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Twitter could end the office as we know it

TWITTER is out of the office. Last week, the social media company's chief executive, Jack Dorsey, informed employees that many of them would be allowed to work from home permanently, even after the Covid-19 pandemic subsides. Other tech giants, including Google and Facebook, have not gone quite so far, but have also said that they plan to continue working remotely at least until the end of 2020.

This may be a sign of where things are headed for the other white-collar industries that take their cues from Silicon Valley in the design and culture of their workplaces. For an industry that thrives on disruption, this might be its most disruptive move yet.

Part of what makes the move to remote work so remarkable is that the technology industry has resisted it for so long. From the mid-century modern palaces to the playful campuses of today's tech giants, the industry has invested heavily in the idea that "knowledge work" depends on carefully-designed office environments.

Some facilities emphasised cloistered isolation, such as the elegant campus in Murray Hill, New Jersey, that Eero Saarinen designed for AT&T's Bell Labs in 1962. Tech companies founded in northern California took a different tack, designing more free-flowing offices that mimicked the collaborative environment of the engineering lab. The layout of these offices encouraged what Hewlett-Packard founders Bill Hewlett and David Packardcalled "management by walking around".

As Silicon Valley grew in the 80s, its offices were often hastily constructed, proudly ugly concrete "tilt-ups".

But leaders of those companies still wanted to set them apart. Tandem Computers had an on-site swimming pool and hosted weekly "beer busts". Intel built jogging paths. These amenities helped recruit employees and delivered a message to them: With an office this great, why would you ever go home?

Thanks to Steve Jobs, the belief that serendipitous office encounters fuelled creativity became gospel. When he was the chief executive of Pixar in 2000, he led a design for a new headquarters building that would maximise human interaction. At one stage, he recommended a single group of bathrooms for the entire campus. (That notion was mercifully dropped.)

Other ideas became more influential. As Google expanded around the globe, it looked for locations with large footprints. Having as many employees as possible on the same floor was thought to increase the chance of random encounters, so staircases were to be avoided. Facebook designed its headquarters in Menlo Park along the same principle.

As the largest companies grew richer, their facilities become grander. Amazon created spherical greenhouses at its Seattle headquarters where employees could gather to think and talk. Microsoft built "tree houses" for employees in nearby Redmond. Even IBM, which had once encouraged telecommuting as it expanded into consulting services, pulled thousands back to the office in the 2010s with facilities featuring "huddle rooms" and "idea parking lots".

Ironically, it has been over the past decade - as mobile and cloud-based products made it far easier to work remotely - that companies invested in ever more lavish offices and doubled down on their commitment to having employees work in those offices, not remotely.

After taking over the leadership of Yahoo in 2012 under intense scrutiny, Marissa Mayer banned telecommuting in one of her first moves as a new Silicon Valley chief executive. "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home," the company's human resources director told employees.

These ideas from Silicon Valley - about space, proximity and company culture - set a pace that other industries followed. Free snacks and ping pong tables became common in all kinds of white-collar workplaces. The open office - the ultimate expression of Steve Jobs' belief in serendipitous encounters - has become ubiquitous, despite mounting evidence that such unrestrained hubbub dampens collaboration rather than encourages it.

So what will happen now? If even a fraction of American companies follow Twitter's lead and make working from home permanent, the effects will ripple through many other sectors and into all the cities where tech companies have corporate homes. Commercial real estate will suffer, along with the janitors, shuttle drivers and security guards who keep high-tech campuses going.

One of the biggest losers already is San Francisco. In 2011, the city gave Twitter and other companies a payroll-tax break worth an estimated US$70 million to locate in a struggling neighbourhood, only to find that employees rarely ventured outside their luxurious headquarters to support the local businesses. The "Twitter tax break" expired last year, but now Twitter is gone as well.

At the same time, a remote work environment could be a welcome change for employees. Life in Silicon Valley and other leading tech hubs was becoming so expensive as to be unsustainable, even for those earning six-figure salaries. Tech's always-on, always-present workplaces and the offices filled with amenities may have appealed to the young and untethered. But corporate norms - which discouraged part-time work and telecommuting - contributed to the attrition of women after becoming parents.

Tech leaders rightly worry about what will be lost when working remotely. "What does burnout look like?" the chief executive of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, mused last week. "What does mental health look like? What does that connectivity and the community building look like?" Remote environments will demand different approaches to mentorship, teamwork and fostering a shared sense of purpose. But the Covid-19 experiment has shown that Silicon Valley can survive on the tools it created for itself and others. NYTIMES

  • The writer is a professor of history¬† at the University of Washington and the author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America

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