As Omicron cases surge, tech firm tells HRD it's listening hard to what its employees want and don't want
Lynne Oldham, chief people officer at Zoom, told HRD in June that “hybrid working is here to stay.”
At the time, it seemed like a hopeful proclamation from an executive of a company that’s greatly benefitted from the COVID-19 pandemic. As millions of people transitioned to working remotely, interest in the video conferencing app skyrocketed overnight. The San Jose, CA-based tech firm’s sales soared 326% to $2.6 billion in 2020.
In the summer, government-imposed restrictions loosened throughout the United States, including in California, where its indoor mask mandate was lifted for those vaccinated. As more Americans received their first and second doses, companies began mapping out strategies for returning their workforce to the office. Major players in Silicon Valley like Apple and Google planned to adopt hybrid working schedules, in which employees would come to the office a few days a week.
Then came Omicron. The latest variant of the coronavirus worries business leaders throughout the country, many of whom have scrapped their return-to-office plans amid rising COVID-19 cases. Apple has delayed bringing its return until a "yet to be determined" date, while giving all of its corporate and retail employees $1,000 to buy equipment for their home offices. Google, Meta (formerly Facebook) and Uber also delayed their employees’ returns.
Lyft went a step further, pushing a return to 2023. In the midst of these safety precautions, it’s no surprise that Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman admitted to being “wrong” about his prediction that workers would be back to offices by Labor Day.
You know who hasn’t been wrong? Oldham. Except for less than 100 technical staffers, Zoom employees continue to work remotely.
“We’re in the process of figuring out our return-to-office strategy,” Oldham told HRD. “We’re listening very hard to what our employees want and ensuring that we’re not doing things they don’t want.”
Zoom has surveyed employees several times, Oldham says, with about 1% of its workforce (roughly 60 employees) wanting to be back in-person all of the time. That aligns with a Q3 survey from San Francisco-based PRO Unlimited, which recently reported 89% of employees prefer a role with remote options. In other words, employers that offer such flexibility will capture 96% of the labor market while those that don’t will lose out on 58% of candidates. The analysis is based on data from more than 30,000 workers in the US.
Furthermore, employees in the technology industry, such as those working in Silicon Valley, seem to desire the “WFH” lifestyle more than those in any other field. Roughly two-thirds of tech employees (66%) said they prefer working remotely full time, and 34% said they would only accept a full-time remote role. In order to recruit and retain talent, especially in this historically tight labor market, companies like Zoom are considering all options.
“We’re going to really try to be whatever you need us to be as your employer,” Oldham says. “Whether you want to stay remote, whether you want to be in the office one or two days a week or a month, or whether you want to be one of those 60 people in the office every day.”
Nearly 30% of US employers say their organizations have already reached their “new normal” in terms of returning to the workplace and ending pandemic-related policies, according to a recent survey by broking and solutions company Willis Towers Watson. Roughly the same amount say they don’t expect their organizations to reach the “new normal” until the third quarter of 2022 or later. Additionally, 34% of employees are now working remotely, but that’s expected to drop to 27% in the first quarter of 2022.
At the forefront of the WFH revolution, Zoom has become synonymous with remote working models. Figuring out the next step once COVID-19 cases drop again is an issue for all organizations. But, as in the past, Zoom strives to be ahead of the curve.
“We want to create an environment that allows maximum collaboration and socialization,” Oldham says. “We lead in this space by virtue of our tool, so we want to make sure we’re doing what our employees want, as well as what makes sense in a modern work world.”