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Tech giants in no rush to reopen their offices

An employee slept in the nap room at Thrive Global, Arianna Huffington’s wellness website, in New York. Commodities like nap pods, games, and free food attracted many to jobs at large tech companies like Apple or Google are missing now that employees have moved to working remotely.
An employee slept in the nap room at Thrive Global, Arianna Huffington’s wellness website, in New York. Commodities like nap pods, games, and free food attracted many to jobs at large tech companies like Apple or Google are missing now that employees have moved to working remotely.Vincent Tullo/The New York Times

Tech’s titans set the agenda for US employers in early March, sending staff to work from home as the coronavirus started to spread near their West Coast headquarters.

And despite pressure from the president and other politicians to begin to reopen society to resuscitate a moribund economy, those same giants — Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and Twitter — will likely be among the last large employers to reopen their office doors and welcome staff back.

Google and Facebook told employees that many workers who can do their jobs remotely should plan to do so until 2021. Amazon said its headquarters employees will stay home at least until October. Microsoft told staff Monday that working from home remains optional through October for most employees, though the company will allow some workers to voluntarily return to their offices in stages.

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And Twitter decided to give up on timelines altogether - telling most employees they can just work from home forever.

Microsoft expects to bring back employees ‘‘more slowly rather than more quickly because, economically, we can serve the economy with more remote work than people in many industries can,’’ president Brad Smith said in an interview.

It’s a matter of social responsibility, Smith said.

‘‘What we recognize is that economies are going to need to be opened gradually by turning a dial rather than flipping a switch,’’ Smith said. ‘‘And as economies do that, I think we have a responsibility not only to adhere to the public health guidelines, but to be slower than others in bringing people back simply because we can.’’

The declarations are a big shift for an industry that has for decades prided itself on work environments with communal cafeterias, volleyball courts and open office plans - all design features meant to foster collaboration and make long hours more bearable.

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Those perks have also served as popular recruiting tools for the tech giants, helping them hire hundreds of thousands of employees across the West Coast. And benefits like free food, virtual golf and napping pods help the firms retain valued engineers, project managers, and more, providing campuses designed to discourage workers from joining rivals.

That has helped propel Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google owner Alphabet and Facebook to become the five most valuable companies in the world, collectively employing nearly 1.3 million workers. As their strong quarterly results showed last month, the tech giants have the financial wherewithal to ride out the pandemic, even as some of them lose sales and advertising dollars in the economic downturn.

Their financial might also lays bare the fissure in corporate America between the haves and have nots. Companies such as airlines, hotel chains and oil firms are struggling to remain afloat as the global economy sputters. Even in tech, some companies such as ride-share services Uber and Lyft, travel sites Expedia and TripAdvisor, and homestay provider Airbnb face massive challenges in the coronavirus era.

Even the big five tech firms haven’t been able to keep all their workers at home. Amazon has continued to require warehouse staff during the pandemic, and faced backlash over accusations of dangerous working conditions. Facebook is offering financial incentives to lure content moderators back to the office, because many of the jobs can’t be done remotely.

One big exception to the extended work-from-home timeline among tech giants appears to be Apple, a company that has already been hard hit by the pandemic and was forced to temporarily slow manufacturing in China and shutter its retail stores in the US - though both are reopening now. Apple declined to comment on its plans to bring workers back to the office. Bloomberg News reported that the company plans to start bringing workers back in phases starting this month.

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But the pandemic has also forced much of Big Tech to face what many individual teams within the companies have known for years: Much of their work can be done remotely and remote workers often are just as productive, at least in the short term.

With that reality and safety issues top of mind, many experts expect the companies’ extended work-from-home timelines to set a similar agenda for smaller tech firms and outside industries. Other businesses have long followed in tech’s trendsetting footsteps.

‘‘They’ve had a ripple effect on how other industries and sectors understand what a white collar workplace should look like if you want to attract the best talent,’’ said Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at University of Washington and the author of ‘‘The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America,’’ a chronicle of the tech industry.

Tech companies are particularly well-suited to allow remote work, since many tasks require computers and little else.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent an e-mail to employees last week, telling them that the ‘‘ramp back to the office will be slow, deliberate and incremental.’’ With a few exceptions, most Google employees will work from home full time for the foreseeable future, ‘‘potentially’’ until next year, he said.

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Facebook spokeswoman Pamela Austin said the company told employees its offices wouldn’t open until July 6 at the earliest, and even then employees who could work from home can choose to do so until the end of the year.

‘‘We found that we can sustain productivity to a very high degree with people working from home,’’ Microsoft’s Smith said.