Microsoft gives Seattle-area workers option to return to offices; ripple effects could spread to other employers

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For the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic more than a year ago, Microsoft is allowing its Seattle-area workforce back into the office.

Microsoft’s roughly 57,000 employees in Redmond, Bellevue and Seattle will have the option to return to the office March 29, the company announced Monday in a blog post written by Microsoft executive vice president Kurt DelBene.

“We’ve been closely monitoring local health data for months and have determined that the campus can safely accommodate more employees on-site while staying aligned to Washington state capacity limits,” DelBene said in the blog post. Washington relaxed coronavirus restrictions Monday, allowing indoor spaces to increase capacity from 25% to 50%.

Microsoft is the first major local employer to announce a general return to the office. The Redmond tech giant has for months been allowing a limited number of employees to work from the office.

When the first cases of coronavirus were discovered in the U.S. a year ago this month, Microsoft was one of the first companies to send workers home, an announcement that precipitated similar remote-work policies from other local businesses.

Microsoft’s decision to allow workers to come back to the office could produce a similar ripple effect, said Joe Fain, director of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, signaling to other employers that it’s safe to start bringing people back to the office.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Fain said. But “businesses have learned a lot in the past year” about how to keep their employees safe at work, he said.

Redmond employees are still encouraged to work remotely, DelBene said, and the company has capped the number of people allowed in shared spaces at any one time. Microsoft expects to stay well within Washington’s capacity limits, but the company will monitor badge-in data and prioritize essential workers if capacity becomes an issue, according to a Microsoft spokesperson.

Starting next week, Microsoft employees will have the option to work from home, in the office, or some combination of both, DelBene said in his blog post, titled “The philosophy and practice of our hybrid workplace.” Data from the company’s other offices worldwide, many of which have already reopened in a limited capacity, indicate that most employees are still choosing to spend less than 25% of their work time at the office.

Microsoft paired the announcement of its return to the workplace with the release of a report showing that for many, an end to full-bore remote work cannot come soon enough.

The report, which surveyed more than 30,000 office workers in 31 countries and analyzed “trillions of productivity and labor signals across Microsoft 365 and LinkedIn,” found that 65% are craving in-person face time with their teams. Remote employees also reported being overworked and exhausted — though managers said their teams were more productive than ever.

Still, Microsoft’s report indicated that 70% of workers want to have the option to work remotely, a future Microsoft is not alone in dubbing a “hybrid workplace.”

Microsoft and other local big tech employers say they don’t foresee a broader return to the office until this summer, once the majority of employees are more likely to have been vaccinated. Even then, many will continue to give employees more flexibility about working from home.

Microsoft’s blog post did not specify whether it will require workers returning to the office to be vaccinated, and a spokesperson did not immediately respond to the question.

Facebook, which employs roughly 5,000 people in the Seattle area, will reopen its local offices at 10% capacity next month for employees struggling to work effectively from home, spokesperson Tracy Clayton confirmed Monday. Amazon also allows its 60,000 Seattle-area headquarters workers back into the office on a case-by-case basis. Both companies are planning a fuller return to the office in early July.

Google, which employs nearly 6,000 Seattle-area workers, will allow employees to work remotely until September. Meanwhile, Seattle-based real estate tech firm Zillow announced last summer that it will give its roughly 5,400 employees nationwide the option to work remotely for good.

At Microsoft, workers have already begun trickling back into the office, said high-level software engineer Bob Goodwin, who’s been back on campus for “a while” because a medical condition made it tough for him to work remotely.

As more people get vaccinated, said Goodwin, Microsoft’s parking lots are getting fuller and he is more likely to see colleagues walking around his floor. But the biggest change has been in people’s noticeably more-relaxed attitudes about sharing the same space: “Two or three weeks ago, people would have waited patiently to avoid getting in the same elevator,” he said. “Now, people ride two at a time.”

Still, Microsoft’s own research suggests many of its workers are likely unwilling to totally relinquish some of the benefits of working remotely.

Laurie Kriesel-Roth, a program manager in Microsoft’s research division, said she does not miss spending up to three hours a day commuting between Redmond and her Rainier Beach home.

“My original plan was not to go back at all,” she said. She and her wife, Christa Kriesel-Roth, turned their guest bedroom into a home office — a move Christa, an artist, said made it easier for her to feel like she “didn’t have to go to work with Laurie every day” — and Laurie has hammered out routines to stay connected with her team at work. Laurie’s colleagues hop in and out of an always-open video chat room called “hallway conversations,” for instance, to make up for some of the informal office chatter that many workers report is missing in remote work.

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Ultimately, though, Laurie said, she’ll likely be back in the office one or two days a week.

“There’s some FOMO, you know, fear of missing out,” she said. “People getting together and going out for lunch. Birthday cakes. I think I’ll be OK going in as needed.”

The Redmond campus reopening is sure to be a boon for many surrounding businesses that have taken a pandemic wallop in the past year.

At the Piroshky restaurant in the Crossroads Bellevue mall’s food court, “at least 60% of our business was from the Microsoft campus,” said Amadeus Oreshkin, whose family owns the hand-pie stand. “There are at least 200 faces of regulars we haven’t seen in the past year.”

Oreshkin said his family opened Piroshky in Crossroads in large part to cater to Microsoft workers and their families. The restaurant was closed for three months after the start of the pandemic. Its first day back in business, they sold just $75 of food.

Business has picked up recently, Oreshkin said, and Piroshky is now earning roughly $1,000 a day. But to have some business from Microsoft workers “will be big for this mall, for sure,” he said.

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