Survey shows tech workers returning to office at various speeds

‘Like the first day of school, but for adults, and everyone’s doing it separately’

By Jeff Elder

Examiner staff writer

Bay Area tech workers are gingerly making their way back to the office in dramatically different ways at a variety of large tech companies, a new survey shows.

Nearly half (45%) of Google employees say they have returned to the office at least once in the past month, for instance, while at PayPal, that number is just 8%.

The survey run by the social network Blind, conducted on behalf of The Examiner, polled 3,077 Bay Area tech workers on going back in. Blind is an anonymous social network that requires work emails for registration. That allows employees to speak out without giving their names, but as verified employees of a company.

The results varied widely, with Google, Apple (41%) and Microsoft (41%) among the companies with the most employees going back. At the other end of the spectrum, the survey showed far fewer employees returning to Facebook (20%), Cisco (15%) and PayPal (8%).

A Berkeley psychologist studying the remote work era says the gradual return varies, company by company, and worker by worker.

Going back to the office is “like the first day of school, but for adults, and everyone’s doing it separately,” says UC Berkeley psychology professor Robert Levenson. “Some kids are terrified. Some can’t wait. Good schools and good teachers recognize that. Good companies need to, as well.”

Google, which on Tuesday announced a companywide return date of Jan. 10, has welcomed individual employees back on a limited basis and where such a return would be safe. The company is making available to employees who choose to venture back collaboration spaces, quiet workspaces, and – that greatest of all tech company amenities – food.

“We hope to see more teams coming together where possible, whether it be for regular team meetings, brainstorming sessions around a whiteboard, or outdoor socials,” CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in a blog post Tuesday, setting the January date for the overall return.

At Facebook, there is a very different story. Just one-fifth of 183 employees polled say they have come back in the past month. In public statements, Facebook is proud of being the first tech company to shut its U.S. offices nationwide, and continues to take a cautious approach to returning to the office, requiring vaccination and masks for all returning employees. “We continue to monitor the situation and work with experts to ensure our return to office plans prioritize everyone’s safety,” Chloe Meyere, a Facebook spokesperson, said in a statement to The Examiner.

Those are dramatic differences, says the Berkeley psychology professor, Levenson, who believes employees are likely to follow the guidance that companies provide. “We are social creatures. Whether or not we’re ready to go back is influenced by the models we see around us. Is someone welcoming us back, or warning us to be careful? Those testimonials are very powerful.”

Some employees also posted comments on Blind about the return to work. “I need to go back to office to have a proper demarcation of work life and home life,” wrote an Amazon employee. “But no one is working from office. It’s empty and depressing.” In the survey, 30% of Bay Area Amazon employees said they have returned to the office some time in the past month, roughly in the middle of the companies polled. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

In another question on the survey, Bay Area tech workers were asked, “Has your company postponed a return to on-site work due to the delta variant of COVID-19?” The responses were overwhelmingly “yes.” At half the companies, 70% or more of the employees said the delta variant postponed the return to the office. At Amazon, Apple and Facebook — all of which had more than 100 employees polled – the percentage saying the delta variant postponed a return to work exceeded 90%.

One key to a successful return, Levenson says, is flexibility. Introverts may have thrived working alone, and extroverts may be yearning for connection. Throwing everyone back into the old workplace model will not go smoothly, he says, and could drive two very different parts of the tech workforce even further apart.

“The core of tech is engineering, which demands concentration,” Levenson says. “The other side is marketing, which is inherently social.” There is a gulf between introverts and extroverts in the best of circumstances, he says. Those differences may be much more glaring as people return to the office.

Giving employees choices in how they return is “a really, really good idea,” he says. “Flexibility is important because returning will be a very different experience for different types of people.”

“It’s not simple, and it’s not over,” Levenson says. “We are going through something profoundly new. This was two years of our lives. It is an unprecedented social experiment.”

jelder@sfexaminer.com

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