The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Big Tech was first to send workers home. Now it’s in no rush to bring them back.

Tech giants aren’t looking to politicians to set timetables to reopen their offices, telling most staff to work from home at least until next year.

Google and Facebook have told most employees to keep working from home for the rest of 2020 as part of a response by the tech giants to the deadly coronavirus pandemic. (Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP/Getty Images)

Tech’s titans set the agenda for U.S. employers in early March, sending staff to work from home as the coronavirus started to spread near their West Coast headquarters.

And despite pressure from the president and other politicians to begin to reopen society to resuscitate a moribund economy, those same giants — Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and Twitter — will likely be among the last large employers to reopen their office doors and welcome staff back.

Google and Facebook told employees that many workers who can do their jobs remotely should plan to do so until 2021. Amazon said its headquarters employees will stay home at least until October. Microsoft told staff Monday that working from home remains optional through October for most employees, though the company will allow some workers to voluntarily return to their offices in stages.

And Twitter decided to give up on timelines altogether — telling most employees they can just work from home forever.

Microsoft expects to bring back employees “more slowly rather than more quickly because, economically, we can serve the economy with more remote work than people in many industries can,” president Brad Smith said in an interview.

It’s a matter of social responsibility, Smith said.

“What we recognize is that economies are going to need to be opened gradually by turning a dial rather than flipping a switch,” Smith said. “And as economies do that, I think we have a responsibility not only to adhere to the public health guidelines, but to be slower than others in bringing people back simply because we can.”

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The declarations are a big shift for an industry that has for decades prided itself on work environments with communal cafeterias, volleyball courts and open office plans — all design features meant to foster collaboration and make long hours more bearable.

Those perks have also served as popular recruiting tools for the tech giants, helping them hire hundreds of thousands of employees across the West Coast. And benefits like free food, virtual golf and napping pods help the firms retain valued engineers, project managers and more, providing campuses designed to discourage workers from joining rivals.

That has helped propel Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google owner Alphabet and Facebook to become the five most valuable companies in the world, collectively employing nearly 1.3 million workers. As their strong quarterly results showed last month, the tech giants have the financial wherewithal to ride out the pandemic, even as some of them lose sales and advertising dollars in the economic downturn.

Their financial might also lays bare the fissure in corporate America between the haves and have nots. Companies such as airlines, hotel chains and oil firms are struggling to remain afloat as the global economy sputters. Even in tech, some companies such as ride-share services Uber and Lyft, travel sites Expedia and TripAdvisor, and homestay provider Airbnb face massive challenges in the coronavirus era.

Even the big five tech firms haven’t been able to keep all their workers at home. Amazon has continued to require warehouse staff during the pandemic, and faced backlash over accusations of dangerous working conditions. Facebook is offering financial incentives to lure content moderators back to the office, because many of the jobs can’t be done remotely.

One big exception to the extended work-from-home timeline among tech giants appears to be Apple, a company that has already been hard hit by the pandemic and was forced to temporarily slow manufacturing in China and shutter its retail stores in the U.S. — though both are reopening now. Apple declined to comment on its plans to bring workers back to the office. Bloomberg News reported that the company plans to start bringing workers back in phases starting this month.

But the pandemic has also forced much of Big Tech to face what many individual teams within the companies have known for years: Much of their work can be done remotely and remote workers often are just as productive, at least in the short term.

With that reality and safety issues top of mind, many experts expect the companies’ extended work-from-home timelines to set a similar agenda for smaller tech firms and outside industries. Other businesses have long followed in tech’s trendsetting footsteps.

“They’ve had a ripple effect on how other industries and sectors understand what a white collar workplace should look like if you want to attract the best talent,” said Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at University of Washington and the author of “The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America,” a chronicle of the tech industry.

Tech companies are particularly well-suited to allow remote work, since many tasks require computers and little else.

See what working from home has done to San Francisco

Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent an email to employees last week, telling them that the “ramp back to the office will be slow, deliberate and incremental.” With a few exceptions, most Google employees will work from home full time for the foreseeable future, “potentially” until next year, he said.

Facebook spokeswoman Pamela Austin said the company told employees its offices wouldn’t open until July 6 at the earliest, and even then employees who could work from home can choose to do so until the end of the year.

“We found that we can sustain productivity to a very high degree with people working from home,” Microsoft’s Smith said.

Those decisions also may be helping stave off outbreaks. In Silicon Valley, early decisions by Twitter, Google and Facebook to send home their employees even before government stay-at-home orders were enacted likely helped slow the coronavirus spread in the Bay Area, said George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at University of California at San Francisco.

Northern California mostly started its shelter-in-place practices three days before Southern California, and even a short amount of time can make a big difference in the pandemic, he said. Los Angeles County announced this week that its stay-at-home orders would likely stay in place for the next three months.

“For whatever reason, the message sunk in earlier [in Northern California] and the employers pushed it along quite a bit,” Rutherford said. When it comes to tech, “If the economy can run with them from home, that’s great.”

Social distancing works. The earlier the better, California and Washington data show.

In Seattle, too, early decisions by tech giants to send workers home in March sparked a larger move by downtown employers toward remote work. That exodus helped tamp down the virus spread in Seattle, which never experienced the spikes in cases that flooded hospitals in other cities.

“It was absolutely critical,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said. “To make the decision early on to have people telecommute was the first important step of breaking the back of the virus and flattening the curve.”

All the protesting and political wrangling over reopening businesses won’t likely matter when it comes to corporate decision-making on bringing employees back to their desks, Durkan said. The region’s tech giants aren’t racing to bring workers back, and that, too, will guide many of the city’s other employers.

“No company is going to want to put their workforces in a position where they’re suddenly having many people get sick, hospitalized or die as a result of them working,” Durkan said. “The virus is going to determine who comes back when, and people are going to be watching very carefully.”

The tech giants also stand in stark contrast to another tech luminary, Elon Musk, who is clamoring to bring Tesla’s manufacturing workforce back. Musk reopened the company’s Bay Area factory this week against California official’s orders, daring them to arrest him.

For the most part, tech companies aren’t going to be swayed by the political winds blowing to reopen society after a painful two months of economic stagnation. And in the short term, working from home might even save companies some money.

The pause in business travel will likely lead to “hundreds of millions” in savings for Microsoft per quarter, Stifel Nicolaus analyst Brad Reback said. While the company will likely generate some savings from dialing back its energy use in offices and not needing to spend as much maintaining facilities that aren’t being used, those costs are relatively negligible, Reback said.

Still, not everyone can work from home. Amazon has faced a firestorm of criticism as employees at dozens of its warehouses have tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Workers and U.S. senators have pushed Amazon to improve policies for paid time off for employees who feel sick, as well as the temporary closure of warehouses for cleaning where staff test positive. Amazon has added several new procedures to protect staff, including giving warehouse workers face masks, as well as checking their temperatures at the start of shifts and sending workers home for three days if they register 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle, though, has been largely empty, as its technical employees work from home. The company expects that to be the case until at least Oct. 2, company spokeswoman Jaci Anderson said in a statement.

“We are working hard and investing significant funds to keep those who choose to come to the office safe through physical distancing, deep cleaning, temperature checks, and the availability of face coverings and hand sanitizer,” Anderson said.

Facebook and Google also faced pressure to extend their work-from-home benefits to the legions of white-collar contractors who work for the companies. Both companies said contractors would still be paid even if they couldn’t work, though confusion persisted for some contractors.

Facebook has asked its content moderators to come back to work on a voluntary basis. Those who have volunteered have been incentivized with additional pay, contractors say.

Silicon Valley’s two-tiered system for white-collar workers is under pressure as coronavirus spreads

Even after the pandemic, many expect companies to be more flexible about allowing people to work from home or from the office. Brianne Kimmel, a venture capitalist in San Francisco, is already seeing companies put more flexibility in place.

She held a call with 25 human resource heads for tech companies last week, and found many of them were planning for people to work remotely at least part time after the pandemic. Those companies are already finding ways to transfer their perks to a work-from-home world, including by giving people money to upgrade their home offices or even buy coffee.

Speed up your Internet connection and eliminate wireless ‘dead zones’ while you’re stuck at home. (Video: The Washington Post)

“This whole mind-set of ‘campus’ is going away,” she said. “If anything, companies can reduce real estate costs.”

That change might be less dramatic for the big tech companies, many of which have long-term leases on huge office parks. In time, employees likely will return to the huge Silicon Valley campuses — first, perhaps, with the cafeterias and common areas limited — and return to a sort-of normal, even if it comes with more remote work.

While this time has proven that workers can be productive from home, said Andrew Hargadon, professor of technology management at the University of California at Davis, there’s still value in being together in person, he said. Those accidental interactions in elevators and cafeterias or when grabbing coffee can still spark ideas.

As the world adjusts to a longer work-from-home reality, Austin tech worker Adam Singer is all ready. Singer, the chief marketing officer for private equity firm Think3, said when he and his wife moved from San Francisco to Austin late last year, he took time to find a job that specifically encouraged flexible remote work.

“Instead of asking ‘are you here in the office?' they’re measuring productivity outputs,” he said.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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