Inside Google’s push to nail hybrid work and bring its 165,000-person workforce back to the office part-time
Google’s parent company, Alphabet, ranks No. 8 on the 2022 Fortune 500. See the full list here.
For a company that’s supposed to be able to predict everything from what you want to search for to how long it will take to get to the airport, Google has gotten a lot wrong lately.
After two years of remote work, the search giant finally called its employees back to the office starting the week of April 4. On the second official day back, roadwork in Mountain View caused an hour-long backup for workers exiting the main campus. In a few locations, some schlepped in for the first time in two years only to find themselves without a desk. And while Google says it expects 20% of its employees to eventually take advantage of its policy to work remotely full-time, so far a mere 5% have. Even the return date itself came with a string of misfires—new COVID variants and rising case numbers foiled three previous attempts.
The problem? There is no formula that can be written, no algorithm that can be tweaked, for the logistically challenging and emotionally fraught act of returning to the office tens of thousands of employees who have spent the last two-plus years working from home.
The only thing certain is that there’s no going back to the beforetimes when we compliantly plodded into the office five days a week to toil away at our cubicles. In a red-hot labor market, the most in-demand perk of office life is not having to go to the office at all. Not even Google’s famous amenities, which came to define the booming rise of Silicon Valley—the free food, the massages, the laundry service—can convince white-collar workers to give up the flexibility that they’ve long craved and are now demanding. “The employee is king right now,” explains Nick Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford.
Some companies, including Twitter and Airbnb, have responded to this era of worker ascendence by allowing employees to log on from anywhere. Far fewer—most famously Goldman Sachs—have demanded a five-day-a-week return, betting on the prestige of their brands to minimize defections to less rigid competitors.
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has picked the third option: a hybrid approach in which employees work from the office three days a week and two from home. Which days depends on product area—for example, those working on search come in Tuesday through Thursday. Complicating things further, there’s the option to apply to opt out and become permanently remote, a choice that in some cases triggers a salary cut.
It’s a move that requires a massive shift in both thinking and process for a company of 165,000 employees, 50,000 of whom joined during the pandemic and have rarely, if ever, been to one of its offices before. Google must invest in both the cutting-edge technology that enables its employees and customers to seamlessly work from anywhere, as well as old-school bricks and mortar. The company has said it plans to spend $9.5 billion on offices and data centers in 2022 alone, and on Tuesday it officially opened its long-awaited Bay View campus—a massive 1.1 million-square-foot, four-building complex in Mountain View not far from the Googleplex.
The significance of the undertaking is not lost on CEO Sundar Pichai, who wrote in a company-wide email announcing the plan, “No company at our scale has ever created a fully hybrid workforce model.” There’s a reason for that. Of all the possible configurations of this new world order, hybrid is by far the hardest to implement. We know how to work from an office, and the last two years have taught many of us how to do our jobs from home. But we have not yet proved that we can maintain a balance that falls somewhere in between. “If I knew how to do it, I would be writing it up in HBR,” says Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California. “I don’t know whether it will work. It sounds like Google doesn’t know if it will work either.”
Hybrid is supposed to embody the best of both worlds—the flexibility of working from home, with the spontaneous collaboration that executives say can happen only in the office. To some it’s a revolutionary new way of working, but it can also be viewed as a lame compromise that pacifies no one. That’s especially the case at Google, where the outspoken workforce has warred with management in recent years over everything from the company’s handling of sexual harassment to the ethics of its business decisions. Hybrid risks becoming another flashpoint—a sign that the once cutting-edge tech company is becoming staid and traditional, offering up more policies and rules on everything from comp to schedules under the guise of flexibility. “Whatever Google does,” says Bloom, “it can’t keep everyone happy.”
In May 2021, when Google revealed its strategy for bringing workers back, the woman responsible for implementing the plan had never actually stepped foot in the company’s U.S. offices.
Chief people officer Fiona Cicconi is one of the 50,000 Googlers the company has hired since the pandemic began. Her entire interview process took place over video calls from the U.K., where she was chief human resource officer for pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. It would take her four months from her January 2021 start date to make it over to the U.S. to meet the team in person.
In the interim, Cicconi had the odd experience of working for a new company in a new sector while still sitting at the same desk in the same room. She jokes that she had to put a sign on her computer to remember to say Google rather than AstraZeneca. But the exercise gave her a sense of what worked remotely and when she really craved being in person.
Cicconi, who’s worked in human resources her entire career, says Google seemed like it was “now ready for an HR practitioner” when she joined. I ask if that means making the function more professionalized. “Yes,” she says carefully, “but without being corporate.”
That answer reflects a painful awareness of the feeling among some employees that Google has become a “conventional” company—a dreaded label in Silicon Valley. It’s a criticism its top executives often try to answer by pushing decision-making down to the manager level rather than implementing a single rule that applies to everyone. In the case of returning to the office, manager discretion plays a major role in whether an employee’s application to work fully remotely or relocate to another Google office gets approved. That can cut both ways, with several rank-and-file employees telling me the decisions can feel arbitrary (Google says 85% of the more than 20,000 requests to go remote and/or relocate have been granted).
Managers don’t always like it either: Some I spoke with say that the company’s unwillingness to draw hard lines puts the onus on them. One told me she has tried to keep her reports from relocating outside a certain number of time zones so that she’s not forced to work endless hours to sync up with them. “Someone could perceive that as not supportive of remote work,” she said, “but I’m not ready to sacrifice my own well-being.”
Even among executives, hybrid was not universally accepted when first floated. David Baker saw Google moving in this direction when he left his position of director of engineering at the company in January 2021, and he didn’t like it. “The physical space has always been a very significant part of the culture, and very intentionally,” says Baker, who started working for Google in 2004. He says the office is crucial to the process of innovation, mentoring, and onboarding employees, and he’d noticed it was harder to work through conflict with everyone working from home. “There are long-term costs,” he says, including making the relationship between employee and company more transactional and less purpose-driven.
Cicconi acknowledges that getting executives on board has been a journey. You get the sense, however, that even she is not all in on the 3/2 plan–that she wishes that the company had in fact gone further toward flexibility. To her, it’s a starting point while employees figure out what works best. She’s talking to Pichai about piloting more “activity-based flexibility,” where employees decide whether it’s a WFH or an office day based on their to-do list. Starting a new project and need to brainstorm? Best done in the office. Have meetings with people across multiple time zones where you’ll be on a video call anyway? Stay home. It’s a harder approach to manage, she allows, but “I think that’s where the world is going and where I’d like Google to go.”
How other Googlers feel about the hybrid plan depends on who you ask. The company says that the results of surveys asking employees how frequently they wanted to come into the office were all over the map. “There’s a tremendous amount of variability,” says Brian Welle, who leads the people analytics team, which surveys employees on issues related to work.
That aligned with what employees told me, too. Some were thrilled to go into the office—happy to be back with their colleagues or meet them in person for the first time, eat Google’s food, and regain some separation between their personal and professional lives. Others said the plan lacked imagination and that the tech world’s next Googles would be the ones letting employees work however and wherever they like. Some said management had not been particularly transparent about how it had decided employees were safe to return—especially at what appeared to be the beginning of a new COVID surge.
The company is optimistic that its employees can adapt to working in a new way, a belief that, this being Google, is based on data. When everyone first went remote at the start of the pandemic, Welle says, employees reported a big drop in productivity. But those who already had experience working from home fared better. “The dips were not as extreme and then the path up was a little bit faster,” he says. “What we learned is that you can learn how to get better at this.”
In the beginning of 2022, Welle went fully remote after working in the New York office since 2008. Cicconi is his manager and signed off on the move. Significantly fewer employees have so far chosen this path than Welle expected based on how they’ve responded to surveys. It’s a reminder that your results are only as good as your inputs—and that’s more challenging when you’re dealing with humans, who can be unreliable narrators. “It’s hard for people to answer a policy that doesn’t exist yet,” Welle says. “It goes to show that you don’t always know what you want.”
By far the biggest controversy about Google’s RTO plan has nothing to do with hybrid, the 3/2 split, or the office itself. Instead, it’s how the company is approaching compensation.
Google has always paid differently based on location. If you work out of New York or Mountain View, you’ll find yourself in “premium plus.” Chicago would put you 15% lower into “national” for the same job, while Raleigh-Durham is 25% less, in a category once called "discount” but since renamed "standard." But these tiers, which have the unfortunate distinction of sounding like airline seating assignments, have taken on heightened meaning as some 17,000 Googlers have either relocated during the pandemic or gone fully remote. The premise of having your salary adjusted for doing the same exact thing, just in a different zip code, has become perhaps the biggest sticking point for employees—even those who are grateful for the option.
Katy Bennett, a Google marketing insights and research manager, was working in New York and six months pregnant when the pandemic hit. She and her husband relocated to St. Louis for what they thought would be a temporary move. They decided to stay when Google gave Bennett the option. For her, it’s been easier raising a child there than it would have been in New York—she has more space and a support network of family nearby. But, no surprise, she’s not thrilled at the tradeoff she had to make with her pay. “On the one hand I understand it because it was expensive to live in New York,” she says. “But candidly, I do feel like it is a little bit of a dated paradigm to base it on location precisely because you can work for other companies that are making different choices.”
For some, the implications have been more dramatic. Laura de Vesine was working out of Sunnyvale, Calif., as a senior site reliability engineer when her managers approached her team about relocating to Raleigh-Durham, N.C. The move would mean more headcount and would ease the time zone challenges of frequently working with Europe. But it would also come with a 15% pay cut. The team agreed, but when de Vesine and her colleagues got the official email from the compensation team, the actual figure was a 25% decline. “I was going to be doing the same job in a way that was more convenient for my employer,” she says. “Why were they going to pay me less for that?” (Google declined to comment.)
The team decided to back out, but the whole ordeal got de Vesine thinking about what her life might be like out of the Bay Area with its expensive housing and long commutes. She took a job for a company that lets her work remotely and relocated to Philadelphia. “It's very hard for me to overemphasize the quality-of-life improvement,” she says. She even got a raise out of it.
Laszlo Bock, a former head of Google HR, told me the company’s pay decision may be principled, but it’s not pragmatic. Cutting someone’s salary is “one of the most insulting, emotionally difficult things you can do to an employee,” he says. “It really pisses people off. It’s a huge mistake, unless you’re trying to get those people to quit.” Bock, who is now cofounder and CEO of HR software maker Humu, thinks a smarter approach would involve giving employees in lower-cost-of-living cities smaller raises less frequently than those in regions like the Bay Area.
To some, Google’s pay policy is a sign that it’s only offered the option to go remote grudgingly—an argument that has been fueled as companies like Airbnb have said they’ll let employees work from anywhere without changes to compensation. To be clear, Google will also adjust your salary upward if you move from, say, Philadelphia to New York or Mountain View—two of the top relocation destinations. The company has in fact found that employees are more frequently moving to bigger cities with established cultural hubs and tech communities than midsize markets or rural towns.
Google created a tool to let employees calculate any potential pay changes, and says there’s no penalty if you go remote but don’t relocate. However, there are potential glitches in the algorithm. Reuters has reported that Google bases pay bands on U.S. Census Bureau metropolitan statistical areas. Those with long commutes risk having their salaries cut if they go remote, even if they haven’t moved. If you lived in Stamford, Conn., for example, and commuted the hour into the Manhattan office, you would get paid at the premium plus level. But since the Census Bureau considers Stamford outside the New York metropolitan area, you would take a 15% salary cut if you were to go remote, according to the Reuters report. (Google declined to comment on the Reuters report.)
Chief people officer Cicconi told me that she thinks adjusting salaries so they’re in line with a city’s cost of living is the right thing to do. “We always pay top-end of market and give excellent benefits,” she says. Many Googlers, however, seem to disagree. Employees gave poor marks to questions about compensation on the company’s annual Googlegeist survey that was released in March: 53% of employees said their pay is competitive, a drop of five percentage points over last year, while those who said their pay is fair and equitable dropped eight percentage points to 56%.
Whether or not the perception reflects reality, there are broader market forces at play that have made employees restless. Startups used to offer either a good salary or good equity. But thanks to seemingly endless amount of cash in the venture capital world, at least up until recently, many have been offering both. That means the pay structure at a place like Google is not the golden handcuffs it once was. One former Google engineer also told me working from home has highlighted how slowly things can move at a big tech company and made the risk of going to a fast-paced startup much more palatable.
To lure employees back to the office, companies must convince workers that they can provide something better than what they have at home. The competition is stiff: license to wear head-to-toe athleisure, a midday workout, hugging your kids when they get home from school, the down-the-hall commute.
Yes, that all sounds great, but does your home office have Lizzo? “Google, we back, bitch!” the Grammy Award–winning pop star yelled as she performed a private concert for employees at the Shoreline Amphitheater in mid-April. “If this is RTO propaganda then I’m into it,” tweeted one employee.
It was a powerful reminder that Google has the money to entice people to return and is willing to shell it out. The latest demonstration of that financial might was just revealed to the public on Tuesday: the brand-new Bay View campus, now home to 4,000 members of the company’s ads team.
David Radcliffe, Google’s vice president of real estate and workplace services, showed me around the site in April, when he and his crew were among the few residents, roaming around the space to find and troubleshoot last-minute issues like spotty wifi. Up until now, Radcliffe says Google has been a hermit crab—taking other people’s buildings and fitting them out as needed. Bay View is the first large-scale ground-up development project the company has ever done and represents the culmination of everything Google has learned about the nature of work over the last 20 years.
From the outside, the structure, down the road from NASA’s Ames research center, looks like a cross between a convention center and airline terminal. Inside, the space is separated into two distinct parts: the lower level where collaborative work takes place, and the upper where focused work happens at desks clustered into “neighborhoods” by team. Separating out these two functions—group versus individual work—is meant to avoid the disruptions that can occur when they collide. Just think of your colleagues loitering outside of the conference room next to your desk while you’re trying to concentrate.
Construction on Bay View was well underway even before the pandemic, and it’s a towering symbol of Google’s ongoing commitment to the physical office—even as the company continues to develop technology meant to make hybrid work smoother. “The pandemic just accelerated a whole bunch of trends we saw coming,” Radcliffe says. “We thought we had 10 years.”
At Google, the rule of thumb in calculating the size of the office is to assume 200 square feet per employee. But the hybrid transition has the company rethinking how that space should be apportioned. Traditional conference rooms, where those joining via screen are often forgotten and unable to see the whiteboard, are on their way out, says Radcliffe. Instead, why not put four or five comfy chairs in a room—a more hospitable setup for a small team trying to solve a problem? He’s tried to keep as many rooms as possible nonreservable since you can’t preschedule a meeting to solve an issue that hasn’t yet arisen. Big meetings, he says, will likely happen virtually.
Radcliffe and his team had thought through all of the details—individualized sunshades at desks, murals by local Bay Area artists. It seemed by all measures like it would be an inherently pleasant place to work. But I was struck by how reminiscent this office of the future was of those of the past. We still need places to gather and desks where we can sit and hang up a photo or two. We might be radically changing the way we work, but, at least for now, the fundamental building blocks of the office remain the same.
A few weeks into the office return date, Google says it’s seeing signs that employees are adjusting to the new way of working: Scores on questions regarding how Googlers feel about the hybrid model and whether they feel more connected to their colleagues have ticked up.
Radcliffe has started to pick up on new rhythms in how people are working. Even on days when Googlers are coming in, they’re not working a traditional nine-to-five. They’ll get to the office anywhere from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m, but no one really shows up after 1:30 p.m. Tuesdays are the most popular day. The Google shuttle between San Francisco and Mountain View is not as crowded as it was pre-pandemic, with many instead likely choosing to drive themselves so they can come and go as they please.
And yet as much as people said they wanted flexibility, they’d already fallen into a routine. “We’ve been watching the trends for the last three or four weeks, and it seems to be fairly consistent,” Radcliffe told me. Deep down, most of us are creatures of habit. “It’s interesting, you know, as humans,” he says, “we end up becoming fairly dependable in our patterns.”
A version of this article appears in the June/July 2022 issue of Fortune.