After much hype about working from home, some tech companies are getting cold feet.
On Wednesday last week, Google’s Fiona Cicconi wrote to company employees.
She announced that Google was bringing forward its timetable of moving people back into the office.
As of 1 September, she said, employees wishing to work from home for more than 14 days would have to apply to do so.
Employees were also expected to “live within commuting distance” of offices. No cocktails by the beach with a laptop, then.
The intention was very clear. Sure, you can do more flexible working than you did before – but most people will still have to come into the office.
That thinking seemed to fly in the face of much of what we heard from Silicon Valley executives last year, when they championed the virtues of remote working.
For example, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey made headlines across the world last May, when he said “Twitter employees can now work from home forever”.
It was speculated that after Covid, the “new normal” for Silicon Valley might be a workforce heavily geared around remote working, with tech companies needing only minimal staff on-site.
It’s increasingly looking like that’s not going to happen.
And if you really look at the statements made by tech bosses, some of the nuances were skirted over by the press.
For example, when Mr Dorsey said employees could work at home “forever”, he added, ” if our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home.”
That was a pretty important “if”.
And in fact, Twitter has clarified that it expects a majority of its staff to spend some time working from home and some time in the office.
Pretty much every Silicon Valley tech firm has said that it is now committed to “flexible” or “hybrid” working.
The problem is those terms can mean almost anything.
Is that Fridays off? Or a completely different working relationship with a brick-and-mortar office?
Microsoft envisages “‘working from home part of the time (less than 50%) as standard for most roles” in the future.
There is a lot of room for manoeuvre in the words “less than 50%”.
Amazon also issued a statement to employees last week saying: “Our plan is to return to an office-centric culture as our baseline. We believe it enables us to invent, collaborate, and learn together most effectively.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the new work-from-home age, then.
Part of the hesitancy is that although many employees want more flexibility, it’s still not at all clear what kind of model works for the companies.
“None of us have this all figured out,” said Carolyn Everson, vice-president of Facebook’s global business group, when talking about current work-from-home arrangements.
“We are making this up on the fly.”
Harvard Business School professor and remote working advocate Prithwiraj Choudhury says that tech companies have long been at the vanguard of remote working.
“The early adopters and the companies that are embracing this model and building the organisation around that remote work model will have a huge advantage in attracting talent,” he says.
That is certainly the hope.
No tech business wants to lose able employees to rivals who will allow them to work more flexibly.
Companies like Spotify now appear to have some of the most “flexible” working practices for its staff.
In a recent statement it said: “Our employees will be able to work full time from home, from the office, or a combination of the two.
“The exact mix of home and office work mode is a decision each employee and their manager make together.”
But it did add: “There are likely to be some adjustments to make along the way.”
So Spotify’s definition of flexible working is very different to Google’s, which in turn is very different to Amazon’s.
Working from home while there is no office open is one thing. But remote working’s biggest test is going to be when the office starts opening up – let’s say at 50% capacity.
When meetings are being held partially in person and partially on Zoom, is the dynamic going to work quite so well?
And when some team members develop face-to-face, in-person relationships with managers, will remote workers feel disadvantaged?
Last week, IBM announced its proposed system of remote working, with 80% of the workforce working at least three days a week in the office.
“When people are remote, I worry about what their career trajectory is going to be,” said IBM chief executive Arvind Krishna.
“If they want to become a people manager, if they want to get increasing responsibilities, or if they want to build a culture within their teams, how are we going to do that remotely?” he asked.
Tantalisingly, we are about to find out what works and what doesn’t, because there are so many differing approaches being taken by tech companies.
And like so much of modern day life, other businesses are looking over at the west coast of America to see what’s working here – and what isn’t.