The debate over the return to the office has been a source of tension between employers and employees since Covid restrictions were lifted.
In Silicon Valley, tech companies have attempted to persuade people back to the workplace on multiple occasions, with some resorting to office mandates to compel staff to come in.
One of the companies with the strictest workplace policy is Tesla, with CEO Elon Musk insisting that people return to the office for at least 40 hours per week, or quit. It is understood that the company is now monitoring employee attendance in order to stamp out absenteeism.
Salesforce chief people officer Brent Hyder says that Musk’s approach to employee engagement “could use a little more finesse”. But he adds: “What Elon was doing wasn’t all wrong; I don’t think there’s one answer here. He’s got a manufacturing plant that builds cars, so you need people to do that in-person.”
Salesforce has pursued a flexible workplace policy and has been shedding its office real estate as a result. Hyder is keen to stress that “we don’t believe in office mandates” and co-CEO Marc Benioff has previously stated that enforcing pre-pandemic work routines won’t be successful.
The company currently operates a flexible-working policy and encourages individual teams to determine which jobs are best done in person, rather than dictating policy from the top. “Salesforce isn’t immune to those problems; we’re in a new phase of work, and we’re in transition,” Hyder adds.
Apple’s return-to-office battle
Apple has also struggled to coax staff back to its $5bn headquarters, in Cupertino, California. Its CEO Tim Cook has, for the second time, set a minimum of three days of office-based work a week for employees. But, once again, this has received pushback from Apple workers, who launched a petition against the return-to-office mandate, ahead of its introduction at the start of the month.
Hyder describes the tech giant as “one of the best companies in the world” but adds “even really good companies make mistakes”. He believes that many of these workplace struggles are born from a fear of the loss of employee connection.
“We know that if you have flexible work policies that undermine your corporate culture, that’s problematic,” Hyder says. “I understand why some companies have responded by introducing an office mandate. The intent is right — they want junior employees to be mentored by more senior employees and to establish a culture in the office — but the method is wrong.”
Introducing a mandated return to the office can, all too often, have the opposite effect on staff. “I would advocate for more businesses to ask their employees what they want. Companies like Apple should find the jobs, meetings and events that are best held in person and people will run to them because they want to be part of a community,” says Hyder.
“But if you insist people come in and then they end up doing video calls all day in an office cubicle, you’re undermining your relationship with the employee.”
Although Hyder accepts that companies are going to approach flexible working differently, he believes that all businesses need to embrace these changing employee expectations. “The most successful companies will be the ones that embrace this concept of employee experience,” he says. “Part of the reason that conflict has arisen is because employees are writing a new contract with their employers. There are companies that want to go back to the old normal, but that is a mistake.”