When Google announced it wouldn’t bring employees back into the office until July 2021, the company wasn’t just betting on its own ability to do business with employees working remotely. Google, after all, is a provider of services that help other companies handle their own shifts to remote work. By committing to such an extended period of work from home, the company is putting its money where its mouth is, saying it trusts its own technology enough to do without the physical office for a long time. By next July, the company’s offices will have been vacant for nearly a year and a half.
We saw a related phenomenon last month, when New York City entered the phase of its reopening that allowed some workers at nonessential businesses to return to their offices. Few companies and workers have taken up the option: The Wall Street Journal reports that CBRE Group, a manager of office buildings, says just 9 percent of workers had returned to its properties in midtown Manhattan as of last week. But one of the industries that has been eager to get its employees back into the office is the office-building industry.
“We believe in work from work,” said Anthony Malkin, the CEO of the company that owns the Empire State Building, in an interview with the real-estate-news site The Real Deal. Brian Kingston, the CEO of Brookfield Property Partners, told The Wall Street Journal that “we felt it was really important, as the largest office landlord in the world, that we demonstrate leadership in returning to the office.” Malkin said he expected initially to have about a third of his company’s staff in the office; Kingston expected about a quarter — in each case, well above the average reported by CBRE.
Companies should think their products are good, and it makes sense that people who are in the work-from-work business are more gung ho about offices than people who are in the work-from-home business. It’s probably also the case that Google is especially good at adapting to work from home: My Google Hangouts experiences were less than seamless when, at a previous job, I worked on a team evenly split between New York and Washington, but Google teams already collaborate extensively over far-flung offices and the company has a strong competency in using its own products. Google employees probably hear their co-workers’ audio in virtual meetings more reliably than I could in those meetings a few years ago.
My general expectation is that COVID will change our society less than people expect in the long run. I expect businesses to mostly return, when it is safe, to the practices that were working for them before. After all, they had adopted those practices for a reason. I do think the pandemic will accelerate certain trends that were already under way, such as the shift from in-person retail to online retail. But two countervailing trends are implicated when we think about Google’s office choices: remote work facilitated by technology, and lush office environments for workers at prestigious firms.
It is interesting that the technology firms that seem unusually suited to heavy shifts toward remote work — in Facebook’s case, already planning on a large and permanent shift toward remote work — are also firms that have invested unusually heavily over the last decade in improving the office environment. Google’s offices, while not a customer-facing product, are a defining aspect of its employee experience. They are heavily amenitized, with comfortable lounge spaces and free meals, designed to encourage employees to come work at the office and see their co-workers.
What this says to me is that, for all its facility with video-meeting technology, Google’s pre-pandemic view was that offices are good and useful and worth spending a lot of money on. Even if competency at remote work makes it fine for any employee to work from home on any given day, in the long run, in-person interactions are important for developing rapport among co-workers, fostering collaboration, and training and integrating new employees into the existing organization. Offices are an important tool for fostering such interactions, and the longer the pandemic goes on, the more acutely the loss of those interactions is likely to be felt at Google and other companies. So when it’s safe to get back into the office, I expect even high-tech firms like Google to do so enthusiastically.