How will tech companies cope with an office-free future?

What’s to become of the tech company office, and how do companies function without the structure that working together in the same building has traditionally provided us? That’s a monumental question facing tech companies today as they struggle to define their approach to work in a post-pandemic world.

Sure, there have been fully remote companies like GitLab for some time now, but the conventional wisdom prior to the pandemic was that you mostly needed to be in the same place to get serious work done.

This was certainly true for larger tech companies. Salesforce, Microsoft, Google, Meta, Amazon and Apple didn’t build sprawling campuses or skyscrapers across the world just to abandon them for no reason. They built them to house their workers and show off their sheer economic power. But when the pandemic hit in March 2020, it changed how we think of work, possibly forever.

Suddenly, we had a giant laboratory to experiment with everyone working from home, and while there are certainly some problems, depending on your business, your job, and, frankly, your living situation, it showed that whole categories of workers didn’t need to be sitting in a cubby farm inside a big building to get their jobs done — certainly not five days a week.

I spoke to a variety of people in the tech world, from consultants and investors to startup founders, to try and get a grip on exactly what the next phase of work is going to look like, and without a doubt, tech companies have at least become a lot more flexible when it comes to face time at the office.

Company policies are evolving

There is no one-size-fits-all answer here, but there are enough examples to suggest some shift away from the traditional office setup, even for well-established companies.

When Twitter shut down its offices in 2020, it looked like it was going to close them forever — until it changed course earlier this year and went hybrid. Apple, much to its staff’s chagrin, went hybrid as well, albeit with a certain number of days in the office required. In contrast, Salesforce lets workers choose how much they come into the office, if at all.

It’s worth noting that Apple’s workers are not happy about being forced to return to the office, even for a few days a week. Fortune reported last month that three-quarters of employees were displeased with the mandate and were even considering quitting over it.

TechCrunch recently reported that Airbnb announced a companywide policy of “work from anywhere,” while PayPal closed an office that housed its Xoom unit in San Francisco.

Matt Hoffman, a former HR exec at DigitalOcean who is currently a partner at M13, said he works with a lot of early-stage tech companies, many of which were born just before or during the pandemic.

“They don’t know anything but working remotely, and I will tell you, I don’t really see — I mean, every company is different — but the vast majority have no interest in ever going to the office, because they’re not anchored by the fact that they’re paying for this real estate that they need to make use of,” he said.

Larger companies often are, however, meaning that the bigger the company, the more inclined it may be to repopulate expensive buildings.

Scott Johnston, CEO at Docker, a company that reinvented itself over the last couple of years, said the reorganization began at the end of 2019, and he made the decision to shutter offices for good after the pandemic forced closures in March 2020.

“So in our first year [after the restructuring], we were facing COVID. And we sent everyone home to work from home. But then we also realized as a Series A-level startup, we don’t need these underutilized offices, and we actually sold them. We are now a 100% digital-first organization, and we don’t have offices,” Johnston told me. What’s more, he sees no reason to have that overhead ever again.

Johnston is in line with other startup founders like Iman Abuzeid, co-founder and CEO at Incredible Health, a startup that helps connect employers, mostly hospitals, to nurses looking for work.

“We decided to go fully remote in January of 2021, and as of January of 2022, we no longer have a San Francisco office. We don’t have any offices. Our headquarters are in the cloud,” Abuzeid told me.

She said that her thinking evolved as the pandemic progressed, and after talking to employees, it was clear that people liked the flexibility. She decided to go with it.

But as Hoffman said, every company is different. Front co-founder and CEO Mathilde Collin said that her shared inbox startup really missed working together.

“For my workplace, I know one thing for sure: The extreme of a fully remote company will not work for us in the long run. Having been forced to work from home, in almost total physical isolation from my co-workers, for 18 months, it’s become clear to me that the short-term gains — saving money on office space, for instance — aren’t worth the downsides that come with it,” she said.

“That’s why my company will switch to a [home-office] hybrid model of work. This is in no way unique: Once you reject both the fully remote model and going back to how things were pre-pandemic, the hybrid model is the only option on the table.”

Choice over mandates

Even the most ardent WFH advocates understand the value of getting colleagues together — it helps build company culture. What’s more, connections that exist online are enhanced by being together and having group dinners and activities, even on an occasional basis.

Karen Mangia, vice president of customer and market insight at Salesforce, has written several books on remote work, including 2020’s “Working from Home” and last year’s “Success from Anywhere.” She said she just completed over 300 interviews about working from home, and while people definitely want to gather with colleagues from time to time, the message she heard was to make it count when you do.

“The question that’s top of mind for people is, what is the activity that we are going to be doing or the experience that we’re going to be having that is fundamentally different when we are together versus not,” she said.

What’s more, she said people don’t want to be dictated to anymore.

“We see some organizations saying, well, people are coming back to the office five days a week or three days a week, and here’s our mandate. What many employees question in that context that comes to the surface is: ‘Well, why? What’s the purpose of that?’ Because, if you look at the results for most organizations [during the pandemic-induced office shutdown], it showed that they were still able to grow with people in that work-at-home environment,” she said.

She said the conventional thinking goes something like this: Employers want their people in the office and the workers would rather not come in unless it’s absolutely necessary, but she said it doesn’t have to be that black and white.

“A lot of the research I’ve done seems to paint that it’s kind of this employer-versus-employee kind of battle. It makes it seem binary, right? Like the employer wants people in the office, and the employee does not want people to be there, and that there’s this tug of war,” she said.

“And as I started doing a bunch of research about how do we close this gap between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect right now, this theme about the power of choice showed up very consistently as a positive and effective technique,” she said.

As Apple found, when you force the issue, you can alienate your workforce. In a highly competitive job market, that’s probably not what you want to do.

Part of the problem, and perhaps what Apple and other large organizations are facing, is that in spite of two years of doing this, managers still aren’t completely sure how to manage employees when they aren’t in front of them.

Dion Hinchcliffe, an analyst at Constellation Research who has been studying remote work and digital trends for years, said his latest research showed that for knowledge workers, productivity is way up with WFH, and companies really need to figure out whether it’s even prudent to call workers back to the office.

“The big debate that seems to be going on is, do we make everyone come back to the office once a week or twice a month, or even once a month? What does that look like? What’s the policy going to be because they want to have set times to build team cohesion. The big concern is about losing their corporate culture,” he said.

In addition to productivity gains from WFH, companies have access to a deeper pool of talent because workers don’t have to live within a certain radius of a physical office. Hinchliffe said that the biggest challenge for managers beyond building esprit de corps is simply figuring out how to manage remote employees.

It seems clear that two years beyond the March 2020 shutdown, smaller companies see little need for an office, while larger ones, especially those with expensive office and real estate holdings, may feel differently. But now that employees have seen the benefits of working remotely, it’s going to be hard to put the genie back in the bottle, and providing a level of flexibility is going to be a differentiating factor for employers moving forward.