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Meet Google’s chief people officer, who is implementing one of the most challenging return-to-office plans ever attempted

May 24, 2022, 3:05 PM UTC

The timing was all wrong when Alphabet, Google’s parent company, first reached out to Fiona Cicconi about becoming its new chief people officer. It was the early days of the pandemic and Cicconi was working as chief human resources officer for AstraZeneca in the U.K.

The pharmaceutical giant had 20,000 employees in China—including some in Wuhan where the virus was first identified—and was partnering with Oxford on a COVID-19 vaccine. There was no blueprint for what was happening, and Cicconi was focused on keeping her employees safe and healthy. “I was devastated I couldn’t take the call,” she says.  

But as things started to settle down a bit later in the year, she decided to reconsider. Ultimately Cicconi’s entire interview process with the company took place over video calls. And once she started the job in January 2021, it would take four months for the half-Brit, half-Italian to be able to relocate to California and meet the team. At the time she was hired, only U.S. citizens were allowed to enter the country. That would mean that when Google revealed its hybrid strategy in May 2021, Cicconi hadn’t yet stepped foot in the company’s U.S. offices.

As unusual that might all sound, Cicconi is in good company at Google. She’s one of the 50,000 employees who have joined the tech behemoth since the start of the pandemic. “It helped me understand what it’s like to be like a Noogler trying to penetrate the culture,” says Cicconi in her first interview since joining the company. (Noogler is Google speak for a new hire.)

Now Cicconi is playing a key role in implementing Google’s ambitious plan to bring its 165,000-member workforce back to the office—an endeavor Fortune detailed in a feature earlier this month. Google has taken a hybrid approach to the return, in which employees come into the office three days a week and work from home the other two. “I think it is a massive shift, and it is here to stay,” Cicconi says of hybrid work. “It is an experiment.”

Experts on the nature of work say that hybrid is the most challenging way for companies to organize their employees. We know how to work from an office, and the last two years have taught many of us how to work from home. But we have not yet navigated something that falls somewhere in between—made even more complex at a company of Google’s size.  “If I knew how to do it, I would be writing it up in HBR,” Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, has told Fortune. “I don’t know whether it will work. It sounds like Google doesn’t know if it will work either.”

Cicconi says the company landed on the 3/2 split because Googlers were reporting that they liked coming into the office, but not all the time. “We needed to come up with a structure,” she says. “It’s an engineering company, and they like structure.”

The 3/2 decision is really a starting point that provides some sort of framework, Cicconi says. She is talking with CEO Sundar Pichai about attempting “activity-based flexibility” so that employees determine whether they’ll work from home or the office depending on what they have on their to-do list for the day. A strategy session or deciding goals for next year would entail going to the office to whiteboard with your team. But “what on earth is the point of polluting the planet, being yet another car on the road or another person on the commuter train, if I’m just back-to-back in meetings?” she posits.

This activity-based approach is more challenging and takes some learning, Cicconi says, but it’s where the world is going and where she’d like Google to go. It’s “going to be a difficult needle to thread,” she says, “but I’m determined to pilot it and see if we can find the right way.”

Cicconi acknowledges that getting executives on board with hybrid has been a journey—it was not universally accepted when the idea was first floated. But she says that’s changed as offering flexibility to employees has become essential in the war for talent. “I want to keep pushing on agency,” she says. “I think it is a competitive advantage for companies.”

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