Published: September 23, 2023, 07:01 PM
In August, Grindr gave its workers a return-to-office ultimatum: either agree to work twice a week in person from October, or lose their jobs. The policy meant employees hired remotely would need to relocate to Los Angeles, where the social networking and online dating app is headquartered, or one of its other US `hub` cities, such as New York or Chicago, reports BBC.
Many workers rejected the mandate. According to the Grindr union, 82 of the company`s 178 employees have been let go for refusing to comply (Grindr didn`t respond to multiple BBC requests for comment).
As bosses call back workers, many companies in tech sector have been actively supportive and permissive of flexible work. Grindr`s decision to implement such a strict return-to-office protocol – and willingness to lose nearly half of its staff – has come as a shock to many people. After all, compared to highly strict, corporate businesses that have made staunch in-office rules, startups and digital-first companies are better positioned to work remotely, and generally pride themselves on their adaptability.
Yet Grindr isn`t the only tech company that`s drawn a line through fully remote working patterns. For example, Elon Musk effectively ended working from home for employees at Twitter (now X) in November 2022 after mandating they work in person at least 40 hours a week. In recent months, Big Tech companies, including Amazon, have also stiffened their hybrid-working mandates.
Among the highest-profile – and in many ways, surprising – return-to-office tech announcements was at Zoom. In August, the video-conferencing platform – largely synonymous with remote work – announced that workers living within 50mi (80.5km) of an office now must work in person at least twice a week.
Despite their reputations of agility and progressiveness, many tech companies are increasingly sending an unexpected message: in-person work is too important to lose, no matter the public reception or the preferences of their employees.
`The human side is still valuable`
For Zoom`s part, Drew Smith, its head of government relations in UK and Ireland, says the company rediscovered how much it valued face-to-face interactions as Covid-19 restrictions eased, and staff returned to in-person collaboration. The San Jose, California-headquartered business had operated a full time in-person work pattern before the pandemic.
"As we brought product and engineering teams back together in the US, we were surprised how many issues were solved just by virtue of them being in the same room," says London-based Smith. "From an innovation perspective, we were able to do more, and be more productive working in person."
Zoom`s reasoning echoes that of other more traditional companies that have reinstituted mandatory office time. "The human side is still valuable," adds Smith. "Some interactions, such as manager one-on-ones, learning and camaraderie are harder when you`re remote. While we`ve innovated and built our platform over the last few years, perhaps we could`ve done even more had the pandemic forced us to not come together."
And even beyond Zoom, despite common perceptions, Smith says fully remote working in general is not the norm.
This is especially the case for big companies, explains Allison English, deputy CEO of employee experience research firm Leesman, based in London. Essentially, even though tech outcomes and products are by nature innovative, many of its operational processes are often more traditional.
"The larger the corporation, the less able it is to have a bunch of people running around being entrepreneurial and super creative," she says. "There have to be cogs in wheels, showing up and getting stuff done for businesses to function – that`s the same for any company, across any sector."
Yet smaller, nascent startups are also following the return-to-office trend. Jenny He, founder of early stage venture fund Position Ventures, based in San Francisco, says most of her portfolio companies are back in the workplace on a hybrid basis, with many even moving into larger offices to accommodate growing teams. She, too, cites innovation, relationship building and serendipitous collaboration as the reasons these firms are returning.
Overall, leaders are now concerned that virtual working has degraded the in-person connections they believe are vital to innovation, says Zach Roseman, founder of New York-based job referral platform Draftboard. "Speaking to many startup founders, everyone who went all in on remote is now pulling back. They`re finding that people were more mercenary than missionary in outlook, there was no sense of belonging and retention rates dropped."
The start of a domino effect?
Nevertheless, despite these oft-cited reasons for a preference for in-person working, tech is still often expected to behave differently than other industries, says English, which can explain why some people see the industry`s return to office jarring, or even counterintuitive.
"Over the years, we`ve seen tech revolutionise what`s available in the workplace: from introducing ping-pong tables to beer on tap, the sector has had an alternative way of looking at the office. Then, during the pandemic, it was tech`s solutions that helped businesses support their employees working from home," she says.
And the current tech trend in pushing for an office return may start a domino effect, says Roseman. Because tech firms are typically positioned best for remote working, they were among the first to ditch the office at the height of the 2020 work-from-anywhere boom. "People tend to follow the herd. There was a wave of firms going fully remote to save money, now they`re following Big Tech in moving to hybrid."
Tech firms may, surprisingly, end up being among the least flexible on hybrid work – and may encounter the greatest employee-employer dissonance. In being the first work-from-anywhere adopters, many tech companies now must take a harder line in pushing for hybrid set-ups, adds Roseman.
"The issue with Grindr and other companies that went remote early on [in the pandemic] is that employees have received the message they can work from anywhere, so they`ve moved away from the office and structured their lives around it – incompatible with moving back to the city where they were originally hired. So, what we`re seeing is a period of friction as the tech market resettles."
English agrees strict return-to-office mandates have created a disconnect: employees who have produced technology enabling remote work now have to return to regular in-person patterns. "The initial direction of travel seemed to be that more traditional businesses would return to more traditional ways of always doing things, and that tech would see the future of work in a new light and do things differently – the way it always has."
Although Smith says he`s not "privy" to employee feedback regarding Zoom`s return-to-office policy, he says teams have generally welcomed clarity over their in-office days, and internal research has shown teams are happy with flexible hybrid work. Reactions from former Grindr staffers, however, have been louder and far more negative.
Still, for all its innovative products and services, the tech sector isn`t that different after all, says English. "The larger the tech company, the more likely it is to fall into traditional leadership, with the same roles and structures as other organisations. These are leaders running businesses who have to make money, and make their shareholders happy."