re taking a measured approach to returning to the office,” Facebook spokesperson Tracy Clayton said.
  • Amazon monitoring the situation: The tech giant’s most-recent guidance around remote work was issued last October, when it said corporate office employees could continue to do their jobs from home through June 30. Those plans could be re-evaluated based on case numbers or vaccine roll-out or other government guidance. Amazon meanwhile has announced recent office expansion plans everywhere from Bellevue to Boston.
  • Convoy considers future work model: The digital freight startup’s 1,000 employees have been working from home in Seattle and Atlanta for a year, and recently extended a return-to-office date from July to Sept. 7. VP of People Sunita Solao said the company’s future working model is taking into consideration “those who are interested in working remotely and others who can’t wait to come into the office to collaborate in person.”

Pay cuts and more: The Wall Street Journal took a look at another year ahead of remote work and decisions being weighed in corporate board rooms, such as whether the salaries of employees who have left high-cost cities should be reduced. Tax concerns have come into play for migrating employees at companies such as Facebook and Lyft, and Microsoft previously announced that benefits and pay could be impacted by the company’s compensation scale by location.

A quiet Microsoft campus during the COVID-19 pandemic. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

‘The New Future of Work’: In hopes of better understanding its own culture and remote work in general, Microsoft launched a substantial research initiative at the start of the pandemic. Teams across the company dug into how remote work was impacting work practices. “We are all right now participants in a giant, natural, uncontrolled remote work experiment from which Microsoft must learn,” the company said. A synthesis of the findings keyed on such things as:

  • Remote meetings: The lack of physical cues, body language, and ability to gauge emotions were said to be significant hurdles to productive disagreement and decision making. While some found online meetings more inclusive, due to the “level playing field” of all-remoteness, others who were less likely to speak up in physical meetings were also less likely to contribute online.
  • Productivity: Employees were more likely to report a decrease in productivity while working from home if they reported little prior experience with remote work, a shorter tenure at the company, and fewer pre-pandemic collaborations (including meetings).
  • Physical environments: The rapid shift to remote work left little to no time to consider the implications of home workspaces. Two key factors deeply impacted a person’s ability to be productive: the size and layout of their living space and the social make-up of their living situation.

More studies: Better understanding the effects of the pandemic on workers has been the focus of some Seattle-area companies whose technology is geared toward improving work experiences.

  • Recent analysis by TINYpulse found that employees onboarded remotely during the pandemic could be having difficulty absorbing the culture and values of some workplaces. Isolation is blamed, as those onboarded after COVID-19 are not as connected with their teammates.
  • In a report released by employee experience technology company Limeade, surveying 1,000 employees at companies with at least 500 people, 72% reported that they were experiencing burnout, up from 42% in a similar survey prior to the pandemic.
Workers in a communal space inside one of Amazon’s headquarters towers, long before the pandemic made 6 feet of space the norm. (Amazon Photo / Jordan Stead)

Survey says: Worksphere is a Seattle startup that created a software platform to track everything from seating arrangements to contact tracing to help businesses manage the return to offices. It did interviews with more than 60 companies in the past three months to discuss what the future may hold. A few trends include:

  • The majority of companies are reimagining workplaces and how teams work together. None plan to return to the Monday-through-Friday-in-the-office workweek.
  • Companies are generally planning their official returns from May-September and don’t plan to return fully until most people are vaccinated. Most companies probably need less space than what they have, but with long-term leases are not sure how to adjust.  Some are considering moving to a flexible desking model in part or in full.
  • As the pandemic has gone on, mental health concerns have become one of the leading reasons for returning to the office. People feel disconnected, miss working together, and have difficulty around collaborating in remote-only environments.
Workers at the Seattle startup Apptentive during a video chat back in March 2020, when such calls were a unique change of pace. (Photo courtesy of Apptentive)

“Remote work isn’t going anywhere”: Chris Herd is founder of Firstbase, a startup that helps companies set up and manage remote workers. He that if there is any worker fatigue related to working from home it’s because we’re doing it during the most difficult conditions imaginable. Even during lockdowns and while juggling homeschooling kids, Herd says 80-to-90% of people never want to work in an office again full-time, and 46% of people want to work from home most of the time or full-time. Those numbers likely explode when the benefits of being home post-COVID are fully realized, he said.

“Remote work isn’t going anywhere,” Herd told GeekWire. “Any company that tries to force a return to the office full-time faces the remote work dilemma. Any company not as remote as its biggest competitor will lose its best people to them, be less cost efficient, and eventually perish.”

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