SAN JOSE, Calif.—Everyone with a certain type of job has plenty of experience by now talking to someone on a screen. But there was still something uncanny about a meeting I recently had with a Zoom executive.
She was on Zoom from her Texas home. I was inside the Silicon Valley headquarters of Zoom.
I had come to the offices of the company that helped cripple the office to understand how it was handling the disruptions of hybrid work vexing businesses around the world. There has never been so much uncertainty about who should work where and when. The abrupt transition to remote work was smoother than adapting to the current reality, in which some people stay home and others schlep back to the office.
“It’s the million-dollar question everybody is still trying to answer,”
Zoom’s chief financial officer, told me on the weirdest Zoom of my life. “I don’t know if we’ve exactly found the right balance yet.”
But it’s more than a million-dollar question to Zoom. It’s actually worth many billions. Zoom’s previously niche product became a household name early in the pandemic, when its videoconferencing technology simulated the experience of being together, and there are few companies with stronger financial incentives to get the future of work right.
So far it has discovered that many people do want to work from offices—even people at Zoom. They just don’t want to work from offices every day in the ways they always have.
“What is the purpose of an office?” said Matthew Saxon, Zoom’s chief people officer. “It’ll be different for different companies, but one of the things I think this huge experiment that we’ve all been a part of has proven is that it’s not necessarily to get work done.”
The office does not exist to get work done.
That would have sounded preposterous not long ago. It still does to many people.
But what Zoom believes is that offices have become a place to be social. They are no longer for doing good work so much as making good work possible, and their primary functions are facilitating collaboration and fostering camaraderie.
The office is now like an off-site.
“People really want to use the office to come together,” said Alana Collins, Zoom’s head of real estate and workplace.
I have to admit that visiting Zoom’s offices to meet people in person felt a bit like eating in the Pepsi cafeteria and ordering a Coke. The company’s global headquarters sits on a downtown boulevard lined by palm trees in a pocket of the country with the nation’s lowest office-occupancy rate. It was a supposedly busy day at Zoom, but I saw more people in a coffee shop across the street.
It turns out Zoom and its 8,000 employees are dealing with the fundamental problem of hybrid work the company’s technology is trying to solve: how to be productive and creative without being in the same place.
It’s peculiar how many tech companies were based almost exclusively in offices before the pandemic given how easily they have now left that world behind. Zoom gave employees permission to work from home forever earlier this year, and only 1% are regular office presences, with 75% living remotely and the rest identifying themselves as hybrid workers.
“Visiting Zoom’s offices to meet people in person felt a bit like eating in the Pepsi cafeteria and ordering a Coke. ”
“It worked before the pandemic because we were all in the office, and it worked once we got it figured out at home because we were all at home,” Ms. Steckelberg said. “And now we’re in between.”
That kind of limbo is where most of us find ourselves these days.
There are many offices that have operated more or less as usual for the past two years, and most people don’t have the luxury of Zooming into calls from their bedrooms.
For those who do have the option of working from home, the most common arrangement is some kind of hybrid setup, according to the Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes, which is run by economists who have studied thousands of employees from the start of the pandemic. Their data suggests that knowledge workers prefer the office a few days a week—not every day, but not never.
They don’t want to work from home or the office. They want to work from home and the office.
It’s why companies outside tech dragging employees back to the office might stand a chance this fall, especially since people are sick of anything that reminds them of pandemic restrictions: There are four-letter words more acceptable in polite society these days than Zoom.
The first days of the pandemic were horrible for the world but phenomenal for Zoom, and there was a moment last year when it reached a peak market capitalization of $159 billion, briefly making it worth more than
The office was so crowded back then that employees looking for a place to work often found themselves spilling into hallways. Now their desks are bare, the parking lot where they once raced for spots is empty and most of their new colleagues have never set foot here.
And yet not even Zoom is predicting the death of the office.
“I still like the idea of having busy offices,” Mr. Saxon said. “I think we have to optimize it so that it’s as good as or better than we had before.”
If any company were prepared to build such an office, it would be one with the latest Zoom tech. Which, as it happens, is Zoom.
One simple but powerful example of Zoom’s software is the company’s Smart Gallery feature. Let’s say there is a meeting in a conference room with some people gathering in person and others attending by Zoom. Smart Gallery displays the faces of everyone around the table in their own individual boxes, in addition to the wide shot of the conference room, which is meant to put remote workers on more equal footing with their colleagues in the office.
Zoom’s offices also have common areas with “acoustic fencing” that block ambient noise, monitors that display seating charts so you can pick a desk near your team and signs outside phone booths that turn red when occupied so you can see which ones are free without awkwardly peeking through windows.
The point of hybrid work is to accommodate employees no matter where they happen to be on a given day. But companies can’t suddenly declare themselves flexible, much like people can’t wake up one day and touch their toes.
Zoom used offices in Amsterdam, Denver and Sydney to study the patterns of hybrid work, and those lab spaces have already inspired one big change: Zoom ripped down the cubicles here in the San Jose headquarters to make it feel less like a traditional place of work and more like an event space.
I was curious after I left my Zoom meetings for another perspective, so I called someone nearby, Stanford University economist Nick Bloom, whose research focused on these work issues decades before they became the battleground of corporate America.
Office work is better for group activities like meeting, training and mentoring, said Mr. Bloom, while remote work is better for individual tasks like writing, coding and deep thinking. Hybrid work can provide the best of both worlds. Those findings sounded familiar: They were similar to Zoom’s.
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But at most tech companies, the pendulum of hybrid work is still closer to the remote side, so I asked Zoom’s chief people officer if anything could swing it back to the office.
The most provocative theory Mr. Saxon floated was the possibility that remote work would prove harmful in the long term. Will those who work from home be lonelier and unhealthier? What if research shows that men and women who come to the office are getting promoted faster and earning higher salaries than the ones Zooming into meetings? How can young employees learn from their colleagues and companies sustain their cultures without sharing a physical space?
He didn’t have the answers yet. When it comes to hybrid work, nobody does.
Write to Ben Cohen at [email protected]
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