A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Jun 12, 2020

Tech Offices Are Getting A Post-Covid Makeover. And No One Is Sure If It Will Work

The days of relaxed, collegial, serendipitous, bro-ism are over. At least for now. 

And no one is sure what it will mean for morale or performance. JL

Natasha Singer reports in the New York Times:

No more chatting in the elevator. No hugging. No more communal snack jars. “It’ll be more sterile. It’ll be more hospital-like.” A more micromanaged workplace is indicative of the complexities many businesses are grappling with during the pandemic and signals a significant shift for office workers. The biggest workplace change may be cultural. Employees will find their formerly fun-loving office life more managed by rules and tech tools. It will make the tech office more like a hotel. “More of an intentional behavior versus 'that’s what I do’ behavior.”
When employees at Salesforce, the cloud software giant based in San Francisco, eventually return to their office towers, they may find that the fun is gone from their famously fun-loving workplaces.
No more chatting in the elevator. No hugging. No more communal snack jars.
Before employees can even go into the office, they will be required to fill out online health surveys and take their temperature. If they pass the health screening and have a good reason to go in, Salesforce will schedule their shifts — and send them digital entry tickets for the lobby with an arrival time.
In the lobby, employees will be asked to wait for the elevator on social-distancing floor markers and stand on other markers once inside the elevator.
These new command-and-control work practices are intended to help protect Salesforce’s more than 50,000 employees as the company undertakes a colossal task: figuring out how to safely reopen its more than 160 offices around the world.
“It’s going to be different,” Salesforce’s chief executive, Marc Benioff, said. “It’ll be more sterile. It’ll be more hospital-like.”
“Things that people love, like gummy bears, huge jars of gummy bears everywhere, aren’t going to be there,” he added. “They aren’t going to have a lot of trinkets on their desks, because we know that also spreads droplets.”
Salesforce’s vision of a more micromanaged workplace is indicative of the complexities that many businesses are grappling with during the pandemic and signals a significant cultural shift for office workers across the United States.
With their airy work spaces, fishbowl glass conference rooms and hangout zones, tech giants like Salesforce helped reshape the American office from packed rows of partitioned cubicles into open, shared spaces. The homey, amenity-filled settings encouraged collaboration and community — while reducing employees’ eagerness to leave for home.“The open-plan office has always been in some ways in the interest of the company rather than the worker, because it socializes productivity,” said Melissa Gregg, the chief technologist for user experience at Intel, where she researches how technology affects workers’ lives. “It forces workers to watch each other’s work, and it creates very few spaces of privacy for individual workers.”
But the pandemic has made unbounded offices a liability.
Now some of the companies responsible for popularizing the open-office tech ethos believe they have an obligation — and a big business opportunity — to pioneer a new normal. And they are selling new tools for employers wishing to emulate them.
Facebook, for one, is betting heavily on remote work. Last month, on the same day the chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, announced that working from home could become permanent for many Facebook employees, the company introduced new remote-working tools for its enterprise clients. They included Workplace Rooms, a videoconferencing service for team meetings.
Salesforce, whose cloud software for businesses already enables remote work, is staking out a different territory.
After closing its premises in mid-March, the company drafted a detailed, 21-page handbook to reopen its offices. In recent company surveys, the majority of employees said they wanted to return to the office. Others who wish to continue working from home may do so until at least the end of this year.
“We realized that, because the safety, the health, the wellness of everyone is our top priority, we were going to have to manage this like we’ve never managed anything before,” said Elizabeth Pinkham, Salesforce’s executive vice president for global real estate.
Salesforce is also marketing a new platform, Work.com, to help other employers manage the complexity of reopening their workplaces. The system includes work shift scheduling software and a contact-tracing program to help identify employees who may have been exposed to the virus at work.
“I just feel very strongly that we have the ability to do something very powerfully here and to motivate this new workplace, just like we did in the prior workplace,” Mr. Benioff said. “Technology is actually going to become a critical part of managing our workplace, where before it was not part of our culture.”
Salesforce is trying out its pandemic management playbook at a handful of smaller locations that reopened in late May — in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Seoul, South Korea — the first of its offices to reopen globally. Mr. Benioff said the company would apply any lessons it learned from the offices in Asia to subsequent locations that are preparing to reopen.
Company executives weighed factors like government guidance and declining virus cases in each region to determine when to reopen. For each building, they also redesigned floor plans to enable social distancing and instituted other safety measures.
Essentially, Salesforce is approaching the pandemic as if it were a software engineering problem. It has deconstructed the complex process of reopening into individual measures that, taken together, are expected to make the workplace safer and reduce the risks of coronavirus outbreaks.
Will the engineering approach work?
“We’re going to do it in a smart way. We’re going to be careful,” Mr. Benioff said, emphasizing that the pandemic was uncharted territory. “I can’t pretend to you I have all the answers. Let’s get real here.”
The task of overseeing the workplace redesign at Salesforce, and nudging employee behavioral changes to go with it, falls in part to Ms. Pinkham, who oversees the company’s global real estate.
For the last few years, she has worked to create a consistent, homelike atmosphere at Salesforce offices around the world. As a result, many now resemble the headquarters in Salesforce Tower, the tallest building in San Francisco, where about 5,000 employees work.
On every floor, “social lounges” combine a kitchen, a dining room with big farm-style tables, and a living-room-like space with couches. The top floor, called the Ohana Floor — “ohana” means “family” in Hawaiian — gives employees a place to hang out, grab a snack and admire the view during the day while offering nonprofit groups a venue for evening events.
Now, rather than try to make all the offices seem equally warm and convivial, Ms. Pinkham must make each one more antiseptic.
“Your plan for returning is going to be different for every single building,” she said. “And you’re going to have to manage a lot of different data through every single building.”
She is redesigning the floor plans for each location, in consultation with experts, to meet public health recommendations for social distancing. The company is removing work stations, for instance, to reduce office capacity.
Desks that remain will be spaced apart, with glass or plexiglass partitions between them. Team meeting rooms that once held 14 will be severely limited.
“There’ll be a sign outside that room that says: ‘Hey, everybody, this meeting room now has a capacity of no more than four people. Please respect that,’” she said. “That will be part of the new normal.”
Salesforce will also use scheduling software to limit the number of people working at each office. It will not be an entirely automated process.
Executives said they would give a scheduling priority to employees who needed to go in because, say, they had to work on a specific project or because cramped family quarters made working from home difficult. Another factor: federal guidelines recommending that employers encourage employees to avoid crowded mass transit.
“Proximity to the office probably will be important, the ability to walk, ride bikes, take a taxi, drive your car when typically you would just get on the train,” said Brent Hyder, Salesforce’s chief people officer. He added that employees who lived closer to one of the suburban offices may decide to work there instead.
The biggest workplace change may be cultural. Until there is a coronavirus vaccine, or at least better medical treatments, Salesforce employees will find their formerly fun-loving office life more managed by rules and tech tools.
In other words, they may get a taste of the kind of top-down infrastructure that is more common for retail and warehouse workers — with one huge difference: If Salesforce employees would rather not fill out daily coronavirus-symptom surveys, or don’t like the new office rules, they can keep working from home.
Employees will still want to go into the office, Ms. Pinkham said, only less frequently and for more specific reasons. To adapt, the company plans to schedule certain teams for the same shifts so they can see their colleagues and whiteboard ideas together, she said, albeit while wearing masks in more sparsely populated conference rooms.
“It may become more of an intentional behavior,” Ms. Pinkham said of going to the office, “versus an ‘I just wake up and go to the office because that’s what I do’ behavior.”
It is an idea that will make the tech office, once the ersatz home away from home, more like a hotel.




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