Companies offer shows, food trucks and attractions for staff to return to the office

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Companies offer shows, food trucks and attractions for staff to return to the office

When Google employees returned to their nearly empty offices this month, they were told to relax. Office time should be “not only productive, but fun.” Explore the place a little. Do not schedule consecutive meetings. Also, don’t miss a private show by Lizzo, one of the hottest pop stars in the country.

If that wasn’t enough, the company is also planning “pop-up events” that will feature “every Googler’s favorite duo: food and goodies.” But Google employees in Boulder, Colorado, were still reminded of what they were missing out on when the company gave them mouse pads with an image of a sad-eyed cat. Underneath the pussy was a plea: “You’re not going RTO, right?”

RTO, an acronym for “return to the office”, is an abbreviation born of the pandemic. It is an acknowledgment of how Covid-19 has forced many companies to abandon empty office buildings and cubicles. The pandemic has proven that being in the office doesn’t necessarily mean greater productivity, and some companies continue to thrive without face-to-face meetings.

Now, after two years of video conferencing and chatting on Slack, many companies are eager to bring employees back to their desks. However, they may not be so eager for a return to morning commutes, community restrooms and non-sport clothing.

So tech companies with cash to burn and offices to fill are embracing a range of attractions, while making it clear that in many cases, going to the office is mandatory at least a few days a week.

Lizzo will perform for Google employees this month in an amphitheater near the company’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. When Microsoft reopened its offices in Redmond, Washington, in late February, employees were treated to music from local bands, beer and wine tasting, and even classes in terrarium making.

To mark its first official week back in the office, chip maker Qualcomm held a happy hour with its CEO, Cristiano Amon, at its San Diego offices for several thousand employees, with free food, drink and t-shirts. The company also began offering weekly events, such as snack stands on Tuesdays and group exercise classes on Wednesdays.

“These celebrations and perks are an acknowledgment by companies that they know employees don’t want to come back to the office, certainly not as often as they used to,” said Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia University’s business school. At least for now, he added, companies are opting for the carrot over the stick: rewarding workers for coming into the office rather than punishing them for staying at home.

Before the Covid crisis, the biggest tech companies committed billions of dollars to build offices that are architectural marvels and trophies of financial success. These gleaming offices, packed with amenities and perks, are testament to the age-old belief that personal collaboration is still better at spurring creativity, inspiring innovation and instilling a common sense of purpose.

But for many employees who have enjoyed the freedom of working remotely, returning to the office — no matter how fancy — brings a touch of late-summer, back-to-school dread. Few, it seems, are interested in returning five days a week.

On Memegen, an internal company website where Google employees share memes, one of the most popular posts was a photo of a company cafeteria with the caption: “RTO is simply bumping into each other and saying, ‘We need to have lunch together,’ until one of the two leaves Google”.

Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University who surveys 5,000 workers every month, said most wanted to get back to the office two or three times a week. A third do not want to return to the office and prefer to remain remote.

Just by eliminating the commute to the office, Bloom said, the average worker will save an hour a day, so “you can see why employees aren’t going to start working for free bagels or playing ping pong.” The main attraction to going to the office, according to surveys, is that employees want to see colleagues in person.

After several delays, Google began its hybrid work schedule on April 4, requiring most US employees to come to the office a few days a week. Apple began making it easier for employees to return to the office last week, with the expectation that they will be there once a week, in principle.

When Microsoft employees returned to the offices in February as part of a hybrid work schedule, they were greeted with “appreciation events” and lawn games such as human chess. There were basket making and canvas painting classes. The campus pub has been transformed into a non-alcoholic beer, wine and cocktail garden.

And, of course, there was free food and drink: pizzas, sandwiches, and specialty coffees. Microsoft paid for food trucks with offerings like fried chicken, Mexican, Greek, Korean and barbecue. Unlike other tech companies, Microsoft expects employees to pay for their own food in the office. One employee marveled at the free food raffle.

The challenge for companies, Bloom said, is balancing the flexibility of allowing workers to set their own hours with a firmer approach of forcing them to show up on specific days to maximize the utility of office time.

He said companies should focus on the right approach to hybrid work rather than wasting time and effort to please employees with incentives like private gigs.
“Employees aren’t going to show up regularly just for the frills,” Bloom said. “What are you going to do next? Hire Justin Bieber and then Katy Perry?”

Adapting to Apple’s more restricted work environment, its employees said they didn’t expect – or had heard of – any celebration of returning to the office. In principle, Apple is asking employees to show up once a week. At the end of May, the company will require them to be present on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.

When Apple announced its return-to-office plan last year, before a new Covid outbreak forced a delay, more than 1,000 employees signed a letter urging management to be more open to flexible work arrangements. It was a rare display of dissent from the company’s grassroots, which historically had been less inclined to challenge executives on labor issues.

But as tech companies struggle to give employees greater work flexibility, they are also cutting back on some perks in the office. Meta, formerly known as Facebook, told employees last month it would cut free services like laundry and dry cleaning.

Google, like some other companies, said it had approved requests from thousands of employees to work remotely or be transferred to a different office. But if employees move to a cheaper location, Google will cut salaries, arguing that it always took into account where a person was hired to set pay.

Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves

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