Bad examples often come from above. In early August, Meta (formerly Facebook) director of international affairs Nick Clegg announced that he was moving to London. Not surprising for a British citizen who was David Cameron’s deputy prime minister from 2010 to 2015 and who must get close to European regulators.
But the decision by this member of Mark Zuckerberg’s inner circle is unlikely to solve an urgent problem: Meta has had the most difficulty bringing its teams back into the fold. Located in Menlo Park on the edge of San Francisco Bay’s wetlands, Meta’s headquarters is a sort of half-mile hangar next to grungy Expertly designed by architect Frank Gehry. No one really knows how many Meta employees are reluctant to return. But it is beginning to have an effect.
Of course, government policies seek to perpetuate calm attitude. In Meta, an encyclical dated March 28 states that workers can choose to work wherever they want. The same is true elsewhere in Big Tech. In a context of talent shortages and “great resignations,” no one can be the low bidder.
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The reality is more brutal. Meta workers expect quarterly performance reviews to be more pressing after Mark Zuckerberg’s cryptic phrase that, “Actually, there are a lot of people who aren’t here.” In a more diplomatic style, Google CEO Sundar Pichai urged his employees to “show more entrepreneurial” spirit, urgency and sense of priority, adding that they must “be hungrier” today than on a better day.
“at least 40 hours a week in the office”
What is happening to justify such violent social coercion? Tech companies are starting to measure the productivity loss of their teams: Turnover and gross margin per employee are down almost everywhere. Leaders therefore believe that workplace presence is inseparable from business performance. This translates to the posture of Tesla and SpaceX, where the language is more direct. In a June 1 email, Elon Musk launched an attack against WFH (work from home or telecommuting). He clearly has nothing against it, but “everyone spends at least 40 hours a week in the office (…). Those who refuse should leave Tesla”.
At Tesla and SpaceX, the question of managerial example is not even discussed: “The higher your function, the more visible your presence. That’s why I spend so much time in the factory, the people who are working see me next to them. If I Without it, SpaceX would have gone bankrupt long ago.” Problem: It’s managers who are often most reluctant to return. And for good reason, they are the ones with the best working conditions at home. In Meta, in addition to Nick Clegg, Instagram boss Adam Mosseri is often known to work from Hawaii, Los Angeles or even Cape Cod on the East Coast.
Statistics compiled by Castle, a company that specializes in access devices at corporate headquarters, are unequivocal: Office occupancy rates in the US, across all occupations combined, have fallen from nearly 100% in March 2020 to 44% today, and it’s even lower, Castle says, when public sports meetings are held. For stadiums are 95% back, 90% of restaurants and airport security services are operating at 88% of their previous levels. And, the firm also notes, the more senior an executive holds or the more graduated he is, the more likely he is to work at home. This gives an office occupancy rate of 37% in a city like San Francisco
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At Salesforce or Oracle, which employs lots of sales people and has a well-oiled machine, performance hasn’t suffered. But in contrast to companies that struggle to innovate, creativity, collective intelligence, collaboration, informal exchange, and silence are essential to competitiveness. Despite its undeniable benefits for quality of life and the environment, telework has destroyed it, and companies are struggling to reverse the trend.
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