After decades spent revolutionizing how we approach office design, 2021 will once again see companies like Facebook, Google and Apple set defining examples for the future of work.

The big question for companies right now remains how to get staff back to the office. Most businesses want a hybrid model based on greater choice and flexibility, but there continues to be disagreement on what that looks like and how it should be executed. Many will be casting around for a precedent, hoping to jump second or third, rather than first. 

A lot will undoubtedly defer to those same organizations that have already spent well over a decade reengineering how the modern office should operate – long before COVID meant anything to anyone. From design to programming to perks, the internal cultures of brands like Facebook, Google and Apple have, rightly or wrongly, had a gravitational effect on what employees at other firms aspire for from their workplace. 

Given the extent of both their financial and intellectual capital, these companies are again well placed to take a lead in defining what this new world of hybrid work means in practice. Below we outline each of their current strategies.

Gehry Partners completed Facebook's Menlo Park office building MPK 21 in 2018. Photo: Courtesy of Facebook

Facebook

At the start of the pandemic, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told staff that roughly half of them could expect to be working at home permanently over the next five to ten years. He told The Verge: ‘We’re going to be the most forward-leaning company on remote work at our scale.’ He’s starting by opening up more roles to remote workers, with the idea of attracting a wider workforce that doesn’t have to base itself in pricey San Francisco or endure a long daily commute.

On the collaboration front, he’s putting his faith in digital platforms that allow for ‘unstructured time’ – like Rooms, Facebook’s answer to Zoom, and hangouts that take place in virtual reality. Office life won’t be shunned completely though. Tech culture thrives on in-person collaboration, so physical offices will still hold regular onsite meetings. There is also an appreciation that remote work isn’t the best or most productive solution for everyone, especially Facebook’s younger employees. 

That’s not to say the tech giant will suddenly stop needing the massive amount of real estate it owns, or wants to develop in future. The company grew its headcount by 13,000 in 2020, and Zuckerberg told staff in May that Facebook still had a use for all of its current and planned space. In the short term, the company plans a return from early July with 25 per cent occupancy.

Google’s ‘Team Pods’ spaces can be reconfigured in multiple ways to support focused work and collaboration. Photo: Courtesy of Google

Google

‘The future of work at Google is flexibility,’ tweeted CEO Sundar Pichai, who expects 60 per cent of its 140,000 employees to work around three days a week in the office, with another 20 per cent working from home permanently, and 20 per cent free to work from any of the company’s global sites. The challenge of adapting to hybrid work has had heads at Google spinning, and they’ve come up with some predictably zany solutions. The New York Times reports the tech giant is trialling outdoor meetings that happen in teepees, a meeting room that gives on-screen and in-person staff equal footing via life-size vertical displays, and robots that deploy inflatable walls around workstations for private one-to-ones. 

Fixed desks are out, in favour of furniture on wheels, plants and flexible spaces for collaboration which allow people to socially distance. In this fluid, hot-desk-heavy scenario, staff will have greater control of their individual environments just as they’ve been used to at home. They can swipe in at a prototype workstation that automatically adjusts to their preferences, and even brings up personal photos. A prototype fabric air duct system allows rapid re-arrangement of working spaces, and for each user to control air and temperature as they like. 

To begin with, the experimental format is rolling out over the next year at a tenth of the tech firm’s international workplace. A staff survey from March found 70 per cent of Google employees found the working at home experience favourable, so no wonder it’s gone forward with designs that promote autonomy and flexibility to keep workplaces relevant. 

Designed by Foster + Partners, Apple Park cost $5 billion to execute.

Apple

Apple CEO Tim Cook wants a full-blown return to its Cupertino campus when the time is right, and a spell of hybrid working until then. He told People: ‘Largely, I think that we're going to be back at work again, and I can't wait until that happens.’ That’s not surprising given the Norman Foster-designed spaceship-like Apple Park was only opened in 2017 and cost a cool $5 billion to build. The decision is a marked contrast to the plans of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft and many other tech firms who are promising staff a hybrid work model with greater flexibility. Apple’s workings are notoriously secretive, so a desire for control could be behind the strategy to have everyone back on its introverted campus as soon as possible.

Cook is banking on the fact the tech world thrives on unplanned moments of innovation and collaboration, in other words, things that happen in reality rather than over Zoom. ‘My gut says that, for us, it's still very important to physically be in touch with one another.’ He may be right. It’s too early to tell the real effect of working from home on productivity, but there are signs that that much-hyped early boost is beginning to taper off. A study over 10,000 tech workers in Asia, by the Becker Friedman Institute, showed while their working hours increased 30 per cent over the pandemic, productivity actually fell by 20 per cent. Least productive were parents trying to juggle work with family life.

Apple’s return date is one of the earliest among the big tech firms. Bloomberg reports that Apple employees will be coming back in two phases starting May and July. Short-term measures will include deep cleaning offices, employee health screenings, distancing and limited working times. However, a leaked internal letter from staff to management published at the beginning of June shows many have deep reservations about the plans: 

‘We would like to take the opportunity to communicate a growing concern among our colleagues that Apple’s remote/location-flexible work policy, and the communication around it, have already forced some of our colleagues to quit. Without the inclusivity that flexibility brings, many of us feel we have to choose between either a combination of our families, our wellbeing, and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple.’

Cover image: The ‘Campfire’ is another experiment Google is testing to help ensure equal participation between both in-person and remote employees. Photo: Courtesy of Google