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Here’s how tech workers are feeling about going back to the office

December 9, 2021, 3:21 PM UTC

When Google delayed plans again to send workers back to the office next month, it wasn’t earth-shattering news for employees who have grown used to a constantly changing calendar. 

“I was a little bit surprised that we got as close to the deadline as we did before they decided to push it back,” says Jeffrey Yaskin, a tech lead for Google Chrome’s web platform team. “At the beginning of the pandemic, they kept naming dates and then pushing them back. And so every date kind of became a joke.”

Google is not the only platform sending hazy signals to staff about future working conditions, and the new Omicron COVID variant has pushed back start dates yet again for many big tech companies. Meta (formerly Facebook) said this week that while it was still planning to reopen offices on Jan. 31, employees could defer returning for up to five months. Meanwhile, Apple has not said anything since November, when it pushed its on-site return to Feb. 1, 2022, leaving some to wonder if there may be an announcement coming any day now. 

These constant shifts have left tech workers in a state of limbo with more questions than answers. And while most of the employees Fortune spoke with wanted to return to the office at some point, they all expressed concerns over different aspects of that transition, from what that might mean for employees who have moved during the pandemic, to how far in advance staff would receive notice of the transition to in-person work, to how they would be able to keep their children safe. 

“People in general don’t like uncertainty. We want to know what the plan is. And so the constant changes are adding stress and anxiety for employees who want to know what their future work models are going to look like,” says employment expert Kim Fulton of global consulting firm Kearney. 

Although most full-time U.S. workers say they are looking forward to returning to the office, nearly 15% say they’re anxious, and another 8% say they’re stressed, according to a survey of 1,000 full-time employees fielded by Workhuman exclusively for Fortune this week

Yaskin doesn’t have anxiety about heading back to the office for his own health, but he does worry for his 3-year-old daughter. That’s why he’s planning to work remotely until she can be fully vaccinated. 

“I have a good relationship with my manager, and so I get to do what’s right for me in most cases,” he says.

But continuing to work remotely may not be an option for all Google employees, let alone tech employees in general, who could have a strained relationship with their supervisor, serve as temporary workers or contractors, or simply work somewhere with more strict arrangements.

“It would be nice if there were a global policy to make sure that everyone got the same rights,” says Yaskin.

People who relocated during the pandemic, which many tech workers were able to do, are particularly vulnerable to constantly changing back-to-work plans 

One female Apple employee who works in the AppleCare division, and spoke to Fortune on the condition of anonymity to protect her job, says she’s been unsuccessfully seeking a work-from-home accommodation for months. She served at the Austin location before the pandemic, but moved out of state in the past year and is now unable to return to on-site work. 

“The pandemic, which was a really horrible thing for a lot of people, actually allowed a lot of people like me and my colleagues to make better lives for themselves. I am not the only one who relocated. My fear is that Apple gave permission for these people to move and then isn’t securing their jobs now,” the employee says. 

“Apple never wanted to keep workers at home. That’s why they built that second campus in Austin. And it’s because they can’t keep control over their employees if they’re working from home,” she notes.

Riley Adams, a senior financial analyst for Google, says that while he understands companies need to establish specific return-to-work dates and policies, he has particular empathy for employees who have changed locations. 

“I’m fortunate because we always stayed local. We didn’t relocate,” says Adams, who also founded and runs the site Young and the Invested. “I fully appreciate the struggle and the concern or the situations that some people [who left] would be facing with this.”

The ongoing waiting game for return-to-work answers is not only potentially stressful for employees, it may hamper companies’ abilities to attract and retain talent in a challenging labor environment. 

“It almost sounds like everybody’s waiting for somebody to make the call or make the decision, and those decisions just keep getting pushed out,” says Allison Esposito Medina, the founder of Tech Ladies, an online community and job placement service for women working in the technology sector. 

“The companies that are doing that are going to struggle with hiring in 2022 because they’re competing for the same talent as the companies that are coming out and saying, ‘You know what? We already made the decision—we’re remote,’” Medina says. 

LinkedIn’s data finds that jobs offering remote work in November attracted 2.4 times the share of job views and 2.6 times the share of applications compared with those requiring on-site employment.  

While Medina says that smaller companies and startups have been more able to pull the trigger and offer permanent remote positions, some major corporations are also moving in that direction. Cisco, for instance, announced a “no return to office” policy earlier this year, opting to allow managers and teams to decide where and how teams will operate. 

Fran Katsoudas, Cisco’s executive vice president and chief people, policy, and purpose officer, sees a competitive advantage in that decision when it comes to winning over employees. “We certainly see it as an asset in talent attraction and retention,” she says. 

It’s not that employees don’t want to go back to the office and don’t see the value in being in person, Kearney’s Fulton says. Instead, workers are looking for their companies to give them a greater sense of flexibility and the independence to determine when they need to be in the office and when it’s best to work remotely. 

“Any types of top-down mandates right now are being met with a lot of resistance because employees really are looking for that increased autonomy and trust from their employers to choose when they come into the office going forward,” Fulton says. “Employees are looking for that continued flexibility and feel that they’ve earned it, quite frankly.”

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