A Return to the Office (RTO) Wave?

Originally published on 8 December 2022.

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On Thursday, 29 November, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, sent an email announcing Snap will mandate 4 days/week in the office, starting from January. He wrote:

“I’ll never forget the day in 2020 when we closed our offices and began to “Win from Home” (...) We’re a global company, with more than 30 offices, and our team will always be distributed - but today we are sharing a change we are making to how we work as a company. I believe that spending more time together will help us (...) Starting February 27th 2023, we are adopting a “default together” model where team members are expected to spend (...) an average of 4+ days/week of their time in office.”

Since 2020, Snap has been “default remote” and hired lots of people not within commuting distance of its offices. Such a U-turn in approach is a notable change and I can’t help but wonder if this is a deliberate bid to further downsize its staff.

Snap did introduce a process for asking for an exception for RTO, and people in three groups can apply for this:

  1. People with overly long commutes to an office (more than 1 hour, on way)
  2. People hired in cities without a Snap office
  3. People who need medical accommodations

Snap's leadership asked people to submit exceptions by end of week - 9 December - and said they will decide on exceptions by the end of 2022. According to internal chatter, about 30% of software engineers have asked for an exception, and managers are still unsure how many of the exceptions will be approved.

As a reminder, in May 2022 Snap announced a hiring slowdown, laid off 20% of staff in August, shut offices like Zenly’s office in Paris, and posted a net loss of $359M in Q3 2022 - four times more than in 2021, while revenue only increased by 6% year-on-year. In other words, the company needs either a sharp growth in revenue, or more reduction of costs. And a forced return-to-office is sure to result in voluntary resignations, especially among people unable or unwilling to spend almost every day in the office.

Six months ago, Big Tech attempted to get people back in the office. In March in The Scoop #5, I covered RTO announcements:

“Microsoft kicked off the return to the office announcements on 14 February, giving employees 30 days to return to the office in their Redmond headquarters. Google joined in on 2nd March, informing staff that starting 4 April, employees will be expected to be in the office three days per week in some US, UK and APAC offices. Apple joined in on 4th March. Tim Cook sent an email to Apple employees informing them that starting 11 April, returning to the office will be mandatory for 3 days per week.”

However, shortly after the announcements, all companies delayed the deadlines for returning to the office. In the end, it was Apple where people returned to the office in a staged fashion, working 3 days/week by September.

It feels to me that a new RTO wave is starting. I’ve been talking with software engineers and managers at a variety of companies which have all mandated returning to the office during the past weeks. Here are some of them.

Twitter: 5 days/week, effective immediately. Following Elon Musk taking over the company, the full-remote culture has ended and employees are expected to work from the office. They are expected to work through the holidays in December, while in the San Francisco headquarters the company has converted office rooms into bedrooms so employees can sleep at work. Here is a recap of the strange events at Twitter during the past few weeks.

Twitter does have a process to ask for exceptions from RTO. On 9 November 2022, Elon Musk made this gap really narrow, though. As I covered earlier in Cruel changes at Twitter:

“Twitter is getting rid of remote work, instructing employees to immediately return to the office. Elon Musk sent out his first email to all staff at Twitter just before midnight PST, on Wednesday. The email has the subject “Difficult times ahead”, painted a dire picture of Twitter’s economic prospects and said that Twitter will not survive the upcoming economic downturn without subscription revenue becoming roughly half the company’s revenue.  

The email closed by saying that starting on Thursday 10 November, everyone would be required to be in the office for 40 hours per week. The only exceptions are people who are physically unable to travel to an office, and exceptions that Musk personally approves.”

Since then, Musk has relaxed the conditions for remote work slightly, for software engineers. Now, engineering managers can approve their direct report to work remotely. However, when doing so, it was made clear the manager is personally responsible for the performance of their direct, and could lose their job if the person does not perform well working remotely.

For anyone wanting to maximise job safety, the safest bet at Twitter is still to work from the office, five days a week.

DAZN: 5 days/week, effective immediately. DAZN is the “Netflix for sports.” Here, the CEO sent an email on Friday, 2 December, mandating to spend 5 days/week in the office as of Monday, 4 December. He allowed until the end of January to resolve location issues which render employees physically unable to go to the office.

I talked with engineering managers at the company who told me they see this as a move to force people to resign, and thereby do cost cutting without having to pay severance. DAZN has hired people who live 3-5 hours drive away from the nearest office, and it is impossible for them to commute every day. An engineering manager shared the company was looking to downsize in the UK already, so this move will likely achieve that goal.

Guidewire software: 4 days/week. Guidewire builds an insurance software platform, employs about 4,000 people and is headquartered in California. It announced the policy of 4 days/week in the office, with leadership telling staff they want to see more human interactions, and that they don’t see the company succeeding as a remote entity.

A public US tech company: 3 days/week, and tracking employee work location. At a publicly traded tech company valued at $20B – which I’ve been asked by the manager I talked with to not name – the guidance is for people to spend 3 days/week in the office.

Recently, engineering managers were given a tool where they see a dashboard showing which location their people worked at, on a particular day. This dashboard likely uses WiFi data to determine the physical location, and was distributed so managers can get automated reporting on people’s work location to enforce the 3 days/week policy.

Google: 3 days/week, and more people following the guidance. Google is an interesting place. In theory, people should be working 3 days/week from the office, but software engineers told me most people ignored this guidance. Until recently, most offices were empty.

However, an engineer told me how some teams have had their director and manager press the issue by asking them to come in for 3 days/week. I’m also told that fear of potential layoffs are prompting more people to go to the office proactively – especially if their manager is in.

Datadog: 3 days/week. From November 2022, new starters are no longer offered remote positions, and are expected to work in the office. As of recently, the company expects all staff not on a remote contract to spend 3 days/week in the office. The company’s main offices are in New York and Paris, with smaller offices across Europe and the US.

Remote roles are exempt from the return to the office and Datadog still hires full-remote roles for senior+ engineering positions.

Bloomberg: 3 days/week. In New York, financial software and data company Bloomberg has had guidance to spend 3 days/week in the office. However, they left individual decisions up to managers, who didn’t enforce this. In October 2022, the company instructed teams to choose 2 “shared in-person days,” when everyone on the team is in the office, with the third day left for people to decide.

I talked with a software engineer who feels that Bloomberg is relaxed about the policy. This person did not come into the office for 3 days/week, but hasn’t been notified that this is a problem.

Salesforce: 3 days/week. During a company all-hands meeting this week, leadership announced their intention to increase the amount of time in office, from 1 day/week to 3 days/week.

There currently is no hard requirement to meet this target, but I hear that people feel pressured to come in 2-3 days/week. Commuting is especially a problem for those who live far away from their workplace and have to drive 2 hours or more.

Visa: 3 days/week, with badge tracking. The financial services company has mandated:

  • US: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday
  • Europe and a few other locations: Tuesday to Thursday.

The remaining two days of the week are work from home. Until now, this was not enforced, but automated tracking of badges starts in January.

So, are we seeing the start of a Return to the Office wave? It definitely feels like it. A surprisingly large number of companies have announced a RTO policy this week or last week, often starting from January or February, next year. However, I see a few differences in companies’ approaches and motivations:

  1. Seeking to encourage voluntary attrition. Snap and DAZN both announced forced returns to the office, with 4 or 5 days/week. These companies previously hired people who don’t live within commuting distance of their workplaces. And both businesses are making losses. Connecting the dots, forced RTOs look likely to serve as layoffs without being called as such. As a bonus, the companies will see remaining staff return to the office.
  2. Putting a hybrid working model in place was always the goal. Companies like Apple, Google, Visa, Lego, Bloomberg and Salesforce never said they were going full-remote. Pre-pandemic, they had most employees working 5 days/week. Following this black swan event, the new approach is 3 days/week from the office, and 2 WFH.
  3. Formerly committed to remote work, and no backtracking. Robinhood and Mailchimp each previously committed to being remote-first companies. With Mailchimp, its new owner Intuit will most likely change this policy. For Robinhood, all the fanfare of announcing a commitment to remote first looks likely to add up to nothing more than a U-turn on this decision.

Make no mistake, plenty of companies are staying remote-first. I’m especially seeing startups sticking with their remote-first policies, where the founders are committed to this pattern and find it works for them.

I expect to see more tech companies mandate a 3 days/week return to office. Businesses which will most likely do this are those like those in this article: large tech companies with hundreds or thousands of employees and office space they intend to make use of. These are companies which had people working at the office before the pandemic, and didn’t decide to adopt full-remote, beyond when necessary during lockdowns.

I would expect to see fewer companies do the same as Twitter and DAZN, of mandating 5 days at the office and withdrawing all flexibility from employees.

Looking ahead, I can see tech companies operating in four distinct clusters, based on work style:

  1. Hybrid: ~3 days/week from the office.
  2. Remote-first: most people work remotely, with some option to work in an office or a shared workplace.
  3. Office-only: 5 days/week in the office.
  4. Full remote: everyone works remotely, and the company has no offices.

I expect to see lots of movement in companies changing their stance on remote work in the coming months; it’ll be interesting to track developments.

This was partway one of five topics covered in this week’s The Scoop. A lot of what I share in The Scoop is exclusive to this publication, meaning it’s not been covered in any other media outlet before and you’re the first to read about it.

The full The Scoop edition additionally covers:

  1. More details on RTO. What's happening at Proton, Lego Group, Sky (UK), Swisscom, Wayfair, Carvana, Mailchimp, Robinhood and Pinterest.
  2. Amazon’s layoffs, a hiring freeze, and rescinded offers. Uncertainty and anxiety inside the tech giant, where rolling layoffs are ongoing and offers are being rescinded. I talked with engineering managers to gather their viewpoints and opinions. Also, some good news about oncall changes inside an Amazon org. Exclusive.
  3. Uncertainty at Google. Support Check-Ins are the talk of staff at the company, as people who received one try to work out how bad their situation is. I talked with engineering managers at Google to get a sense of what’s happening, and why no one’s talking about the elephant in the room: potential layoffs. Exclusive.
  4. Budget cuts at Spotify. While the music streaming giant has not done layoffs, it is curbing costs. I talked with a software engineer to discover how staff are taking the changes. Exclusive.
  5. More than 1,300 companies hiring. An updated list of who’s hiring software engineers and engineering managers.

Read it here or sign up to The Pragmatic Engineer.

Updates to this article: on 9 December, added more details on Snap’s RTO and the process of asking for exceptions. Also added details on Twitter’s RTO exception policy.

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