Hey all, it’s Sarah Frier. The next tech talent wars may be less about the free stuff, and more about the freedom to work from anywhere in the world. Those famously expensive Silicon Valley campuses that double as adult playgrounds, with their nap pods and herb gardens and bike-shares, are competing with a newfound love for the home office.
Just ask the Google employees irked when a senior engineer was granted the privilege of setting up shop in New Zealand. His lower-level colleagues are waiting anxiously to hear whether their pandemic living situations are approved, or whether they have to race back to Mountain View, California, my colleague Mark Bergen wrote. Apple employees also want to spend less time in their spaceship-esque headquarters, they said in a letter to Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook. Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told staff he plans to spend as much as half of next year working remotely.
Why don’t the tech elite want to go back to their sprawling, full-service campuses? The answer isn’t just about Covid-19-era habits—it’s about a workforce that is aging, and that is now very rich.
I grew up in Silicon Valley. I remember when Google was just a Stanford University project, and when those in my high school class stayed local, deciding to go to that school or UC Berkeley, and then to work at Google or Apple or Facebook after graduation. As Google unveiled a workspace with perks, and others followed, it made sense to call these offices “campuses.” They were an extension of college life, with its special interest clubs, beer-pong parties and opportunities to play basketball or take a yoga class during a schedule gap. Except everything was free. Recent grads paying the exorbitant local rents were thrilled to bring home compostable containers of their workplace’s gratis gourmet food for their roommates or for their own weekend consumption.
But those companies are now some of the Bay Area’s largest employers, after a decade or two of rapid expansion. The same millennials who thrilled at free beer are higher-ups in their 30s now, reporting to people in their late 30s or early 40s. The value of their company stock has doubled over and over and over. Work is no longer the center of their universe; many have spouses and vacation homes.
The change was observable pre-pandemic. In 2019, if the timing aligned on my trips to Menlo Park to meet Facebook sources, my father would sometimes invite me to join him afterwards at a local event he’d come to love: a summer concert series, free on Wednesday evenings in suburbia. It happened to be sponsored by Facebook, with a giant branded banner affixed to the front of the stage, and was attended heavily by Facebook employees, whose small children danced around and played with sticks while their parents sipped wine and nibbled charcuterie. That, not office ping-pong tables, was the kind of family-friendly perk that kept Facebook’s more senior workers happy.
But every one of these companies has tens of thousands of employees, and there are only a handful of houses available for sale near headquarters at any given time—even the small ones selling for multiple millions. The campuses are now so spread out that even at work, employees complain that they spend most of their time on video chats with people in other buildings. The office makes sense for younger recruits, and for those who have already put down roots locally. The rest may want to decamp to where their money can buy a better lifestyle. —Sarah frier
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