Americans might never come back to the office, and Twitter is leading the charge.

Twitter’s plans for work from home indefinitely have prompted a wave of copycats. But its transformation has been two years in the making — and the rest of America can learn some lessons.
The deserted cafeteria of the Twitter building in San Francisco in May.

From his home base on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, Anton Andryeyev is running Twitter’s efforts to chase Russian bots and other rogue actors off the platform. A year ago, he traded his office in the company’s San Francisco headquarters for this tropical home office 2,000 miles away, surrounded by stand-up paddle boards and a monitor large enough to see his entire 25-person engineering team all at once.

Andryeyev’s remote office represents a sweeping experiment in the future of work: allowing white-collar workers to work from anywhere, forever.

Corporate America has long been defined by physical offices. But in a few short weeks, the pandemic upended that as thousands of companies mandated that their employees work from home. What many thought would be a temporary workaround is now a mass experiment with no end in sight, as many companies await a vaccine or other developments to ensure workers’ safety.

While many companies are anxious about the new reality, fearful of reopening and worried about the loss of workplace connection, some employers have embraced it — even going so far as making remote work permanent. Outdoor apparel company REI, Facebook and Ottawa-based Shopify have all announced some measures making work from home the new norm.

Twitter, the first major U.S. company to make a public announcement in May about its permanent work-from-home plans, has a big head start in identifying the pitfalls and advantages of work from home.

For the last two years, Twitter has been quietly dismantling its office culture, making changes that resulted in blessing employees like Andryeyev who asked to relocate — whether it was Hawaii, rural Ireland or back home in a cheaper state. However complicated, the official policy on employee relocation requests was “get to yes.” The effort began with an off-the-cuff email in 2018 by chief executive Jack Dorsey in which he encouraged employees to work from home after a productive day doing so himself.

Twitter has been experimenting with building ways to better support Dorsey’s vision ever since, sending people in the same building to different rooms to test out virtual meetings, creating sign language systems and other rules for video conference etiquette, and preparing for a future when the company anticipates half of its employees will permanently work from home. (Prior to the pandemic, it was only 3 percent.)

“We’ve already been on this path, and the crisis just catapulted us into a future state,” said Twitter human resources chief Jennifer Christie, who said she believes flexibility for workers is the “fourth industrial revolution" because it will fundamentally change the way people work. “The future of work is offering employees more optionality.”

The company's San Francisco offices, empty in May.
Empty seats in Twitter's San Francisco offices.
A deserted desk at the San Francisco building.
TOP: The company's San Francisco offices, empty in May. BOTTOM LEFT: Empty seats in Twitter's San Francisco offices. BOTTOM RIGHT: A deserted desk at the San Francisco building.

Twitter’s decision to allow its 5,200 primarily San Francisco-based employees to decide where they want to work has major implications for everything from its real estate and salaries to workplace culture writ large. The company could potentially usher in a new model for attracting and retaining talent based on worker-centric values of flexibility, autonomy and satisfaction.

Just this month, the company said it was subleasing three floors of its art deco office building in San Francisco. (The company says it plans to keep all its real estate worldwide and two of the three floors were already subleased.)

But the decisions led by Twitter and followed by other companies could just as soon herald the end of an era when great ideas at work were born out of daily in-person interactions — a hallmark of Silicon Valley thinking. Apple founder Steve Jobs described it as the creativity that comes from serendipitous run-ins with colleagues, telling his biographer that “creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.” The ideas for Facebook and Google were generated in a college dorm room and a garage near Stanford University, while Dorsey has said he came up with the idea for the short-form micro-blogging service while hanging out with his co-founders in San Francisco’s South Park.

The result could be less innovative, more checked-out workers and empty tech hubs free of lunch-hour buzz.

Just six months after the coronavirus outbreak led thousands of companies to mandate that their employees work from home, 35 percent of the full-time U.S. labor force is still working remotely, compared to 2 percent prior to the pandemic, according to an August survey of 2,500 professionals by Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economics professor who specializes in distributed employment.

While accelerated by the pandemic, Twitter executives in exclusive interviews explained that the company’s shift to distributed work is ultimately about creating a model that gives employees more autonomy and freedom, which they believe improves morale, retention and productivity. The policy, which is now one of four official company goals, also gives Twitter greater ability to hire diverse and more affordable employees from all parts of the country.

“Our concentration in San Francisco isn’t serving us anymore,” Dorsey told investors in February.

The company has had its share of challenges. Some Twitter employees are struggling with scheduling across time zones, and executives had to formally cut down on video meetings, which spiked as people went home during the pandemic, to avoid Zoom fatigue, executives and employees said in interviews. They had to rethink their performance review system so it wouldn’t be biased against remote workers when people return to the office. Others said it was harder for employees to log on remotely during a recent major hack of the company’s systems, in which high-profile accounts like former president Barack Obama’s were taken over.

The biggest challenge, Mike Montano, the company’s vice president for engineering, said, is “the need to create space for social connection” that isn’t forced. Montano has been tweeting photos of his home office in San Francisco in hopes of inspiring others. He said you want to re-create “a water cooler effect,” a serendipity that lets people build connections that “aren’t transactional.”

He plans to stay largely remote after the pandemic, coming into the office occasionally and spending longer stretches of time with family outside California.

Twitter has decided to allow its 5,200 primarily San Francisco-based employees to decide where they want to work.

Two years in the making

When Twitter chose its current headquarters in 2012, a sprawling Depression-era art deco building that had fallen into disuse, the move was hailed as a victory for San Francisco. The city gave Twitter a 1.5 percent cut off its payroll taxes to move into offices near the Tenderloin, a struggling neighborhood 10 minutes from downtown.

At the opening night party for the new headquarters, Dorsey drank smoothie shots with staff on the rooftop deck overlooking the homeless encampments below. “Gorgeous,” Dorsey tweeted that night.

For the next five years, thousands of Twitter engineers, product managers, designers, lawyers, and human resources professionals would stream into the headquarters each day, enjoying perks like daily catered lunches and corn hole boards.

Then in January 2018, Dorsey, who is known as a freewheeling thinker, fired off a late-night email that took everyone by surprise — even the company’s own head of human resources. The email was originally written for his inner circle of senior executives, but he then unexpectedly forwarded it to the whole company. The subject line was “reflection."

“I decided to work from home today,” he wrote. “I got a lot done, and felt more focused and creative. We should always optimize for where people feel their most creative, and I’d love to see us be a lot more flexible about working from home.”

As long as people were setting the right expectations with their colleagues and getting their work done, it was “all good,” Dorsey wrote.

Christie said her jaw dropped when she read the email, which appeared to be announcing a work-from-home policy she wasn’t aware of.

She thought her mission, when she was hired in late 2017, was to improve retention, which was lagging because the social network had yet to become profitable six years after its public offering. At the time, Silicon Valley companies were competing for talent by offering some mix of massive salaries, the promise of contributing to a world-changing start-up and one-upping one another on office perks, like lavender lemonade and latte bars. Twitter had the latte bars, but it no longer had the allure of a start-up and couldn’t offer the salaries of Facebook or Google.

Twitter chose its current headquarters, which includes a patio, in 2012.
Inside Twitter's vacated San Francisco offices.
Inside Twitter's vacated San Francisco offices.
TOP: Twitter chose its current headquarters, which includes a patio, in 2012. BOTTOM LEFT: Inside Twitter's vacated San Francisco offices. BOTTOM RIGHT: Inside Twitter's vacated San Francisco offices.

Christie said her team was inundated with emails from confused employees asking what Dorsey meant. Because they didn’t quite know, the team began to craft a plan to make working remotely much easier for all Twitter employees.

They surveyed the implications of various employee moves from legal, tax, IT and security, real estate and immigration perspectives. They looked into the tax consequences for workers who wanted to move to countries where Twitter wasn’t authorized to operate. The security team began creating protocols for large numbers of people logging into company systems outside of headquarters.

Early on, the company’s most senior executives realized the tone was going to be set from the top, so they started to model new behavior. In December 2019, Dorsey tweeted his own plans to move to Africa for three to six months in 2020 (though his plans have been set back by the pandemic). Two senior executives, Leslie Berland and Matt Derella, who were hired in New York City, were not asked to move to San Francisco.

Montano used 2019 as a virtual experiment. He started working from home one to two days a week, overseeing a team of 2,000 people from his home office in San Francisco. He and other senior leaders also used the year to visit all of Twitter’s 35 offices around the world. He worked from New York last fall.

“In order to build a distributed team and decentralized company, I had to build empathy for what it was like not working from what people call ‘the headquarters,’” he said, noting the company is already abandoning the term in favor of “SF Market.”

He explained that in the office, he gets “pulled into the Tetris of meeting after meeting.” Many engineers are introverts like himself who have their best thoughts when they are alone and able to work uninterrupted, he said.

To test out the experience of regular video-conferencing, Montano had team members video-conference via Google Hangouts one another from different rooms inside Twitter’s headquarters.

Other teams collaborated on video conference etiquette, coming up with a manual of hand gestures and other protocols that could be used to signal when someone wants to pipe up in a meeting or needs to leave early. One protocol the engineers have established is the “silent read,” in which every meeting starts with people reading a common document and putting their comments into a chat system alongside it. Another is the HR team’s agreement to write the acronym ELMO — “Enough! Let’s move on” — into a chat system when meetings veer off topic.

Twitter also established a policy of radical honesty when it came to virtual communication.

“Even if it seems like a very tiny thing, like [your colleague’s] chair is squeaking and it’s driving you insane, we want to hear about that. Because if you encounter it a thousands times, it’s going to really wear on you," Andryeyev, the engineering manager in Hawaii, said. He moved a few months before the pandemic because he wanted to live in a peaceful place with more socioeconomic diversity.

The foyer of Twitter headquarters in San Francisco.

Pandemic challenges

Since Dorsey’s 2018 announcement, things have also been messy. The WiFi of an employee who moved to rural Ireland conked out during an important presentation, forcing her to answer colleagues’ questions using hand gestures. A manager delivered a harsh performance review without realizing the worker’s spouse was in the background.

But all the preparation meant that when the pandemic came, Twitter was more ready than other companies. It sent a note encouraging employees to work from home March 2, one of the first companies in the United States to do so during the pandemic.

On May 12, Dorsey sent a companywide email, signed with a heart emoji, with the subject line “#lovewhereyouwork.” “We’re serious about a distributed workforce, and we’ve proved we can make it work,” he wrote. “If you’re in a role and situation that enables you to work from home and you want to continue, do so…forever if you want!."

Across corporate America, Twitter’s announcement “sent HR departments scrambling,” said Susan Strayer LaMotte, a former Marriott executive and chief executive of Exaqueo, a human resources consulting company. “They are talking to their lawyers, talking to their consultants, asking, ‘Should we do this? Can we do this? How?’ ”

Soon after the announcement, Christie’s team had already devised a policy to suspend performance reviews for the year based on feedback from struggling parents. It was also ready to offer financial compensation for child care and $1,000 for home workspace upgrades.

They came up with creative ways to help people socialize remotely during the pandemic, such as virtual cooking demos from colleagues and “story time” with workers’ kids. But many people say building relationships without in-person encounters is still hard, particularly for new employees.

The biggest test of remote functioning was a major hack that hit the company this summer. Hackers who obtained access to internal employee credentials took over the accounts of dozens of celebrities, including Obama and Tesla chief executive Elon Musk, and used them to encourage people to buy bitcoin. Twitter employees were automatically signed out of their accounts, and some struggled to get back in to communicate with their colleagues, according to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on record.

The company says that during the hack, the difference between being in the office and at home was negligible.

But overall, employees say they feel more productive at home, according to the latest company survey in July. Nearly 70 percent of Twitter employees said in the survey that they want to continue working from home at least three days a week. Still, single and younger employees showed a preference for coming back to the office, while parents and older workers said they prefer to work from home.

A company survey in July found that nearly 70 percent of Twitter employees wanted to continue working from home at least three days a week.
Despite vacating offices, Twitter says it plans to keep all its office space globally for the time being.
LEFT: A company survey in July found that nearly 70 percent of Twitter employees wanted to continue working from home at least three days a week. RIGHT: Despite vacating offices, Twitter says it plans to keep all its office space globally for the time being.

Twitter insists the decision is not about saving money, and the company says it plans to keep all its office space globally for the time being. But the company will probably save money from hiring outside of San Francisco, which commands some of the highest worker salaries in the United States. Twitter says its wages will be competitive for the localities where they hire.

Dorsey, meanwhile, is working from his home in San Francisco but has gotten around. He was recently photographed on a boat in the Hamptons with Beyoncé.

“Right now, no one is in the office and we’re not missing out,” said an employee who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “But FOMO starts to happen when people come back to work, and it will be harder to stay out of the office.”

Christie said the company’s attrition rate is down double digits since 2017, which she attributes to a variety of factors including overhauled compensation packages, the company’s profitability and, to a lesser degree, its flexible approach to relocation.

But a number of companies, including Yahoo, Bank of America, Aetna, Best Buy and IBM, have tried and ended telecommuting programs and called employees back to the office in recent years, citing lower productivity. Stanford’s Bloom said it was hard to isolate work from home as a cause of lower productivity as opposed to other morale challenges.

Matt Mullenweg, chief executive of WordPress’s parent company and a longtime proponent of distributed work, said attrition dropped 20 percent and morale went up for his 1,200 employees after his company abandoned San Francisco and became a “distributed" firm in 2005.

Simon Sinek, author of several books on management, said many people “grossly misunderstand” what he described as Twitter’s “progressive" approach. “Their policy isn’t working from home. It’s letting people work where they feel most productive,” he said. “They don’t need to ask permission. They don’t need to feel guilty.”

For years, he said, companies, led by Silicon Valley, have been obsessed with superficial perks. But Twitter is doing something that is more meaningful. Instead of perks or other superficial tactics, he said, “You are now competing on satisfaction.”

Twitter headquarters in San Francisco.
About this story

Photos by Winni Wintermeyer for the Washington Post. Photo editing by Annaliese Nurnberg. Design by Audrey Valbuena.

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