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Outside the Box: Tech companies should think twice before asking workers to return to the office

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When do we go back to the office? Do we need to go back? Does anyone want to?

Everybody seems to be looking for the answers to the same questions.

Getting the answer wrong, especially for a technology-oriented team, could be an expensive mistake. Indiscriminately pulling technologists back to offices left empty by the pandemic is probably the wrong move.

Here’s why: Tech talent is in red-hot demand. And that’s despite — or in some cases due to — the pandemic.

Read: Unemployment claims fall to new pandemic low as layoffs wane

Business leaders in sectors as different as supermarkets and health care have noted that the pandemic accelerated digital transformation trends. The world learned to do everything online, from new employee onboarding to ordering groceries to showing a rash to their dermatologist. In the midst of that shift, hiring has moved disproportionately to tech — building the systems, maintaining them, securing them — largely in the cloud.

In 2020, even as the economy contracted at its steepest pace since World War II, technologist salaries in the U.S. increased 3.6%, reaching an average of $97,859, according to our salary survey data. Some specializations grew even more. For instance, cybersecurity analysts saw their salaries jump 16%.

In-demand workers

That momentum has only accelerated in 2021. Tech job postings surged 28% nationwide in the first quarter of this year, following four months of already solid growth, according to our research. The jobless rate in the sector is just 2.4%, compared with roughly 6% overall.

And while technologists are not a homogeneous block, on average our most recent survey data finds that there is lukewarm interest, at best, in coming back to offices full time.

Much of the tech workforce would prefer a flexible, hybrid schedule (i.e., working one or more days in the office per week, and the rest remotely), according to our newest survey data, not yet released publicly. More than half of respondents prefer to work remotely at least part of the time. Among those under 35, this preference rises to three of every four.

Some of the biggest recruiters in tech are providing that flexibility, including Twitter
TWTR,
+0.19%
,
Facebook
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,
Alphabet
GOOG,
+0.07%

and Salesforce
CRM,
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.

The data is telling us a clear story: We are in a market where skilled technologists can effectively choose their next organization. As demand and salaries continue to rise, so will technologists’ leverage; they’re letting us know that flexibility is critically important, and there is no shortage of organizations who are ready and willing to offer it.

So the question organizations must answer is, “Can we afford to take the risk of losing our most important technologists by forcing them to return to the office full-time?”

In most cases, especially given that organizations are likely to end up paying more for their replacements, the answer will be “no.” To me, it’s an entirely avoidable stumbling block, and one that could have a large-scale impact as the economy begins to reopen.

Just look at the marketplace: In an analysis of two million U.S. tech job postings, we found the number of open tech positions nationwide topped 309,000 in April. In the first quarter, 60% of employers had created more tech job postings than they had a year earlier.

We’ve seen that most of the biggest Wall Street banks are taking the hardest line on returning to the office. On the other end of the spectrum is the CEO at a company who recently told me he expects to be more competitive than ever in recruiting, picking off top-shelf staff, because he is offering flexibility.

Understanding how tech people work

To get this shift right, you need to think like a technologist.

Developers, for instance, are creative thinkers, who, like writers and artists, can do their best work without the distraction of office chatter and workplace noise. Developers, in particular, go deep to engineer the code that underpins some of the most novel inventions of our lifetime.

No wonder before the pandemic that they were the ones with headphones in their ears to keep distractions at bay. Productivity increases in their uninterrupted flow of thought.

Working remotely while in this creative, builder mode comes naturally to some technologists. Imagine trying to solve a very thorny data science problem. Would you want to have banter taking place over your head in an open office?

Even tech managers are used to working online and accustomed to communicating with colleagues via message systems around the world. Most tech teams have long worked closely with outsourced staff in far-off markets.

Listen to your technologist to understand the flexible solutions they want. Being flexible is critical in retaining the talent you have and acquiring the talent you want.

Company leadership will need to reimagine work to be successful with tech teams in this new landscape. Consider how to nourish workers, adding just the right amount of in-person collaboration to sustain morale and productivity. Communication and transparency are critical; beyond offering a high-level “hybrid” approach, make sure your technologists know you’re prepared and willing to create an environment that gives them the opportunity to identify a working style that works for them.

Reimagining the workplace

Mental health is, of course, a concern when staff are isolated. To optimize human interaction, businesses can integrate doses of some in-office work, such as designing a pattern of going into an office on a set schedule, even if it’s as infrequently as once a month. Importantly, let your teams know why you’d like them to come into the office and give clear schedule guidelines.

Hybrid models allow for collaboration and socialization to co-exist with the flexibility that technologists want.

To make a hybrid model attractive, business leaders and talent teams must make a trip to the office appealing. Configure out-of-date offices into meeting rooms and other collaborative space so that a trek into the office proves useful, and even enjoyable.

This is a great time to experiment. Landlords are hungry to keep tenants, and this is the time you can probably negotiate a tenant improvement allowance to change your space.

Google has been designing “camp-fire”-type collaboration areas; Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has suggested buying a ranch for team-building, inspired by Disney theme parks.

Perhaps this is some of the upside of a horrid pandemic: We have lived through a tough time and technologists have proved there’s nothing they cannot imagine, design, build and accomplish from wherever they are.

To harness this momentum, it is now up to companies to build a culture for their technologists that drives business value, togetherness and the freedom of true flexibility.

Art Zeile is the CEO of DHI Group, a publicly traded company that operates Dice, a technology career marketplace that connects employers with workers.                               

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