Google’s Sundar Pichai says future of office is employee ‘on-sites’

  • Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the company is “reconfiguring” its offices amid a more permanent shift to working from home. 
  • Pichai discussed the future of work at Google during an interview for Time 100 this week. 
  • While he doesn’t see working in the office going away altogether, he described the office as a space for “on-sites” — presumably, days where employees, who mostly work from home, gather in the office. 
  • Pichai also said he made the decision to have employees work from home until next summer in order to boost productivity and give workers a sense of certainty during an uncertain time.
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Google’s famous offices may look a bit different for employees once it’s safe for them to begin returning to work. 

Google CEO Sundar Pichai said this week that the company is making changes to its physical spaces to better support employees in the future — a future that Pichai says will include “hybrid models” of work. 

“I see the future as definitely being more flexible,” Pichai said during a video interview for Time 100. Pichai was an honoree on this year’s list of the most influential people in the world. 

“We firmly believe that in-person, being together, having that sense of community, is super important for whenever you have to solve hard problems, you have to create something new. So we don’t see that changing, so we don’t think the future is just 100% remote or something,” he said. 

Pichai said that Google is “reconfiguring” its office spaces to accommodate what he called “on-sites” — presumably, days where employees, who mostly work from home, gather in the office. 

san francisco google office

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Google was one of the first major tech companies to announce that employees may continue working from home until July 2021. At the time, The Wall Street Journal reported that the decision was made in part to help working parents whose children might be learning partially or totally remotely this school year. Pichai said there were several factors that went into the decision. 

“Early on as this started, I realized it was going to be a period of tremendous uncertainty, so we wanted to lean in and give certainty where we could,” Pichai said. “The reason we made the decision to do work from home until mid of next year is we realized people were trying hard to plan … and it was affecting productivity.”

Pichai said making such a long-term decision forced the company to embrace their new reality: that working from home is here to stay, at least in some capacity. And employees seem to agree: a recent internal survey at the company found that 62% employees believe they only need to be in the office “some days” in order to do their work well, while 20% don’t feel like they need to come to the office at all. 

Pichai also touched upon a larger issue for those who live in the San Francisco Bay Area: affordability. The cost of living in the Bay Area has, in recent years, become too high even for those who might be considered high earners in other regions. San Francisco is the most expensive city in the US for homebuyers, with anyone interested in buying a home in the city required to make a salary of at least $172,153 to be able to afford the mortgage. 

High housing costs mean that those who work in San Francisco or its surrounding cities, like Mountain View, where Google is based, often need to move far outside the city to be able to afford housing. That results in long commute times for Bay Area residents. In 2019, a study by Apartment List found that more than 120,000 people, known as super-commuters, commuted at least three hours a day. In some Bay Area counties, the number of super-commuters increased as much as 126% between 2009 and 2017. 

“It’s always made me wonder, when I see people commuting two hours and away from their families and friends, on a Friday, you realize they can’t have plans,” Pichai said. “So I think we can do better.”

Pichai said Google has long had a philosophy that the office should be fun and that friction should be reduced where possible — for productivity reasons, he said, but also to improve employees’ personal lives. Subjecting them to lengthy commutes into a physical office may not jibe with that philosophy in a post-coronavirus world. 

san francisco skyline city

The San Francisco skyline from Sausalito, California.

Eric Risberg/AP

Signs of a migration

The Bay Area may see a rise in people leaving the region as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

A recent survey from anonymous workplace chat app Blind found that two out of three tech workers would leave the Bay Area if faced with a permanent work-from-home situation.

In another survey from job search marketplace Hired, 42% of respondents said they’d move to a less expensive city if they were told to work from home full-time. Among those who responded that they’d leave, 47% said their primary motivator for relocating to a new city would be a lower cost of living. 

While it’s not clear yet whether reports of a Silicon Valley exodus are true or overhyped, there are some signs that the migration has already begun. 

In May, a report from Redfin showed that 72% of its San Francisco-based users were searching for homes outside of the city. And data from home rental site Zumper showed that rents were plunging across the Bay Area in May, with decreases of as much as 15.9% in Mountain View, where Google is based, and similar drops in Facebook’s home of Menlo Park and YouTube’s home of San Bruno.

In San Francisco proper, there’s been a 9.2% drop in rental prices since this time last year, with the city experiencing its lowest rent since early 2017, Zumper found.

An August report from Zillow showed that the inventory of available homes has grown 96% year-over-year, a spike that’s not evident in other cities like Boston, Miami, or Los Angeles. 

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