How Silicon Valley tech firms adapt their famously elaborate work spaces to the post-pandemic world could portend the (likely hybrid) future of work.

Boyden's perspectives on the news and trends that are transforming industries

When physical presence in the office was de rigueur for most of the workforce, Silicon Valley tech firms made massive investments in their spaces. The lavish campuses were an important tool for attracting and retaining talent. They were also believed to encourage teamwork and collaboration. This all ended when COVID-19 moved in. Now, as restrictions ease, companies are rethinking the arrangement. What tech decides to do could blaze the trail for new work spaces and practices in other industries, says Charlton Hutton of workplace design firm M Moser Associates.

Even before the pandemic, Silicon Valley’s big, amenity-laden offices were well on their way to being passé, due to the very technologies its firms created. Besides, traffic had turned commutes into tribulations. Most technology professionals had long since taken to working from anywhere, using cloud-based platforms to manage projects. Companies responded by opening offices in less congested areas outside the hub and making more use of virtual alternatives. The pandemic gave the shifting equilibrium a shove, notes economics professor Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University.

The workplace of the future is taking shape in Silicon Valley and beyond. Physical spaces will shrink as companies increasingly adopt hybrid work models. In a recent survey of its 226 portfolio companies, venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz asked participants to describe the future of work. Two-thirds said it will be hybrid. Tech firms like Uber could soon be leasing out space in their headquarters to other tenants. Spaces are also being reconfigured to have fewer individual workstations and more open gathering spaces – flipping the pre-pandemic ratio of half of office space reserved for individual work and less than a third for meetings, M Moser Associates predicts.

Using less physical space naturally means an expansion of virtual workplaces, and tech giants like Google, Microsoft and Salesforce are vying to be the platform of choice for remote work. “Some less well-known services have seen user numbers go through the roof”, The Economist reports.

Managing a hybrid workforce demands different leadership skills, like the ability to keep remote workers on an equal footing with those on site. For many this means instating a “digital first” policy for meetings. When employees can meet digitally, they should, says Brent Hyder, Salesforce’s Chief People Officer. To offset the added screen time and nurture social ties, businesses are holding more in-person meetings outside the office. “Since we will pay much less for real estate, we will have lots of budget for such things,” says Marco Zappacosta, CEO of Thumbtack.

Some techn firms are eliminating their headquarters altogether and adopting “fully distributed” workplaces. Data management firm Snowflake left its Silicon Valley headquarters. Instead, it has an “executive office” in Bozeman, Montana, along with local offices around the world. Cryptocurrency firm Coinbase plans to close its San Francisco HQ next year. In addition to physically dispersing, firms are hiring more remote workers from outside the region, building distributed workforces. In effect Silicon Valley itself is transforming from a geographic location to a global network.

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