Tech giants move to reopen offices, but differ on hybrid work plans

Apple, Google, and Twitter are taking different paths to flexible work policies as they move to re-open their offices; Microsoft started its reopening on February 28.

Apple, Google, and Twitter have now set dates to reopen their offices, signalling both the end of widespread home working and the rollout of “hybrid” remote policies.

Like most organisations, each company shuttered corporate offices in accordance with social distancing measures in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, shifting quickly to support remote work. 

Now, having already delayed reopening several times due to the ongoing pandemic, the three tech bigwigs have outlined their respective plans to open offices again, adopting hybrid policies that combine remote and in-office work for staff. How those plans work out could shape what other, smaller companies do to deal with changing workplace expectations.

“Tech giants are operationalising hybrid strategies they've been working on for a while,” said J. P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester.

Others have already begun their transition. With widespread vaccinations in place among its staff, Microsoft made its re-opening announcement last month, with workers returning to its Washington state headquarters and other offices beginning February 28.The move marked the final stage of Microsoft’s “hybrid work journey” that had been under development for almost two years.

While each company has its own approach to reopening and setting requirements for remote and in-person work, all have opted against a return to the pre-pandemic “normal” of five days in the office for all employees.

Apple sets its date: April 11

Apple’s requirement that staff return to the office at least three days a week has proved controversial with some employees, with petitions and public protests against the decision last year. But the company has remained steadfast in its determination to return staff to its Cupertino headquarters, at least part-time.

In an email to staff seen by The Verge last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook outlined a “phased” office reopening that begins on April 11. Initially, it will require staffers to go into the office one day a week; that moves to two days a week as of the third week of the transitional period. 

“We will then begin the hybrid pilot in full on May 23, with people coming to the office three days a week — on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday — and working flexibly on Wednesday and Friday if you wish,” the email said.

Cook acknowledged that the requirement to return to the office may not be universally popular, noting that, while many will welcome the opportunity to meet colleagues face to face, “for others, it may also be an unsettling change.

“I want you to know that we are deeply committed to giving you the support and flexibility that you need in this next phase — a commitment that begins with this gradual introduction of our hybrid pilot and includes the option to work remotely for up to four weeks a year,” he said.

Google to re-open April 4

After most recently delaying plans to reopen offices on Jan. 10 (after the emergence of the COVID-19 omicron variant), Google now expects to bring back workers back on April 4, according to an internal memo seen by Reuters last week. The decision applies to staff in some of Google’s US, UK, an and Asia Pacific offices; employees who are not ready to return to the office can apply for an extension.

Employees going to the office must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or have an approved exemption, according to Reuters, while unvaccinated workers will be allowed to opt to work remotely on a permanent basis.

Google wants employees in the office roughly three days a week, though this could vary depending on team and role. However, the company approved thousands of applications from employees that wish to work fully remote long term last year, reportedly denying only 15 per cent of requests.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai previously pledged to let staffers work temporarily outside of their main office location for up to four weeks a year.

Twitter re-opens March 15, but returning is optional

Twitter’s approach diverges from the others, in that, while offices will open next week, employees will be given the freedom to decide for themselves where they work.

“It’s been almost two years since we closed our offices and travel and I’m excited to announce that we’re ready to fully open up business travel and all our offices around the world!” CEO Parag Agrawal said in a post on Twitter last week, with office openings due to start on March 15.

Agrawal, who replaced Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey as CEO in November, promised to honour the company’s commitment to supporting remote work post-pandemic for staff. 

“Wherever you feel most productive and creative is where you will work and that includes working from home full-time forever,” he said. “Office every day? That works, too. Some days in the office, some days from home? Of course.”

However, he also acknowledged the operational challenges presented by a hybrid remote model. “Distributed working will be much, much harder,” said Agrawal. “Anyone who has joined a meeting remotely while others are in a conference knows this pain. There will be lots of challenges in the coming months, and we’ll need to be proactive, intentional, learn and adapt.”

Despite these difficulties, Gownder said that Twitter’s flexible approach is likely to be popular with staff: a notable advantage in a tight labor market.

“Twitter, unlike the others, will allow full flexibility — employees can work from wherever they want, including home all the time, if they so choose,” he said. “This could benefit the company in terms of employee retention and talent acquisition. Right now, during a continued Great Resignation of high employee turnover, one major reason for allowing what Forrester calls Anywhere Work is to compete for talent.”

Forrester survey data suggests that most companies (51 per cent) plan to adopt a hybrid strategy, 15 per cent plan to will be “remote-first” after the pandemic, and around a third (34 per cent) will return to the office every day of the week.

The remote work strategies of the tech giants could have a wider influence, said Adam Preset, vice president analyst for employee experience technologies at Gartner.

“When the tech giants signal they are ready to reopen offices, it excites conversation in different businesses about their own readiness,” he said. “Some aggressive organisations or eager leaders are ready to do the same or are ahead of the game. Others want to wait and see if Apple, Google, Microsoft and Twitter will have success stories to tell in a couple months.”

The various hybrid office models could have spillover affects; recent surveys have shown that women and people of colour are more inclined to continue working from home. 

That could have an effect on corporate diversity and inclusion efforts. Research has also highlighted the possibility of “proximity bias,” where employees who work from home could see their careers sidelined because they’re seen less office by bosses and upper-level managers.