Working preferences may be evolving, but that hasn't stopped Google from placing a bold and expensive vote of confidence in a return to office life.
Earlier this month, Google announced it will spend a cool £730m ($1bn) on its office space in central London. The tech giant also expects its headcount to increase from 6,400 to 10,000, with Google UK boss, Ronan Harris, telling the BBC that the company is keen to see a return to office life and people behind desks.
Harris said the new Google workspaces would be reimagined for new hybrid and flexible-working preferences. This vision suggests Google might not be banking on a return to the pre-pandemic office 9-5.
Predictably, Google's office shopping spree has raised eyebrows for some. "Google's major investment in London real estate might demonstrate a show of confidence in a return to office working, but this confidence is ill-founded and short-sighted," says Callum Adamson, CEO and co-founder of software company Distributed, who argues Google's investment marks a further attempt by big business and big tech to rush back to in-person work under the guise of hybrid working. "Having an office space is a pre-pandemic relic that, if anything, hinders employee experience and business success," he argues.
Many companies have shown an appetite for continuing remote working to some degree. Others – including some big tech companies – have been more reluctant to acknowledge that most people don't want to spend most of their adult lives in an office, or travelling to and from one.
That's not to say everyone thinks that the office is dead. People still want (perhaps even need) a space where they can meet and connect with colleagues in person. "The office, of some kind, will always have a part to play in the business world," says Rob Walker, managing director UK&I at IT company Cognizant. Walker does, however, believe companies that continue to pour the same level of investment into their real estate as they did pre-pandemic "are betting on the wrong horse."
"Business leaders that recognise this sooner rather than later will find it far easier to maintain a strong company culture and ignite some of the innovation that has been lost during the pandemic, as people return to these new attractive spaces of their own free will, while having the flexibility that many now expect from employers."
Increasingly, the technology is there to support remote working at scale. Things may have been rocky in 2020, but since then businesses have had a chance to iron out the kinks and figure out where the weaknesses in their IT stacks lie.
Management may be tricker in a remote environment – but maybe employers don't need to worry about this if it leads to an uptick in productivity. "We know by creating a remote work network that mimics the office experience, it reduces employee training costs, is faster and easier to deploy, and improves employee productivity," says James Bristow, SVP EMEA at networking company Cradlepoint.
Those who don't yield to employees' new expectations of flexible working are also at risk of losing valuable talent. "In this context, Google's recent investment in London office space is a gamble," adds Bristow. "Employees, especially ones that can easily do their job remotely, still want the flexibility to work from anywhere, not just at home."
Martin Bodley, director and global head of Bose Work, argues that better remote-working tech, and more familiarity with it, means people can work flexibly without it disrupting creativity and teamwork. "When curating the post-pandemic workplace, businesses have an opportunity to make staff feel like they are sitting in a room right next to each other, wherever they are, removing the requirement for everyone to be in the office," he says.
Google admits there will be lots of trial-and-error over the next couple of years, trying to understand what 'hybrid' and 'flexible' really mean. And of course has all the tools to make hybrid work: it is, after all, trialling fancy hybrid meeting and workspaces in the US, although it is also keen for employees to return to their desks. The company has already said that it expects the majority of its workforce to work from the office at least three days a week, and in the US those who do choose to relocate or go fully remote can expect their pay to be adjusted accordingly.
Google's $1bn gamble is that the office is still relevant, despite all the changes to our working lives over the past two years. It may take at least that long – and most likely longer – to see if that bet pays off.
ZDNET'S MONDAY MORNING OPENER
The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. A member writes it of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.
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