Welcome Back to the Office. Isn’t This Fun?

When Google employees returned to their mostly empty offices this month, they were told to relax. Office time should be “not only productive but also fun.” Explore the place a little. Don’t book back-to-back meetings.

Also, don’t forget to attend the private show by Lizzo, one of the hottest pop stars in the country. If that’s not enough, the company is also planning “pop-up events” that will feature “every Googler’s favorite duo: food and swag.”

But Google employees in Boulder, Colo., were still reminded of what they were giving up when the company gave them mouse pads with the image of a sad-eyed cat. Underneath the pet was a plea: “You’re not going to RTO, right?”

R.T.O., for return to office, is an abbreviation born of the pandemic. It is a recognition of how Covid-19 forced many companies to abandon office buildings and empty cubicles. The pandemic proved that being in the office does not necessarily equal greater productivity, and some firms continued to thrive without meeting in person.

Now, after two years of video meetings and Slack chats, many companies are eager to get employees back to their desks. The employees, however, may be not be so eager for a return to morning commutes, communal bathrooms and daytime outfits that are not athletic wear.

So tech companies with money to burn and offices to fill are rolling out the fun wagon, even as they make clear that in many cases returning to the office — at least a few days a week — is mandatory.

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

To mark its first official week back at the office, the chip maker Qualcomm held a happy hour with its chief executive, Cristiano Amon, at its San Diego offices for several thousand employees with free food, drink and T-shirts. The company also started offering weekly events such as pop-up snack stands on “Take a Break Tuesday” and group fitness classes for “Wellness Wednesday.”

Clio, a legal software company in Burnaby, British Columbia, won’t force its employees back to the office. But it gave a party there last week.Credit…Alana Paterson for The New York Times

“These celebrations and perks are a recognition by companies that they know employees don’t want to come back to the office, certainly not as frequently as before,” 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 home.

Before Covid struck, the biggest technology firms committed billions of dollars to erect offices that are marvels of architecture and trophies of financial success. Those gleaming offices, packed with amenities and perks, are a testament to the long-held belief that in-person collaboration is still better for fostering creativity, inspiring innovation and instilling a common sense of purpose.

The Return of Return-to-Office Plans

After the Omicron variant crushed companies’ hopes for a return to in-person work late last year, a new R.T.O. chapter now appears to be opening.

  • Feeling Hopeful: Antsy executives have a message for their employees: Plans to return to in-person work are real this time (fingers crossed).
  • New Perks: Tech companies are hoping to lure their employees back to the office with concerts, food trucks and other offerings.
  • Anxious Workers: Many companies are also loosening Covid safety rules, leaving some employees uncomfortable with the rush back.
  • Questioning Office Life: Some workers fear a return to a more rigid workplace culture. Employers are already hearing rumblings of frustration.

But for many employees who enjoyed the freedom of working remotely, the return to office — no matter how fancy — carries a touch of end-of-summer, back-to-school dread. Few, it seems, are keen on going back five days a week.

On Memegen, an internal company site where Google employees share memes, one of the most popular posts was a picture of a company cafeteria with a caption: “RTO is just bumping into each other and saying ‘we must grab lunch soon’ until one of you quits Google.”

Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University who surveys 5,000 workers every month, said most wanted to return to the office two or three times per week. One-third never want to return to the office and prefer to remain remote.

Just by eliminating the office commute, Mr. Bloom said, the average worker will save one hour a day, so “you can see why employees are not going to start coming to work for free bagels or to play Ping-Pong.” The main draw for heading to the office, according to the surveys, is that employees want to see colleagues in person.

After a number of postponements, Google kicked off its hybrid work schedule on April 4, requiring most employees to show up at U.S. offices a few days a week. Apple started easing staff back to the office on Monday, with workers expected to check in at the office once a week at first.

On March 31, David Radcliffe, Google’s vice president of real estate and workplace services, sent an email to San Francisco Bay Area employees saying the company wanted to make the return to office “truly special.”

Balloons welcomed back employees at Clio.Credit…Alana Paterson for The New York Times
Clio’s elevators display conversation starters to encourage workers to get to know one another.Credit…Alana Paterson for The New York Times

For years, Google has provided employees with Wi-Fi-equipped luxury buses to make commutes more productive and comfortable, but it’s going a step further. It is starting a program to reimburse $49 monthly leases for an electric scooter as part of its transportation options for staff. Google also plans to also start experimenting with different office designs to adapt to changing work styles.

When Microsoft employees returned to their offices in February as part of a hybrid work schedule, they were greeted with “appreciation events” and lawn games such as cornhole and life-size chess. There were classes for spring basket making and canvas painting. The campus pub transformed into a beer, wine and “mocktail” garden.

And, of course, there was free food and drink: pizzas, sandwiches and specialty coffees. Microsoft paid for food trucks with offerings including fried chicken, tacos, gyros, Korean food and barbecue.

Unlike other technology companies, Microsoft expects employees to pay for their own food at the office. One employee marveled at how big a draw the free food was.

The challenge for companies, Mr. Bloom said, is how to balance flexibility in letting workers set their own schedule with a more heavy-handed approach of forcing them to come in on specific days to maximize the usefulness of office time.

He said companies should focus on developing the right approach to hybrid work instead of wasting time and effort on showering employees with inducements like private concerts.

“Employees aren’t going to come in regularly just for the frills,” Mr. Bloom said. “What are you going to do next? Get Justin Bieber and then Katy Perry?”

Fitting of Apple’s more restrained workplace, its employees said they did not expect — nor had they heard of — any celebrations for returning to the office. At first, Apple is asking employees to come once a week. By late May, Apple is requiring them to come in on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.

A hybrid town hall meeting was held for Clio employees at home and at the office.Credit…Alana Paterson for The New York Times

When Apple announced its return-to-office plan last year before another Covid surge 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 show of dissent from the company’s rank-and-file, who historically have been less willing to openly challenge executives on workplace matters.

But as tech companies grapple with offering employees greater work flexibility, the firms are also scaling back some office perks.

Meta, formerly known as Facebook, told employees last month that it was cutting back or eliminating free services like laundry and dry cleaning. Google, like some other companies, has said it approved requests from thousands of employees to work remotely or transfer to a different office. But if employees move to a less expensive location, Google is cutting pay, arguing that it has always factored in where a person was hired in setting compensation.

Clio, a legal software company in Burnaby, British Columbia, won’t force its employees back to the office. But last week, it gave a party at its offices.

There was upbeat music. There was an asymmetrical balloon sculpture in Clio’s signature bright blue, dark blue, coral and white — perfect for selfies. One of Clio’s best-known workers donned a safari costume to give tours of the facility. At 2 p.m., the company held a cupcake social.

To make its work spaces feel more like home, the company moved desks to the perimeter, allowing Clions — what the company calls its employees — to gaze out at the office complex’s cherry blossoms while banging out emails. A foosball table was upgraded to a workstation with chairs on either end, “so you could have a meeting while playing foosball with your laptop on it,” said Natalie Archibald, Clio’s vice president of people.

Clio’s Burnaby office, which employs 350, is open at only half capacity. Spaced-out desks must be reserved, and employees got red, yellow and green lanyards to convey their comfort levels with handshakes.

Only around 60 people came in that Monday. “To be able to have an IRL laugh rather than an emoji response,” Ms. Archibald said. “People are just excited for that.”

Karen Weise contributed reporting.

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