Akram, who works for Google, moved with her husband and two young children from Los Altos — a 15-minute drive from the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters — to Dallas, Texas. The biggest reason for the move, she said, was cost of living.
“We were paying three times the mortgage of our house that we have here in Texas, but we had one-third of the space,” she said. Her choice of where to live is now “the question of the year,” she says, with Google’s September deadline approaching for employees to decide between moving offices, coming back or staying remote.
The result could have a big impact on Silicon Valley companies that spent billions on campuses and perks to keep workers at work as long as possible, and also on other big cities who are vying to attract talent away from the heartland of the tech industry.
Pros and cons
Just as the tech industry led the way in transitioning to remote work, its top companies are providing early templates for bringing workers back to the office (or not).
“Our [employees] actually have very different perceptions about working from home — some find it easier to separate work life if they’re in the office, some people actually find it easier to juggle if it’s at home,” Nikki Krishnamurthy, Uber’s chief people officer, told CNN Business in an interview. “I don’t think we would have had those insights if it hadn’t been for the pandemic.”
Krishnamurthy says the company chose that path after considering options to balance productivity, engagement, teamwork and flexibility, while also retaining its fast-moving culture. A survey of Uber employees in September last year showed 75% would prefer a hybrid model where they came into the office a few days a week.
“You might optimize more for flexibility, a little bit broader reach for talent anywhere, but will you give up your magic?” she said. “And we just didn’t want to give up our magic.”
Facebook says employees will generally be asked to return to their current office, though they can transfer to roles based in another location. “There is also an option for employees in eligible roles to apply for long-term remote work,” the company added in a statement. “We don’t see vibrant offices and healthy remote work as a tradeoff — we believe these can co-exist and be unified by one cohesive employee experience.”
The tech industry might seem well-positioned for remote work indefinitely but it has also spent years building a culture of collaboration and innovation that it will be loath to give up, spending untold billions on huge offices and perks like free food, gyms and nap pods that convince employees to spend more time there than they do at home.
Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University whose research has extensively focused on remote work, says a hybrid model like the one Uber is adopting will likely to become more of a norm.
“It is hard to come up with new ideas and products working fully remote,” he said. “Post pandemic that will not change as [tech] employees tend to work well when at least part of the week they are together.”
Battle of the tech hubs
It isn’t just employees making big moves. Earlier in the pandemic, there was a minor exodus of tech firms and executives from the Bay Area to other cities — with Florida and Texas emerging as particularly popular destinations.
Miami mayor Francis Suarez has spent months courting tech entrepreneurs and investors, with some success. Founders Fund, the venture capital firm co-founded by Peter Thiel, reportedly opened a big new office in the city, while Shutterstock founder Jon Oringer also moved there and started a firm aimed at incubating and investing in startups in the Miami tech scene.
Decisions to make
It’s also unclear how decisions made during the worst of the pandemic might stick as the economy and people’s lives reopen.
Jasmine Shah moved to Los Angeles, where she grew up, last October. Before the pandemic, Shah, who works for the software company VMWare, would drive from her home in San Francisco to the firm’s offices in Palo Alto, a commute she described as “very hard.”
“The pandemic has blasted this whole idea that you have to be in the place you are,” she said.
Still, Shah says her exit from Silicon Valley has always felt temporary — a lot of her stuff is still in storage in San Francisco. Ultimately, she says, if you want to work in tech then the Bay Area is where the best career opportunities are. It largely remains tech’s biggest power center and the big guns such as Google, Facebook and Apple still have their massive headquarters there. But she’s unsure about living there long term because of how prohibitively expensive it is.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” she says. “I’m looking to change a lot of things.”
And given how much the pandemic has accelerated our dependence on technology, major tech firms are likely to be laying the groundwork for a spurt of further growth, Colin Yasukochi, director of CBRE’s Tech Insights Center, told CNN Business.
Krishnamurthy said Uber considered all possible options before settling on its three-days-a-week approach, but fears a downside to Silicon Valley companies — particularly smaller startups — that decide to go fully remote.
“I worry that at some point that they will lose productivity because they haven’t built those relationships,” she said. “If you start that way, it’s really hard to change culture … and I just wonder if the pandemic and these behaviors that have hardened will cause people to think they can do it all remote and then still wind up hitting that brick wall.”
With her deadline to decide approaching, Akram has a long-running pros and cons list. Google’s new policy adds more reasons for her to move back to California, she says. If she can stay in a more affordable area, she’s willing to drive a little farther to get to the office a few days a week.
“I was definitely really happy to see that they were listening to what the demand was out there and that they were open to changing things,” she said.