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Can Google Make Flexibility Work?


Photo of businessman working from home, overlaid with connectivity with different team members
Image: Rymden -
Last week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai laid out the company’s plan for flexible or hybrid work as we emerge from the pandemic, and it seems humane, well thought-out, and positioned for successful execution — though that last part, especially, depends on the people involved.
A few key points of the Google plan:
  • About 60% of employees will come into the office “a few” days a week (for most, this means three days in the office and two days working somewhere else, Pichai writes). About 20% will work in new office locations, and the final 20% will be completely home-based.
  • Google will continue to open new offices around the globe; so the new plan will not involve downsizing its aggregate real estate footprint. The company announced earlier this year that it plans to invest $7 billion in new office space, a move that some people had interpreted to mean an impending commitment to full-blown return-to-office. This week’s announcement clearly tempers that message and suggests that the real estate expansion is more about facilitating the new “flexible” work strategy, than it is about forcing a return to mostly office-based work.
  • The company will institute “work from anywhere weeks,” which will give employees up to four weeks where they can work from anywhere other than their main office. “The goal here is to give everyone more flexibility around summer and holiday travel,” Pichai writes. That’s not a small matter for a company with a highly diverse employee base, many of whom may be living and working in a different region of the globe from much of their family. Being able to devote more time to a trip to visit far-flung loved ones is an important benefit for these workers.
One promising element of the plan is that Google has been piloting new ideas about uses of office spaces, seeking to get real-world understanding of how best to build out office spaces for returning employees. Pichai’s announcement included a mini slideshow of some of the different buildouts the company has been testing. This sort of real-world pilot can be invaluable in helping a company match theory with reality when it comes to deploying workspaces.
The caveat running throughout Pichai’s announcement to his workforce is that all of this flexibility will be granted — or withheld — at the discretion of managers. In a high-performance, driven culture like Google’s, will managers strongly support the ideals behind this new plan, or will they default to believing that remote work and gallivanting around the globe are incompatible with the kind of focus needed to deliver on the company’s goals?
That question, of course, can only be answered over time. For now at least, Google seems to be making a good-faith effort to create a model for what the flexible workplace of the future will look like.