It’s no surprise Zoom wants workers back in the office

Big Tech has gone all-in on recalling remote workers. So who does it really benefit?
Zoom is all-in on the office.
Zoom is all-in on the office.
Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)
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Zoom, the videoconferencing company whose product became synonymous with remote work calls during the pandemic, has joined the legions of large technology companies forcing most employees back to the office. The company told staff late last week that if they live within 50 miles (or 80 km) of one of its nine offices, they must come work in-person at least two days a week.

Oh, the irony of the remote work company asking its employees to return to the office. Had the notice been fictionalized for a novel about the post-pandemic culture wars, critics would certainly call its satire a touch heavy-handed. If your company wants to power the remote-work revolution, shouldn’t it lead by example? Perhaps Zoom’s executives—and the other Big Tech bosses building products for this age of work—don’t believe in it themselves.

But if you’ve been paying attention to Zoom and fellow businesses that make remote work possible, you’d know the company’s new in-person policy isn’t surprising at all. Even companies that build tools that enable remote work see a place for the office—or at least a reason for pushing their teams back into it.

The office, apparently, isn’t a place “to get work done”

Plenty of companies benefited from the pandemic, but perhaps none more than Zoom, whose videoconferencing service leapfrogged incumbents like Microsoft’s Skype, Cisco’s Webex, and Google Meet to become the default platform of the era. Zoom gained marketing foothold occupied by few: Kleenex, Band-Aid, Tupperware. Its name is now a near-universal shorthand for taking a video call—even if you’re using a different product.

Like many other pandemic profiteers, Zoom watched its financial valuation balloon, then bust. Last spring, the company reached a milestone: It became worth less than it was before covid. Zoom’s stock shot up during the first year of the pandemic, from $89 a share in early February 2020 to an all-time high of $559 in October. “The mania was so dramatic that other publicly traded companies with Zoom-like names saw their stocks pop, too,” my colleague Scott Nover wrote as prices came back down to earth. But by May 2022, Zoom’s stock had fallen 83% from that October high. The following February, Zoom announced it would lay off 1,300 employees, with CEO Eric Yuan taking a 98% pay cut and the company firing president Greg Tomb “without cause.”

But regardless of what it means for the company’s bottom line, Zoom executives have never called for offices to get the guillotine. In fact, the company has positioned itself as leading the redesign of the modern office. For its part, Zoom operates workspaces across three continents.

“One of the things I think this huge experiment that we’ve all been a part of has proven is that [the office is] not necessarily to get work done,” Matthew Saxon, Zoom’s chief people officer, told the Wall Street Journal.

The office, Zoom executives said, now existed to be a social space. Cubicles were banished. Desks were axed in favor of event-like spaces. “Acoustic fencing” was added to common spaces to muffle noise.

But only 1% of Zoom staff made regular voluntary trips into the office as of last September by the company’s own admission. In an added dash of irony, Zoom’s own survey found that nearly 70% of workers want to choose whether they work remotely, in person, or a mix of both. For those already working remotely, 85% say having that choice is essential. If you have to use an in-office policy as a blunt object to bring your employees back, perhaps acoustic fences weren’t so compelling after all.

Why Big Tech is all-in on recalling remote workers

Zoom’s rationale for its new return-to-office policy doesn’t offer much about what the company thinks in-person work actually accomplishes. “We believe that a structured hybrid approach—meaning employees that live near an office need to be onsite two days a week to interact with their teams—is most effective for Zoom,” a spokesperson said in a statement. Reading that, one has to wonder: Effective how, and for whom? And if the office isn’t a place to get work done, what is it for?

The rationale is more easily found in Zoom leaders’ previous comments on the office—and those of other Big Tech companies that have reversed their remote work policies.

This spring, a trio of tech giants—Google, Salesforce, and Meta—strengthened their return-to-office policies. While these companies aren’t synonymous with remote work like Zoom is, their tools have still enabled people to work from anywhere—and yet they too are doubling down on the office.

The reason for their recalls? The office, companies say, is for connection and collaboration. “We’ve heard from Googlers that those who spend at least three days a week in the office feel more connected to other Googlers, and that this effect is magnified when teammates work from the same location,” wrote Google head of people Fiona Cicconi in a memo announcing the company would be enforcing its in-person policies this June. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg concurred. “[O]ur hypothesis is that it is still easier to build trust in person and that those relationships help us work more effectively,” Zuckerberg wrote in a March blog post that preceded a directive for employees to come into the office more.

And while culture and connection sound nice, there are almost certainly other factors behind the calls back to cubicles—mainly, a desire to make sure workers are being as productive as possible. Return-to-work policies might just be about control.

So who does the office really benefit?

At the same time, research is mixed—and the debate about remote work remains heated. Requiring employees to be in the office is an outdated practice, as old as the Industrial Revolution that created it, according to Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economist who’s been studying remote work since long before the pandemic made it a widespread reality.

Well ahead of the pandemic’s start, those who could work from home earned more, quit less, and were happier than their office-bound counterparts. And now on the other side, most of those trendlines still hold up. Workers feel the benefits acutely: The Pew Research Center recently found that those with a mix of in-person and remote work would rather spend even more time working from home, not the office. Meanwhile, companies seem to miss the benefits of hiring employees from truly anywhere—not just within 50 miles of an office—for company culture, like building genuinely diverse teams.

Executives often justify IRL office policies with appeals to undefined notions of company culture and worker productivity, in building relationships and using them to get really great work done. But they appear to neglect the relationships right in front of them: those they have with their employees.

Issuing top-down mandates on how and where those employees should work isn’t likely to win support. People want to choose for themselves whether working in an office works for them—rather than be dragged back to a cubicle.