Google’s extension of its work-from-home policy this week sent a chill down the spine of optimists hoping to wake up soon from the coronavirus nightmare.
On Monday, the company e-mailed employees to inform them of the policy change that extends the remote-work option until July 2021.
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“To give employees the ability to plan ahead, we are extending our global voluntary work from home option through June 30, 2021 for roles that don’t need to be in the office,” wrote Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google parent company Alphabet.
The move rippled across the tech and mainstream press, largely because it’s the longest extension of a work-from-home policy from a tech company of Google’s size and influence. But the search giant is not the first to accept that the pandemic is not going anywhere anytime soon. The announcement wasn’t even the boldest such move by a tech company, either. Previously Facebook, Twitter, Square and Slack have all put their offices on ice and employees on remote-work status indefinitely. Google is just the latest to join the fray.
Still, the revelation sent shockwaves across the web, and the momentum suggests that this new work-from-home culture is no mere blip, but a longer-term trend.
The aggregate workforce of the companies mentioned exceeds that of some towns and cities, with more than 175,000 full-time employees total. That’s more than the entire populations of Berkeley, Calif.; New Haven, Conn.; Savannah, Ga., and other midsize cities. Add part-timers, freelancers and contract workers to the mix, and the number swells.
Google accounts for a vast majority of that group, with its 119,000 full-time workers, 100,000 of whom are located in North America.
The e-commerce segment of the tech industry isn’t immune, either. In May, Shopify ceo Tobi Lütke tweeted that his company’s offices will remain closed until 2021, to allow for reworking those physical spaces. But the change will hit most of its 5,000 employees permanently.
As of today, Shopify is a digital by default company. We will keep our offices closed until 2021 so that we can rework them for this new reality. And after that, most will permanently work remotely. Office centricity is over.
— Tobi Lutke 🌳🌲🛒🕹 (@tobi) May 21, 2020
Apple hasn’t solidified any such plans, but U.S. staffers aren’t expected to physically return to the campuses before the end of the year. Offices in Europe and Asia plan to reopen in the coming months, or at least they did before the latest coronavirus resurgence.
In the meantime, the iPhone maker is reworking its retail operations. Store employees will be expected to serve customers remotely, following the closures of more than 90 of its U.S. stores.
“If your store is closed, please sign up for Retail at Home, please talk to your manager, because we really need to make sure that we shift our teams to greet our customers remotely in this time,” O’Brien was reportedly recorded saying in the video. “We may need to be working remotely for some period of time.”
Apple employs some 137,000 people across retail, corporate, engineering and other departments. The company’s hugely popular consumer electronics business may make remote collaboration difficult. So it might make sense if it’s not exactly enthusiastic about long-term work-from-home policies.
Notably, some viewers wonder if this point of view snuck into its latest ad. Either way, it perfectly captures some of the challenges of a distributed workforce.
Tech companies are not alone in issuing work-from-home mandates, of course, but their influence is hard to deny. Hot, in-demand employers like Google, Apple, Facebook and others — with their long lists of employee perks and big salaries — can each draw millions of job applicants per year, and they’ve long shaped broader workplace cultures.
Now that they are untethered to their campuses, some permanently, it amounts to a reckoning with a new normal that has, and will likely continue to have, dramatic effects on retail. Especially fashion.
Already, it’s very clear that various categories are experiencing very, very different pandemic periods.
LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton put a finer point on the suffering of the luxury market, having recently reported a plunge in net profit of 84 percent in the first half of the year. In another part of the fashion spectrum, denim sales fell off a cliff, as brands like Lucky go bankrupt while Levi’s revenue bottoms out. Meanwhile, couch-friendly categories like loungewear and ath-leisure remain strong.
It all leads to a few questions: In a stay-at-home world, what need is there for suits, heels and other workplace attire? Do special occasion outfits have a place in a COVID-19 world? As people fight to keep kids quiet during Zoom conference calls or other stresses, what room is there for extravagance or even whimsy?
The answers may amount to an existential crisis for some brands. But for others, it could be an opportunity for reinvention.
At the very least, it’s ironic that hoodie-clad tech companies and their policies have become a sign of turbulent times rocking the fashion business.