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Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook spent billions on sparkling new offices. Now they're nearly empty

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed most techies to work from home. Here's what happens when it's over.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook, at work, at Apple Park.

Apple

Apple reportedly spent $5 billion building its Cupertino, California, "spaceship" Apple Park campus. Uber will spend at least $1 billion over the next decade on the two San Francisco buildings now serving as its headquarters. And Microsoft is in the process of rebuilding its 500-acre campus in Washington, which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. There's one thing these sites all have in common: They've been pretty much empty most of this year. 

But thanks to the coronavirus vaccine, workers should be able to stream back within the next year.

What companies don't know yet is what that'll look like. Property management firms and the companies themselves are weighing how the new normal will take shape.

For many tech workers, that'll likely mean a mixed work environment -- being able to come in part of the week, and work from home the other part. Assigned desk spaces may also disappear as companies embrace a "hot desk" approach, where you get work done wherever you find space. Hardware companies will also likely expand their labs, where working machinery and the collaborative atmosphere will be why some people need to come in.

Companies will likely experiment for a while, as they figure out what works. But when the pandemic is over, it's unlikely things will return to how they were before.

"It'll be difficult to put the cat back into the box after this," said Kasey Garcia, a senior manager at real estate services firm CBRE, who helps companies figure out their work environment. "I think it would be such a missed opportunity if we did."

For many tech companies, whatever this new normal becomes will likely shape how the industry works for some time. As tech companies angled for talent, they've popularized work culture ideas such as encouraging more artistic workspaces, free cafeterias and activities like yoga classes. Those ideas -- which help entice workers to spend as much time in the office as possible -- have spread throughout the tech sector.

That likely hasn't all gone up in smoke, not after companies spent or committed billions of dollars on these gleaming new offices that fewer people are about to use. Instead, the way employees use them is about to change.

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Whatever the tech industry does may also influence work for the rest of us, too. The productivity and collaboration software that tech companies like Microsoft, Google, Slack and Zoom cook up often become go-to choices by other industries as they embrace remote work.

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Eventually we'll return to the office. But not the same way we used to.

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With many employees reluctant to go back to the pre-coronavirus status quo, new thinking is required. Experts and company representatives agree none of these changes will solidify for years. But the process is starting now.

 "There's a lot of tasks that can be done remote, and there is a reason for people to come to the office, and hopefully that creates more work life balance," said Elizabeth Hart, a leasing broker and vice chairman at real estate services firm Newmark. This isn't all because of the coronavirus, she added. Over the years, employees have expressed more concern about mental and physical health, sustainability and work-life balance with their families. 

But now that we've had this experiment of remote work forced on us by the pandemic, people are rethinking what being in the office looks like if they're also allowed to work from home. "It's going to be a new way of working that is actually better for all of us."

Same for the next year

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Company buses run by Google, Facebook and Apple commuted thousands of employees each day, before the pandemic.

CNET

People often think of tech companies in terms of their employee-focused cultures, but with that come rigorous work schedules. Before the pandemic, companies like Apple, Facebook and Google were well known for largely expecting employees to regularly appear in the office each day.

The companies went so far as to fund buses with Wi-Fi connections on board to help employees manage the multihour commutes across  the San Francisco Bay Area, without losing precious work hours.

There's no indication those buses are going away when the pandemic's over. Most tech companies say they're focused on the next few months, rather than thinking about how their offices will work a year from now.

"The reality is no one really knows," Michael Huaco, Uber's head of workplace, said in an interview last month.

Uber's been through the process of opening, closing and reopening offices around the world as infection waves have ebbed and flowed, he said. And in November, the company opened its new San Francisco headquarters to about 10% of staff on a voluntary basis. "We're maintaining social distancing that's significantly more than six feet," he noted, and said people have to go through in-home testing and answer health questions before they're allowed inside. "Everyone understands this is a serious thing."

Eventually, he said, Uber may adopt a hybrid approach among its 22,000 employees. That means offices would be designed as collaborative spaces, with people coming into the office for meetings instead of just to work. That could also mean fewer  individual desks too. "Even before COVID, that trend was changing," he said.

Google is considering a similar approach, according to an early December email to employees from CEO Sundar Pichai. Though the company didn't offer details, it's a notable shift from the lavish company perks the tech giant pioneered to encourage employees to stay at the office.

Dell has followed a similar approach. Its internal surveys found that more than 60% of its workforce wants to stay remote. Still, the company's making sure its offices have a reason for being, either as places for teams to come together or for employees to work in a lab.

"It goes back to that culture you want to create," said Jennifer Davis, head of corporate affairs at the computer giant, which employs about 134,000 people. "We still see value in campuses where people can come together and collaborate and innovate together."

Permanent move

Tech companies are increasingly embracing a "hybrid" approach to working in an office and at home.

Tech companies are increasingly embracing a "hybrid" approach to working in an office and at home.

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In the meantime, some employees have begun moving away from urban centers, betting remote work will continue over the next few years.

At Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg told his more than 48,000 employees that his company will set up work hubs around the country, so they can come together even if they live in suburbs around major cities like Atlanta, Dallas and Denver.

"Approaching this thoughtfully and methodically rather than just swinging the doors open to everyone ... is going to help us strengthen really important parts of our operational culture," Zuckerberg said in an internal company town hall broadcast live on Facebook in May.

Over the next five to 10 years, about half of Facebook's workers could be remote, Zuckerberg said, but their Silicon Valley salaries won't follow them.

These companies aren't just throwing ideas at the wall. Many of them are relying on internal "pulse" surveys they conduct several times a year, giving them perspective on how employees feel about how the company's run. And they've given clues about what employees want, at least.

Some people say they want to work from home, according to people who have seen these surveys. Some want a hybrid model, where they commute a couple times a week. Others feel a need to be with their teams and company culture again.

"It's a form of FOMO -- fear of missing office," said Lexi Russell, a research and analysis director at real estate services firm CBRE. It's a feeling people have across industries, she said. But for many techies, the work culture is part of why they chose a specific company: everything from free food to the ping-pong tables. "It's a really big draw."