Big tech companies are at war with employees for remote work

CEOs want employees back at their offices. Staffs have other plans.


Remote work howsoever tough it seemed in the beginning, has now become the sole choice of many employees across the globe. Talking about United States, executives from big tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook are in a tiff with majority of their employees as they are more inclined towards remote work rather than attending office full-time every day.

The COVID-19 pandemic left no other option and thus made many businesses operate with a remote workforce for consecutive months. The scenario changed post the lockdown and subsequent vaccination drive, when the employees were called back to routine full-time work. But most of the employees hesitated to go back to the office full time, even if they were willing; they wanted to restrict it for few days a week. Workers are now used to with work from home routine and consider it to be more effective than going to workplace as it saves their commute costs.

Some tech companies (like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey) agreed for the remote work flexibility for their workers. They have accepted permanent or semi-permanent changes in their organization policies to make remote work (part-time or even full-time) the norm. Whereas others like Apple’s Tim Cook are still working hard to switch to normal full-time routine despite of organized resistance.

The work culture of the tech companies is riding a wave of major transformation.

The Starting

Though it might seem that it all started with pandemic but It’s not the pandemic that induced the thought of remote working. It was promoted by a dedicated executive in Silicon Valley and other tech startup hubs. Influencers, writers, and business consulting gurus have been talking about it for years. If we take into account some valid reasons, there is no concrete justification for resisting remote working, other than a sort of management control insecurity, supporters argue. The movement took a toll in the late 2000s, when tech unicorn optimism rocked the business world and some of the leading leaders of the new wave of startups seemed comfortable with the idea. Inspite of this, remote working has seen major setbacks. Notably, Yahoo!, then known as one of the large tech companies best suited to teleworkers, changed course in the early 2010s under the leadership of then-CEO Marissa Mayer, who demanded that remote workers need to relocate and show up at their assigned offices.

After a lot of discussions and opposition from employees regarding full-time work, remote work advocates and the business units have come to an agreement. Companies like Google or Twitter would let staff work remotely (work from home) periodically as needed. But this wouldn’t be entertained more often. Remote working was a privilege, not a right, and employees generally could not move outside of the daily commute limits of the cities where these companies were situated.

Due to the pandemic and its effects on the businesses, companies underwent a roller coaster ride in terms of their work culture. In old traditional businesses, the digital transformation movement has accelerated dramatically. While at some IT startups, the change has been so smooth that many tech employees and management level professionals have wondered why it didn’t try remote work before.
Though, there are of course exceptions in certain types of tech companies. For example, large game development studios found it difficult to maintain the old productivity levels with the new work from home method, resulting in delays or less quality for some releases. But more often than not, the changes made in response to the pandemic have led people to believe that this remote thing may finally work.

A Divided Apple

Few tech companies have faced many high-profile dramas about remote work including Apple. Although majority of the employees at Headquarters in Cupertino and elsewhere primarily worked from home for much of 2020, CEO Tim Cook emailed employees in early June 2021 that a policy change was in near future. From September, Employees will have to return to the office at least three days a week. They may even go away completely for up to two weeks a year, provided they get management approval.

According to the report by Zoe Schiffer of The Verge, the employees then circulated a survey among themselves to reveal that Cook’s tenure was opposite with what they wanted or expected. The employees wrote a letter to Tim Cook asking him to think again on new policy. 68% agreed “that the lack of localization flexibility would likely cause them to leave Apple.”

The threats may be legitimate because some other technology organizations (such as Twitter) have taken a much more permissive approach. These companies proved to be an alternative where dissatisfied Apple employees would love to go.

Apple executives have been firm with their plan. The long-time employees pledged to quit for a mandatory return to the office. Some workers have taken to the press to say that Apple management has started rejecting work from home (remote work) requests more than usual in response.

To find a mid-way, some Apple employees wrote another letter requesting for a compromise: more liberal remote work policies in exchange for a system in which workers in low-cost cities would accept proportionately lower salaries. . However, this proposal has further angered other employees, who argue that Apple can afford to pay them a competitive salary even if they choose to move in the middle of the pandemic or later.

Postponed due to Delta

Post the lock down and liberties on restriction on commute, the remote work slowly started fading but due to the rapid spread of the delta variant of the COVID-19 and the rise in non-vaccinated cases in the US, the state of California has reopened an indoor mask mandate, even for those who have been vaccinated, because studies have shown that even vaccinated people who appear relatively healthy can spread the deadly delta variant to vulnerable people who has not not-vaccinated. California’s mandate directly affects many of these organizations, and more states are expected to follow in coming time.

Apple has postponed its plan to return to the office amid internal clashes and growing health concerns.
Earlier this week, Twitter announced that it is closing recently partially reopened US offices. Google has extended its current remote work (work from home) policy until mid of the October, and Lyft has postponed a plan to return to its offices next September until February of next year.

Many large tech companies require some or all employees to be vaccinated to return to the office, including Google, Lyft, and Facebook. And even companies that have not yet declared a vaccination requirement, such as Apple, are asking employees to complete surveys disclosing their vaccination status.

Microsoft is still struggling to get employees back to office, despite new developments, although they may change course again in the coming time. In general, although Microsoft plans to continue to reopen the office, it is more proactive in laying the foundation for long-term mixed work support.

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