Welcome to the office. Isn’t it fun?

When Google employees returned to their mostly empty offices this month, they were told to relax. Time spent in the office should be “not only productive, but also fun”. Explore the place a bit. Do not book back-to-back meetings.

Also, don’t forget to catch the private show of Lizzo, one of the country’s hottest pop stars. If that’s not enough, the company is also planning “pop-up events” that will feature “every Googler’s favorite duo: food and swag.”

But Google employees in Boulder, Colorado, still remembered what they were giving up when the company gave them mouse pads with an image of a sad-eyed cat. under the animal was a plea“You’re not going to the RTO, are you?”

RTO, for Return to Office, is an abbreviation born out of the pandemic. It’s an acknowledgment of how Covid-19 has forced many businesses out of empty office buildings and cubicles. The pandemic has proven that being in the office doesn’t necessarily equal greater productivity, and some businesses have continued to thrive without meeting in person.

Now, after two years of video conferencing and Slack chats, many companies are eager to get employees back to their desks. Employees, however, may not be so eager to return to morning commutes, shared bathrooms, and non-athletic daywear.

So tech companies with money to burn and offices to fill are rolling out the fun wagon, even as they make it clear that in many cases returning to the office — at least a few days a week — is mandatory.

Lizzo will perform for Google employees this month at an amphitheater near the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. When Microsoft reopened its offices in Redmond, Wash., in late February, employees were treated to music from local bands, beer and wine tastings, and even terrarium-making lessons.

To mark its first official week back in the office, chipmaker Qualcomm hosted a happy hour with its chief executive, Cristiano Amon, at its San Diego offices for several thousand employees with free food, drinks and T-shirts. The company also began offering weekly events such as pop-up snack stands on “Take a Break Tuesday” and group fitness classes for “Wellness Wednesday.”

“These celebrations and perks are an acknowledgment by companies that they know employees don’t want to come back to the office, certainly not as often as they used to,” said Adam Galinsky, a professor at the University’s business school. of Columbia. At least for now, he added, companies are opting for the carrot over the stick: rewarding workers for coming to the office rather than punishing them for staying home.

Before Covid hit, the biggest tech companies committed billions of dollars to erect offices that are architectural marvels and trophies of financial success. These gleaming offices, filled with amenities and perks, speak to the long-held belief that in-person collaboration is even better at fostering creativity, inspiring innovation, and instilling a shared sense of purpose.

But for many employees who enjoyed the freedom of working remotely, returning to the office — no matter how fanciful — carries a touch of late-summer, back-to-school dread. Few, it seems, want to go back five days a week.

On Memegen, an internal company site where Google employees share memes, one of the most popular posts was a photo of a company cafeteria with the caption: “RTO just bumps into each other and say “we have to have lunch soon” until one of you leaves Google.”

Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University who surveys 5,000 workers each month, said most want to return to the office two or three times a week. A third never want to return to the office and prefer to stay away.

By simply eliminating the commute to the office, Bloom said, the average worker will save an hour a day, so “you can see why employees aren’t going to start coming to work for free bagels or to play ping pong.” . According to surveys, the main attraction to going to the office is that employees want to see their colleagues in person.

After a number of postponements, Google launched its hybrid work schedule on April 4, requiring most employees to report to US offices a few days a week. Apple began bringing staff back to the office on Monday, with workers having to check in to the office once a week initially.

On March 31, David Radcliffe, Google’s vice president of real estate and workplace services, emailed employees in the San Francisco Bay Area saying the company wanted to return to the office.” really special”.

For years, Google has provided its employees with luxury buses equipped with Wi-Fi to make commutes more productive and comfortable, but it goes even further. It is launching a $49 monthly lease reimbursement program for an electric scooter as part of its staff transportation options. Google also plans to start experimenting with different desktop designs to accommodate changing work styles.

When Microsoft employees returned to their offices in February as part of a hybrid work schedule, they were greeted with “appreciation events” and lawn games such as cornhole and life-size chess. There were courses in spring basket weaving and painting on canvas. The campus pub transformed into a beer, wine and mocktail garden.

And, of course, there was free food and drink: pizzas, sandwiches and specialty coffees. Microsoft paid food trucks with offers including fried chicken, tacos, gyros, Korean food and barbecue.

Unlike other tech companies, Microsoft expects employees to pay for their own food in the office. One employee marveled at the importance of free food.

The challenge for companies, Bloom said, is how to balance flexibility of letting workers set their own schedules with a more heavy-handed approach of forcing them to come on certain days to maximize the utility of office time.

He said companies should focus on developing the right approach to hybrid working instead of wasting time and effort showering employees with incentives like private gigs.

“Employees aren’t going to come in regularly just for the frills,” Mr. Bloom said. “What are you gonna do next? Get Justin Bieber and then Katy Perry?

Adapting to Apple’s smaller workplace, its employees said they weren’t expecting — and hadn’t heard of — back-to-the-office celebrations. Initially, Apple asks employees to come once a week. At the end of May, Apple forces them to come on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

When Apple announced its back-to-office plan last year before another Covid surge forced a delay, more than 1,000 employees signed a letter urging management to be more open to flexible working arrangements. It was a rare show of dissent from the company’s rank and file, which historically has been less willing to openly challenge leaders on workplace issues.

But as tech companies strive to give employees greater work flexibility, companies are also cutting back on some office perks.

Meta, formerly known as Facebook, told employees last month it was reducing or eliminating free services like laundry and dry cleaning. Google, like some other companies, said it approved requests from thousands of employees to work remotely or be transferred to another office. But if employees move to a less expensive location, Google cuts wages, arguing that it has always considered where a person was hired to set compensation.

Clio, a legal software company in Burnaby, British Columbia, will not force its employees to return to the office. But last week, he threw a party at his office.

There was upbeat music. There was an asymmetrical balloon sculpture in Clio’s bright blue, dark blue, coral and white colors, perfect for selfies. One of Clio’s best-known workers donned a safari suit to show around the facilities. At 2 p.m., the company hosted a cupcake social.

To make its workspaces feel more at home, the company moved desks to the perimeter, allowing Clions — what the company calls its employees — to gaze at the office complex’s cherry blossoms while sending emails. A foosball table has been transformed into a workstation with chairs at either end, “so you can have a meeting while playing foosball with your laptop on it,” said Natalie Archibald, vice president Clio staff.

The Clio office in Burnaby, which employs 350 people, is only half open. Spaced desks must be reserved and employees have been given red, yellow and green lanyards to express their level of comfort with handshakes.

Only about sixty people came that Monday. “To be able to have an IRL laugh rather than an emoji response,” Ms. Archibald said. “People are just excited for it.”

Karen Weise contributed report.

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