What the YouTube strike means for Big Tech's return to office plans

Tech companies, once at the forefront of remote work, are asking workers to come back to the office
Photo: Lucy Nicholson (Reuters)
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A group of YouTube contractors went on strike today outside the Google office in Austin, Texas, after the tech giant announced a return to office by Feb. 6. The workers are employed by Cognizant, which is a subcontractor for Google parent company Alphabet.

The strike was part of a bigger movement of Google workers, on both US coasts, calling attention to labor conditions for contractors and to thousands of workers who were laid off last month. The events were organized by the Alphabet Workers Union, which doesn’t have collective bargaining rights.

The union said most of the striking workers, who typically make $19 an hour, were hired remotely, and nearly a quarter are not based in Texas. 

The proposed office policy calls for two days a week on site until April, and then five days a week, according to the union. Quartz has reached out to Alphabet to ask about specifics on the return-to-office policy and whether a relocation stipend will be included.

Tech companies were some of the first companies to embrace remote work

Big tech companies historically competed for talent at least in part on the basis of their offices, with cushy perks including cold brew, cafeterias, free shuttle buses, and on-site services ranging from haircuts to dry cleaning.

The same companies were some of the first to shutter their offices and allow workers to work from home when the pandemic arrived in the US.

After the consulting and media sectors, tech has been one of the US’s most aggressive hirers of remote workers.

But, in the last year or so, several large tech companies—Apple, for example—have started to ask workers to come back to the office.

It’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen big tech companies turn their backs on remote work, typically in the name of better collaboration or higher productivity. “Back to the stone age?” Forbes asked in 2013 after Marissa Mayer joined Yahoo as CEO and quickly banned working from home. In 2017, IBM recalled thousands of workers to the office after having embraced remote work for decades.

Companies are asking workers to come back amid economic uncertainty

Still, this time may be different, as post-pandemic back-to-office policies do vary. Microsoft mandates workers in the office 50% of their time. Apple has asked workers to to be in the office at least three days a week.

But covid-19 has given remote work the momentum it needed to become a fixture for many companies. And once workers experienced the time saved commuting, it was going to be hard to get them to go back to five days a week in the office.

What’s playing out now is a philosophical argument—pitting the idea that workers are at their best when they have agency over their time versus the common belief among CEOs that the best ideas happen when there are spontaneous collisions between employees seeing each other in the hallway or chatting over coffee (a model that Steve Jobs believed in).

Also playing out: the battle between workers and employers for leverage. On that front, the evidence is mixed. Many sectors are still suffering labor shortages, but big tech has been stepping up its layoff announcements. (Google itself laid off 12,000 workers, or 6% of its workforce, last month.)

In perhaps one telling sign as to who’s winning either debate, US office occupancy hit a new high of over 50% this week, according to data from Kastle, which tracks office card swipes.